Home » Army Life and Stories » JEAN SHEPHERD — “Shep’s Army” pass in review!

JEAN SHEPHERD — “Shep’s Army” pass in review!


Sometimes I check info about SHEP’S ARMY on

The wonderful Editorial Review from Publishers Weekly is there

and there are now over a dozen customer reviews.

The one below, with my comments,

is quite a strong and disturbing one.

It is a very thoughtful review–but I feel it demands some response.

sheps army final cover

4.0 out of 5 stars The “Greatest Generation” exposed, October 30, 2013

By XXXXXX  (XXXXXX, USA) – See all my reviews

This review is from: Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters and Boondoggles (Paperback)

This is a dark ride. Jean Shepherd has always had an edge to his humor, which adds texture to his storytelling. Anyone who recalls the “Double-dog-dare-ya” scene and its outcome, or the refrain of “You’ll shoot your eye out” will know what I mean. Still, I have never seen Shepherd go as dark as he does in this book. Some other reviewers have suggested that the earlier sections of this book are not as strong as later sections. In fact they are so strong that they approach being unpleasant to read. These include tormenting and bullying a weaker draftee until he cracks, and sadistic treatment of lower ranked soldiers by the “superiors”. None of the other reviewers have commented on this, but this book is very anti-military in its outlook. After reading it you will never look at the “Greatest Generation” in the same way again. Instead these “heroes” are regularly revealed as sadistic, incompetent, and often dangerous to one another. This book provides indirect insight into why officers were “fragged” in Vietnam and into the sad fate of Pat Tillman. It reminds you that soldiers are not heroes and their commanders are often the cause of fatalities from “friendly fire” or other deaths that are not the result of combat.
There is humor in this book, but it is more the kind that induces rueful chuckles than “laugh out loud”. After reading this book i have more respect for Jean Shepherd as a storyteller, but don’t go in expecting another “Christmas Story”.


Eugene B. Bergmann says:

Wow, this is a review to give one pause! I appreciate it–but the entire military and a generation should not be downgraded because of Shepherd’s attitudes. As I say in my introduction to the book, “Enlisted men are born to gripe,” and these army stories “are to be taken with a grain of Shep.” Shep’s attitudes toward much of his surroundings, as expressed on the air over decades, have always been full of gripes and put-downs with accompanying humor in the telling. Note that he puts down his own sense of negativity, and promotes patriotism, in the glorious story herein, “Fourth of July in the Army.” For much more about Shepherd’s creative world, including his strong love of America, see my Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd

I’ve chuckled and laughed out loud at Shepherd’s entire panoply of stories, commentaries, asides, musical bits and pieces, vocal sound effects, etc., etc. since I began listening to him in 1956. Now, I’ve found it strange that in my own experience of listening, transcribing, and editing these stories, in my mind his voice usually has much humor in it, yet it was unclear to me at first, how “dark” some of it strikes one in the face on the printed page. Yet, as XXXXXXX writes, “There is humor in this book.” I suggest that it suffuses much of the contents, despite such downers as the torments inflicted in “Shermy the Wormy” and some other pieces. When I reread parts of SHEP’S ARMY, I still have–most of the time, through most of the stories–a smile on my face, reflecting the pleasure I’m getting from ol’ Shep as he presents us not so much with that much-more-common-brand-of-comedy tricked out by most of his contemporaries, but with his sometimes conflicted, personal brand of humor.


It should be noted that I refer to the darkness in some of the SHEP’S ARMY stories in the introduction to the book:

“Some of his best known stories about growing up, including those amalgamated into the holiday-favorite film A Christmas Story, reveal a deeper. darker. less amusing undercurrent to his humor and incorporate a criticism of militaristic thought and behavior–in both military and civilian life.”


Shep's Army as CD set Those interested in hearing the incomparable Shepherd as he told these army tales on the radio can locate each individual story through my listings at the back of the book. Those who want to support New York City’s WBAI-FM and receive CDs with all the SHEP’S ARMY stories in their original Shepherd radio renditions can donate to the station and receive all the audios: [That is an unsolicited and un-compensated testimonial.]  Note that one can read along with the audios, finding only minor alterations caused by my various editorial imperatives. The sorts of imperatives can be located on my blog: in the post titled “JEAN SHEPHERD’S army book-what I did,” along with many other entries about SHEP’S ARMY and all aspects of Shepherd’s life and creative works.













<This highlights one of the Shep conundrums that have been discussed on the message board for years, namely that while Shep uses humor in much of his work he is usually trying to make a deeper point and not simply trying to be funny.  It gets to the whole concept that while much of his work centers on the old days, he is also not trying to be nostalgic and to the question of whether ACS is really a comedy when you examine the darker details.  Even in IGWT we get the foreshadowing of the coming war on the closing pages with the revelation that Schwartz was shot down over Italy bringing the reader back to the reality that the good old days weren’t always so good.  In “Shep’s Army” we’re talking about the war and army life for goodness sake.  While there may have been some humorous aspects to them, his army stories were never meant to compete with the likes of “No Time for Sergeants,” “McHale’s Navy” or “Hogan’s Heroes.”  By the same token he was not telling glorified war stories like “Combat” or countless war movies and he constantly makes  the point about never having seen one movie cliché or another in the real army.
The idea that “Shep’s Army” would change anyone’s opinion about the “greatest generation” only makes sense if they have already been placed on an unrealistically high pedestal.  Yes they did great things in responding to the challenges that they faced and no one can take that away from them.  But they were human beings and therefore had human flaws. In fact, it is their very overcoming of those flaws and winning the war in spite of them that makes them great and a model to be looked up to.
Frank in NC>


  1. mygingerpig says:

    I too felt that there is a very dark portrayal of what happens in Army life. He was a truth teller above all. The picture one gets is that the institution of the army is essentially insane and capable of fostering and tolerating horrors. This has nothing to do with whether there is humor. It has to do with telling people that they have no concept of Army life if they haven’t been in it. The chaplain story, the guy hung on the pole, the gang “rape” of the poor guy with the mustache, the irrational transfer of Shep after code school and more, are surreal events in a surreal world. Dark is a mild adjective.

    Catch 22, Apocaypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory all speak to the cruelty, injustice, insanity and more in army life. This writer has it correct. These are more than “gripes” and “put downs” Gene. They are an unvarnished view into the hell that is in that institution. And Shep does it very well.


    Sent from my iPad


    • ebbergmann says:

      Yes, I refer to some of Shep’s attitude as “gripes,” but I also say in the post, “It should be noted that I refer to the darkness in some of the SHEP’S ARMY stories in the introduction to the book:

      “Some of his best known stories about growing up, including those amalgamated into the holiday-favorite film A Christmas Story, reveal a deeper. darker. less amusing undercurrent to his humor and incorporate a criticism of militaristic thought and behavior–in both military and civilian life.”

  2. mygingerpig says:

    I found the Army stories tough going overall, despite trademark Shep humor. The sheer insanity of the world he describes requires suspending one’s conscious self and going through the experience in a fugue state. He even alludes to that. Shep was a master at putting a raw spotlight on the essence of life where man is like a pinball in a Pachinko, bouncing from place to place with little control over the flippers. Is many ways, Kafka painted a similar nightmare world, but without the humor that Shep brought to it.

    Interesting that taken individually over time, this portrait of army life was not as evident as it was until Gene pulled them together in this narrative. It makes a big contribution to understanding Shep’s views of the world and life.

    I can’t help think of his story of Charlie and Og, sitting on some antediluvian shore quietly eating clams, when Charlie picks up a large rock and bashes in Og’s head, then resumes eating as though nothing happened. If that doesn’t tell you something of Shep’s darkness, nothing will.

  3. ebbergmann says:

    I just encountered an Customer Review that said in part:

    I especially got a kick out of, “Sometimes it’s Kafka, in comfortable shoes at a picnic.”

    The Review concludes with a couple of complementary comments, but I resist quoting them here.

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