54 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2000
I've never been a huge Steinbeck follower - I've read a few of his works but I'm probably not as well-versed as I should be. That, however, will change after having recently read Once There Was A War.
This compilation of reports from England, North Africa and Italy in 1943 provides excellent descriptions of what life was really like during the war. There are very few recounts of battles and strategy. But there are stories of the people that were involved in the war - the souls behind the uniforms. Steinbeck does an excellent job showing that the war wasn't just made up of nameless soldiers - it was made up of people, each with personalities, each scared, each struggling to deal with life in such hostile conditions.
Aside from the historical value, these posts are amazingly well written. I have to admit I was reasonably surprised by the quality of writing. Steinbeck is an accomplished author, and on that I think everyone can agree, but to be able to put pieces like this together in London during the Blitz, in the deserts of North Africa or on a troop ship heading into the European theater is amazing to me.
Bottom line: I've got a new respect for John Steinbeck and an added appreciation and understanding of WWII. For both of those, I am grateful for having read this book.
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 2001
No author has a better eye and ear for details than John Steinbeck, and no author can record those details with more simple flowing eloquence.
Such is the case with the columns that were composed while Mr. Steinbeck was a war correspondent in the European Theatre of operations during World War Two.
The columns are not blow-by-blow accounts of great battles. They aren't closely focused on the physical and emotional plight of the soldier, as were the columns of Ernie Pyle.
Instead, they capture the auras and subtleties of both big and little events. "What it's like" is the best description of these slices of war life, nobody puts you there better, nobody captures the mood of a place more vividly.
What it's like to be one of thousands of soldiers stretch across the deck or house in the bowels of a troop carrier, destination unknown? What's it like to sit through an air raid during the blitz?
Or, a few columns take a lighter approach. In one, he salutes the incredible durability and dedication of Bob Hope and his USO shows. Another details the American soldier's skill in growing vegetable gardens. Another muses about the popularity of the German song "Lillie Marlene" among both Nazi and Allied troops.
And some columns delve into deeper territory, such as his theory as to why so few men who have been in battle talk about it.
Steinbeck did not spend a great deal of time as a war correspondent. The columns were cabled back to the states between June and December, 1943.
But each one is a little jewel of journalism. What else would you expect from America's finest writer?
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 1999
Many books that claim to tell of the human side of WWII rapidly descend into farce...and make you wonder if the author knew there was a war on. Others give the impression that they were written by some allied Propaganda Office (as they sometimes were). A handfull manage to deal with the day to day trials and absurdity without losing sight of the conflict that was raging over the globe. Ernie Pyle was justly celebrated for this, Bill Mauldin's "Willie and Joe" cartoons captured it well (as did his prose in UP FRONT), Thomas R. St. George handled the Pacific War in C/O POSTMASTER and PROCEED WITHOUT DELAY, and Roger Hall did a bang-up job of de-mystifying the OSS in YOU"RE STEPPING ON MY CLOAK AND DAGGER. Steinbeck has nothing to be ashamed of in this company. ONCE THERE WAS A WAR is an account, not of WWII but of what it was like to be IN WWII. His essays are well written (as one might expect) and penetrating. Anyone interested in the history of the second World War would do well to read this book, if only as a footnote to works of grander scope.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2000
This book is a collection of dispatches that John Stienbeck wrote as a war correspondent in England, Africa and Italy. Concise, tightly written and clear, the author, in as few words possible is able to place the reader at the scene. The reader can taste it, smell it, touch it, hear it, and more importantly, know what it is to be there. Feel the fear and the awful reality of war through John Stienbeck's powerful prose.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
I prefer short bursts of Steinbeck to his self-conscious "major: novels. I also think that his nonfiction is better than much of his fiction. His dispatches from England, Algiera, Italy, and PT-boats in the Mediterranean are often insightful, and frequently funny, especially the essay on souvenirs and the in the finale, a multi-part account of tricking a garrison into surrendering.
Steinbeck was very clear that he did not capture the essence of battle. Indeed, he wrote very clearly about the self-protective amnesia that descends after traumatic experiences (198-200).
What should have been the most important part of the book collecting his 1942-43 reporting, the introduction, seems to have been skipped by some readers. "We were all a part of the War Effort," Steinbeck recalled in 1958. "We went along with it, and not only that, we abetted it. Gradually it became a part of all of us that the truth about anything was automatically secret and that to trifle with it was to interfere with the War Effort. By this I don't mean that the correspondents were liars. They were not. In the pieces in this book everything set down happened. It is in the things not mentioned that the truth lies" Whether he was fully aware that he was producing propaganda when he filed the dispatches (which were censored as well as self-censored), Steinbeck was candid: "We edited ourselves much more than we were edited. We felt responsible to what was called the home front. There was a general feeling that unless the home front was carefully protected from the whole account of what war was like, it might panic. Also we felt we had to protect the armed services from criticism, or they might retire to their tents to sulk like Achilles. . . . Yes, we wrote only a part of the war, but at the time we believed, fervently believed, that it was the best thing to do. And perhaps that is why, when the war was over, novels and stories by ex-soldiers, like The Naked and the Dead, proved so shocking to a public which had been carefully protected from contact with the crazy hysterical mess". It is particularly unfortunate that Steinbeck's friend LBJ did not study these pages.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 16, 1997
Ever wondered what it was that *actually* happened during a war? How the men fighting it out on the front felt? What it was like in those frightening moments just before a life-or-death battle?
Steinbeck brings his extraordinary insight and simple, deliberately understated prose style to the field of war reporting. And the result is breathtaking. In this collection of dispatches from the Second World War, Steinbeck looks at one oft-ignored aspect of the war - the man on the field. For whom the war wasn't strategies and troop movements, but a constant struggle to stay alive, preferably unhurt. For whom the war did not mean liberty and freedom as much as the price of potatoes and a job to go home to. It is a considerate look at the common man, who has been thrust into a war not of his own choosing.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on December 13, 1998
Unfortunately, academia has thrown Steinbeck in the literary gutter and spent FAR too much time praising Hemingway. Steinbeck had one thing that Hemingway didn't - Integrity. never worried about his self concept of masculinity, Steinbeck's genius and objectivity in viewing his world is perfectly translated in his writing. yes, the world is made up of a lot of Black and White rules and Steinbeck shows us how these balances work. In this collection of articles, Steinbeck captures the essence of war; more importantly, he captures the essence of human feelings during war. This is a great book that should be manditory reading in schools.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 2010
I have to admit that my expectations for this book weren't tremendous. I loved the Grapes of Wrath, but I was unfamiliar with this title, and to be perfectly honest the only reason that I picked it up is that I found a copy for a dollar at a used book sale. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be one of the best books I've read all year. It grabbed me from the first page, and since then I've bought several copies to share with friends and family, including my dad who is a World War II veteran.
The book is a collection of articles Steinbeck wrote as a war correspondent in 1943 in England, North Africa, and Italy. By wartime, he was already a well-known author, but he didn't parlay his notoriety into an assignment covering top brass or writing stories about grand war strategies. Instead, Steinbeck chose to focus on what he always did best: write with clarity and respect about humble people. This book helps reveal what the war effort was like for lower-ranking soldiers going on about their work, doing things like maintaining fighter planes, sweeping sea lanes for mines, or training endlessly in the desert for the invasion of Sicily. He gives us a glimpse of some of the human-scale experiences of the soldiers--the chemical taste of the disinfected water in North Africa, the almost mythic importance of the amulets soldiers carried for good luck, the fighter pilot gently tucking his wedding ring and family photographs under his pillow before going on a mission so that if he didn't come home, his buddies could mail his things home to his wife.
The details and anecdotes he preserves are illuminating and often touching (even when they're not meant to be sentimental), but what I liked best about the book was the fact that he was fond enough of the soldiers not to feel compelled to romanticize them. Many of these men did such heroic things that modern writers can't help but to lionize them to the point that they seem superhuman. I think Steinbeck saw their humanity as both relatable and inspiring: doing something dangerous or difficult is admirable; doing it through fear and fatigue and homesickness is even more so.
As the events this book describes fade deeper and deeper into the past, I think Steinbeck's accounts will only become more valuable. He brought the period and the experience alive for people who will never have the chance to ask a veteran what it was like "over there." I can't recommend this book highly enough--it's an absolute gem.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Among all of his writings about the American scene, it is often lost that Steinbeck was a war correspondent for the "New York Herald Tribune" during the Second World War. He spent time in England and was with the troops during and shortly after the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy. This book contains some of the dispatches that Steinbeck posted and from them, it is clear that he was often very close to the action and he paid very close attention to the troops and their environment.
Professional writers can make some of the best reporters of major events because they are so good at putting down what is happening, using simple yet effective prose where journalists tend to overdo their verbiage. Steinbeck was a man of economy, these are very short stories, and in only a few pages he describes the situation so well that you can easily visualize it. He talks about his fellow American men as soldiers, reluctantly drawn from their lives yet eager to get the dirty job done. These are some of the most intelligent and revealing short stories about modern war ever written.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 28, 2010
Wow! Steinbeck is amazing. This is a compilation of his work as a war correspondent during WWII. But, in contrast to what most correspondents were reporting, Steinbeck conveyed the emotions and life-changing experiences of the people who lived the war, soldiers and civilians alike. His words draw you in and take you to the front lines as seen through those he met while in London, Africa and Italy. It is Steinbeck's ability to capture the essence of war through his brilliant style of writing that is what impressed me the most. His compilation adds the human side of a most brutal period of times, not just for the soldiers, but for the citizens in both the Allied and Axis countries. War is not glamorous and Steinbeck's choice not to simply recount the sensationalistic aspects of the war is what sets him apart from other war correspondents. A definite read for Steinbeck fans as well as WWII followers.