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HOWARD ZINN: “Holy Wars”

Web ExclusiveJanuary 08, 2010
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Howard Zinn is an American historian, social critic, and activist. He is best known as author of the best-seller A People’s History of the United States. He spoke at Boston University on November 11, on the subject of American “Holy Wars.”

Thanks to Robbie Leppzer for filming this event.


Three Holy Wars

HOWARD ZINN: Three Holy Wars. I only started recently talking about this. You know, very often, if you’re a speaker, there’s a topic you’ve been speaking on for twenty or thirty years, you know. And there are topics that I’ve been speaking on for twenty or thirty years, but it’s only in the past year that I decided I would speak on “Three Holy Wars.” And when I tell people the title, very often they’re a little puzzled, because they think I’m going to speak about religious wars. No. I’m speaking about three wars in American history that are sacrosanct, three wars that are untouchable, three wars that are uncriticizable.

And I think you’ll probably agree with me. I’m not always sure that people will agree with me, but I think you will agree with me that nobody criticizes the Revolutionary War. Right? Especially here in Boston. No, not at all. The Revolutionary War is holy. The war against England, here in Boston, wow! Paul Revere and Lexington and Concord and Sam Adams and all the Adamses. And all of that. No, the Revolutionary War, the great war, win independence from England, heroic battles, Bunker Hill. Oh, yeah, brings tears to my eyes. No, not only in Boston, but elsewhere. The Revolutionary War, you don’t criticize that. If you did, you’d be a Tory; they’d deport you to Canada. Which might be good.

And then there’s the Civil War. Notice the quiet? You don’t criticize the Civil War. And it’s understandable. Why would you criticize the Civil War? Slavery? Freedom? No. Civil War, slaves are freed. Abraham Lincoln! You can’t criticize the Civil War. It’s a good war, a just war. Emancipation.

And then there’s World War II. Again, “the Good War,” except if you read Studs Terkel’s oral history called “The Good War”, in which he interviews all sorts of people who participated in World War II — military, civilians. When he adopted the title of this oral history, “The Good War”, his wife suggested, after reading the book — reading the manuscript, reading the interviews — suggested he put quotation marks around “The Good War”, suggesting that, well, maybe there’s a little doubt about how good that war is. But very few people have doubt about “the Good War.” You turn on the History Channel, what is it all about? “The Good War.” World War II. Heroism. Iwo Jima. D-Day. The Greatest Generation. No, World War II is — it’s the best, the best of wars, you know. I was in it.

And now I’m going to subject all three of those “good wars” to a kind of examination, which is intended — yeah, I’ll tell you frankly what my intention is — to make us reexamine the idea of a good war, to make us reexamine the idea that there’s any such thing as a good war. Even the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II, no. It’s not easy to do, because, as I said, these three wars are holy. And all three wars accomplished something. No one would doubt that. I mean, that’s why they’re considered holy. They all accomplished something: independence from England, freedom for the slaves, the end of fascism in Europe, right? So, so to criticize them is to — is to undertake a heroic task. I only undertake heroic tasks.

But the reason I think it’s important to subject them to criticism is that this idea of “good wars” helps justify other wars which are obviously awful, obviously evil. And though they’re obviously awful — I’m talking about Vietnam, I’m talking about Iraq, I’m talking about Afghanistan, I’m talking about Panama, I’m talking about Grenada, one of our most heroic of wars — the fact that you can have the historic experience of “good wars” creates a basis for believing, well, you know, there’s such a thing as a good war. And maybe you can find, oh, parallels between the good wars and this war, even though you don’t understand this war, but, oh, yeah, the parallels. Saddam Hussein is Hitler. Well, that makes it clear. We have to fight against him, because he — right? To not fight in the war means surrender, like Munich. There are all the analogies. I remember Lyndon Johnson. World War II is a perfect setup for analogies. You compare something to World War II, you immediately infuse it with goodness. And so, during the Vietnam War, I remember at one time Lyndon Johnson referred to the — to the head of South Vietnam, Ngo Dình Diem, whom we had set up in power of South Vietnam, so independent was he — but Lyndon Johnson referred to Diem as “the Winston Churchill of Asia.” I really like that. So, yes, I think we ought to examine these wars.

Let’s start with the Revolutionary War. Let’s do it in chronological order, because, after all, I’m a historian. We do everything in chronological order. I eat in chronological order. All-Bran. We’ll start with All-Bran. We’ll end with Wheatena.

Anyway, the Revolutionary War. Balance sheet. I don’t want to make it too mathematical, you know, I’ll be falling in line with all these mathematical social scientists. You know, everything has become mathematical — political science and anthropology and even social work. You know, mathematical — no, I don’t want to get that strict. But a rough moral balance sheet, let’s say. Well, what’s good about the Revolutionary War? And — oh, there’s another side? Yes, there’s another side to the balance sheet. What’s dubious about the Revolutionary War? And let’s — yeah, and let’s look at both sides, because if you only look at, “Oh, we won independence from England,” well, that’s not enough to do that. You have to look at other things.

Well, let’s first look at the cost of the war, on one side of the balance sheet. The cost of the war. In lives, I mean. Twenty-five thousand. Hey, that’s nothing, right? Twenty-five thousand? We lost 58,000 in Vietnam. That’s — 25,000 — did you even know how many lives were lost in the Revolutionary War? It’s hardly worth talking about. In proportion to population — in proportion to the Revolutionary War population of the colonies, 25,000 would be equivalent today to two-and-a-half million. Two-and-a-half million. Let’s fight a war. We’re being oppressed by England. Let’s fight for independence. Two-and-a-half million people will die, but we’ll have independence. Would you have second thoughts? You might. In other words, I want to make that 25,000, which seems like an insignificant figure, I want to make it palpable and real and not to be minimized as a cost of the Revolutionary War, and to keep that in mind in the balance sheet as we look at whatever other factors there are. So, yes, we win independence against England. Great. And it only cost two-and-a-half million. OK?

Who did the Revolutionary War benefit? Who benefited from independence? It’s interesting that we just assume that everybody benefited from independence. No. Not everybody in the colonies benefited from independence. And there were people right from the outset who knew they wouldn’t benefit from independence. There were people from the outset who thought, you know, “I’m just a working stiff. I’m just a poor farmer. Am I going to benefit? What is it — what difference will it make to me if I’m oppressed by the English or oppressed by my local landlord?” You know, maybe one-third of the colonists — nobody knows, because they didn’t take Gallup polls in those days. Maybe one — various estimates, one-third of the colonists were opposed to the Revolutionary War. And only about maybe about one-third supported the Revolutionary War against England. And maybe one-third were neutral. I don’t know. I’m going by an estimate that John Adams once made. Just a very rough.

But there obviously were lots of people who were not for the Revolution. And that’s why they had a tough time recruiting people for the Revolution. It wasn’t that people rushed — “Wow! It’s a great crusade, independence against — from England. Join!” No, they had a tough time getting people. In the South, you know, they couldn’t find people to join the army. George Washington had to send a general and his troops down south to threaten people in order to get them into the military, into the war.

And in fact, in the war itself, the poor people, the working people, the farmers, the artisans, who were in the army, maybe some of them were there for patriotic reasons, independence against England, even if they weren’t sure what it meant for them. But some of them were there for that reason. Others were there — you know, some of them had actually listened to the Declaration of Independence, read from the town hall. And inspiring. You know, liberty, equality, equality. We all have an equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You know, it can make people — some people were inspired, and they joined.

Other people joined because they were promised land at — you know, they were promised at the end of the Revolution — you know, they were promised, you might say, a little GI Bill of Rights, just as today recruiting offices make promises to young guys that they want into the Army. They give them bonuses, and they promise them maybe a free education afterward. No, people don’t naturally rush to war. You have to seduce them. You have to bribe them or coerce them. Some people think it’s natural for people to go to war. Not at all. No.

Nations have to work hard to mobilize the citizens to go to war. And they had to work in the Revolutionary War, especially, well, when they found out that, although there was a draft, there was a kind of conscription that the rich could get out of the conscription by paying a certain amount of money. But the young, the farmers who went into the Revolutionary Army and who fought and who died and who were wounded in the war, they found that they, the privates, the ordinary soldier in the war, that they weren’t treated as well as the officers who came from the upper classes. The officers were given splendid uniforms and good food and were paid well. And the privates very often did not have shoes and clothes and were not paid. And when their time was supposed to be up, they were told, no, they had to stay. There was a class difference in the Revolutionary War.

You know, in this country, we’re not accustomed to the idea of class differences, because we’re all supposed to be one big, happy family. One nation, indivisible. We’re very divisible. No, we’re not one nation. No, there are working people, and there are rich people, and in between, yes, there are nervous people. So, yeah, the conditions of the ordinary farmer who went into the Revolution, the private, the conditions were such that they mutinied — mutinied against the officers, against George Washington and the other officers. And when I say “mutinied,” I mean thousands of them. Ever hear about this in your classrooms when you discuss — when you learn about the Revolutionary War? When you learn about Bunker Hill and Concord and the first shot heard around the world — right? — do you ever hear about the mutinies? I doubt it. I never learned about it. I didn’t learn about it in elementary school or high school or college or graduate school. You find very often that what you learn in graduate school is what you learned in elementary school, only with footnotes. You see. No, I never learned about the mutinies.

But there were mutinies. Thousands of soldiers mutinied, so many of them that George Washington was worried, you know, that he couldn’t put it down. He had to make concessions, make concessions to what was called the Pennsylvania Line, the thousands of mutineers. However, when shortly after he made those concessions and quieted down the mutiny by saying — promising them things, promising them he’d get them out of the army soon and give them pay and so on, soon after that, there was another mutiny in the New Jersey Line, which was smaller. And there, Washington put his foot down. He couldn’t handle the thousands in the Pennsylvania Line, but he could handle the hundreds in the New Jersey Line, and he said, “Find the leaders and execute them.” You hear about this in your classrooms about the Revolutionary War? You hear about the executions of mutineers? I doubt it. If I’m wrong in the question period, correct me. I’m willing to stand corrected. I don’t like to stand corrected, but I’m will to be stand corrected. And yeah, so they executed a number of the mutineers. Their fellow soldiers were ordered to execute the mutineers. So the Revolution — you know, not everybody was treated the same way in the Revolution.

And, in fact, when the Revolution was won, independence was won, and the soldiers came back to their homes — and some of them did get bits of land that were promised to them, so, yeah, many of them became small farmers again. And then they found that they were being taxed heavily by the rich, who controlled the legislatures. They couldn’t pay their taxes, and so their farms and their homes were being taken away from them, auctioned off. “Foreclosures” they call them today, right? It’s an old phenomenon.

So, there were rebellions. I think everybody learns about Shays’ Rebellion. They don’t learn much about Shays’ Rebellion, but they learn it enough to recognize it on a multiple choice test. Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts. Thousands of farmers gathered around courthouses in Springfield and Northampton and Amherst and Great Barrington around those courthouses. And they stopped the auctions from going on. They prevent the foreclosures. It’s a real rebellion that has to be put down by an army, paid for by the merchants of Boston. It’s put down. But it puts a scare into the Founding Fathers.

Now, there’s an interesting chronology there. Shays’ Rebellion takes place in 1786. The Founding Fathers get together in 1787, for the Constitutional Convention. Is there a connection between the two? I don’t remember ever learning that there was a connection between Shays’ Rebellion and the Constitution. What I learned is that, oh, they got together with the Constitution because the Articles of Confederation created a weak central government, that we need a strong central government. And everybody likes the idea of a strong central government, so it was a great thing to have a Constitutional Convention and draft the Constitution.
What you were not told, I don’t think — I wasn’t told — was that the Founding Fathers on the eve of the Constitutional Convention were writing to one another before the Constitutional Convention and saying, “Hey, this rebellion in western Massachusetts, we better do something about that. We better create a government strong enough to deal with rebellions like this.” That’s why we need a strong central government.

There was a general, General Henry Knox of Massachusetts, who had been in the army with George Washington, and he wrote to Washington at one point. And I don’t have his letter with me. I do have it somewhere, you know. I’ll paraphrase it. It won’t be as eloquent as him. You know, they were eloquent in those days. Take a look at the language used by the political leaders of that day and the language of the political leaders in our day. I mean, really, it’s, you know — yeah. So when Knox writes to Washington, it says something like this. It says, “You know, these people who fought in the Revolution, these people who are rebelling, who have rebelled in west Massachusetts” —- and other states, too, not just in Massachusetts -—


HOWARD ZINN: In Maine, too. Yeah, you know that, Roger. You were among the rebels, I’m sure. You were there, I know.

Knox says to Washington, says, “These people who have rebelled, you know, they think that because they fought in the Revolution, they fought in the war against England, that they deserve an equal share of the wealth of this country.” No. Those were the kinds of letters that went back and forth. “We’ve got to set up a government that will be strong enough to put down the rebellions of the poor, slave revolts, the Indians, who may resent our going into their territory.” That’s what a strong central government is for, not just because, oh, it’s nice to have a strong central government. The reason’s for that. The Constitution was a class document written to protect the interests of bondholders and slave owners and land expansionists. So the outcome of the Revolution was not exactly good for everybody, and it created all sorts of problems.

What about black people, the slaves? Did they benefit from the winning of the Revolution? Not at all. There was slavery before the Revolution; there was slavery after the Revolution. In fact, Washington would not enlist black people into his army. The South, Southern slave owners, they were the first with the — for the British, doing it for the British. The British enlisted blacks before Washington did. No, blacks didn’t benefit.

Hey, what about Indians? Should we even count the Indians? Should we even consider the Indians? Who are they? Well, they lived here. They owned all this land. We moved them out of here. Well, they should be considered. What was the outcome for them when we won the Revolution? It was bad, because the British had set a line called the Proclamation of 1763. They had set a line at the Appalachians, where they said, no, the colonists should not go beyond this line into Indian territory. I mean, they didn’t do it because they loved the Indians. They just didn’t want trouble. They set a line. The British are now gone, and the line is gone, and now you can move westward into Indian territory. And you’re going to move across the continent. And you’re going to create massacres. And you’re going to take that enormous land in the West away from the Indians who live there.

These are some of the consequences of the Revolution. But we did win independence from England. All I’m trying to suggest, that to simply leave it that way, that we won independence from England, doesn’t do justice to the complexity of this victory. And, you know, was it good that we — to be independent of England? Yes, it’s always good to be independent. But at what cost? And how real is the independence? And is it possible that we would have won independence without a war?

Hey, how about Canada? Canada is independent of England. They don’t have a bad society, Canada. There are some very attractive things about Canada. They’re independent of England. They did not fight a bloody war. It took longer. You know, sometimes it takes longer if you don’t want to kill. Violence is fast. War is fast. And that’s attractive — right? — when you do something fast. And if you don’t want killing, you may have to take more time in order to achieve your objective. And actually, when you achieve your objective, it might be achieved in a better way and with better results, and with a Canadian health system instead of American health system. You know, you know.

OK, all of this — I won’t say anything about the Revolutionary War. I just wanted to throw a few doubts in about it. That’s all. I don’t want to say anything revolutionary or radical. I don’t want to make trouble. You know, I just want to — no, I certainly don’t want to make trouble at BU. No. So — yet I just want to — I just want to think about these things. That’s all I’m trying to do, have us think again about things that we took for granted. “Oh, yes, Revolutionary War, great!” No. Let’s think about it.

And the Civil War. OK, well, Civil War is — Civil War is even tougher, even tougher to critically examine the Civil War. Slavery. Slavery, nothing worse. Slavery. And at the end of the Civil War, there’s no slavery. You can’t deny that. So, yeah, you have to put that on one side of the ledger, the end of slavery. On the other side, you have to put the human cost of the Civil War in lives: 600,000. I don’t know how many people know or learn or remember how many lives were lost in the Civil War, which was the bloodiest, most brutal, ugliest war in our history, from the point of view of dead and wounded and mutilated and blinded and crippled. Six hundred thousand dead in a country of 830 million. Think about that in relation today’s population; it’s as if we fought a civil war today, and five or six million people died in this civil war. Well, you might say, well, maybe that’s worth it, to end slavery. Maybe. Well, OK, I won’t argue that. Maybe. But at least you know what the cost is.

One of the great things about the book by the president of Harvard, which she — you know, recently a book she wrote about the Civil War, she brings home, in very graphic detail — Drew Gilpin Faust, President Faust of Harvard, wrote a remarkable book about the Civil War. And what she concentrates on is the human consequences of the Civil War, the dead, the wounded. I mean, you know, that was a war in which enormous number of amputations took place, without anesthetic. You know, I mean, so it’s not just the 600,000 dead; it was all those who came home without a leg or an arm.

I’m trying to make the cost of the war more than a statistic, because we have gotten used to just dealing with statistics. And the statistics are dead. The statistics are — you know, become meaningless. They’re just numbers. Six hundred thousand — just read it and go quickly past it. But no, I don’t want to go past the cost of these wars. I want to consider them very, very, very closely and rack it up and don’t forget about it, even as you consider the benefits of the war, the freedom of the slaves.

But you also have to think, the slaves were freed, and what happened after that? Were they really freed? Well, they were, actually — there was no more slavery — but the slaves, who had been given promises — you know, forty acres and a mule — they were promised, you know, a little land and some wherewithal so they could be independent, so they needn’t be slaves anymore. Well, they weren’t given anything. They were left without resources. And the result was they were still in the thrall, still under the control of the plantation owner. They were free, but they were not free. There have been a number of studies made of that, you know, in the last decade. Free, but not free. They were not slaves now. They were serfs. They were like serfs on a feudal estate. They were tenant farmers. They were sharecroppers. They couldn’t go anywhere. They didn’t have control of their lives. And they were in the thrall of the white plantation owners. The same white plantation owners who had been their masters when they were slaves were now their masters when they were serfs.

OK, I don’t want to minimize the fact that it’s still not slavery in the old sense. No, it’s not. It’s better. It’s a better situation. So, I want to be cautious about what I say about that, and I want to be clear. But I want to say it’s more complicated than simply “Oh, the slaves were freed.” They were freed, and they were betrayed. Promises made to them were betrayed, as promises made during wartime are always betrayed. The veterans are betrayed. The civilians are betrayed. The people who expected war to produce great results and freedom and liberty, they are betrayed after every war.

So I just want us, you know, to consider that and to ask the question, which is a very difficult question to answer, but it’s worth asking: is it possible that slavery might have ended without 600,000 dead? Without a nation of amputees and blinded people? Is it possible? Because, after all, we do want to end slavery. It’s not that we’re saying, well, we shouldn’t have a bloody war because — “Just let people remain slaves.” No, we want to end slavery, but is it possible to end slavery without a bloody civil war?

After all, when the war started, it wasn’t Lincoln’s intention to free the slaves. You know that. That was not his purpose in fighting the war. His purpose in fighting the war was to keep Southern territory within the grasp of the central government. You could almost say it was an imperial aim. It was a terrible thing to say, I know. But yeah, I mean, that’s what the war was fought for. Oh, it’s put in a nice way. We say we fought for the Union. You know, we don’t want anybody to secede. Yeah. Why no? What if they want to secede? We’re not going to let them secede. No, we want all that territory.

No, Lincoln’s objective was not to free the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation came. And by the way, it didn’t free slaves where they were enslaved. It freed the slaves that the national government was not able to free. It declared free the slaves who were in the states — in the Confederate states that were still fighting against the Union. In other words, it declared free the slaves that we couldn’t free, and it left as slaves the slaves that were in the states that were fighting with the Union. In other words, if you fought — if you were a state that was a slave state, but you were fighting on the side of the Union, “We’ll let you keep your slaves.” That was the Emancipation Proclamation. I never learned that when I learned it. I thought, “Oh, the Emancipation Proclamation is great!”

But then, yes — no, slavery was — and, yes, Congress passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth Amendments. Thirteenth Amendment ends slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment declares equal rights, you can’t deny people equal protection of the law. Fifteenth Amendment, you can’t prevent people from voting because of their color, their race, no. These are — however, these promises of equality in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments — the promise, a right to vote — they were honored for a few years when there were federal troops in the South who enforced them, and then they were set aside. And black people in the South were left at the mercy of the white plantation owners. So there was a great betrayal that took place, a betrayal that lasted a hundred years, those hundred years of segregation and the lynching and of the national government looking the other way as the Constitution was violated a thousand times by the white power structure in the South.

And, you know, it took a hundred — and, you know, the Congress passed those amendments. Why? Not because Lincoln or Congress itself initiated them. They passed those amendments because a great movement against slavery had grown up in the country from the 1830s to the 1860s, powerful anti-slavery movement which pushed Congress into the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Very important thing to keep in mind, that when justice comes and when injustices are remedied, they’re not remedied by the initiative of the national government or the politicians. They only respond to the power of social movements. And that’s what happened with the relationship between anti-slavery movement and the passage of those amendments.

And, of course, then those amendments, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, had no meaning for the next hundred years. The blacks were not allowed to vote in the South. Blacks did not get an equal protection of the laws. Every president of the United States for a hundred years, every president, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, every president violated his oath of office. Every president, because the oath of office says you will see to it that the laws are faithfully executed. And every president did not enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, collaborated with Southern racism and segregation and lynching and all that happened.

So, the Civil War and its aftermath, you know, have to be looked at in a longer perspective. And yes, the question needs to be asked also: yeah, is it possible if slavery could have been ended without 600,000 dead? We don’t know for sure. And when I mention these possibilities, you know, it’s very hard to imagine how it might have ended, except that we do know that slavery was ended in every other country in the western hemisphere. Slavery was ended in all these others places in the western hemisphere without a bloody civil war. Well, that doesn’t prove that it could have been ended, and, you know, every situation is different, but it makes you think. If you begin to think, “Oh, the only way it could have been done is with a bloody civil war,” maybe not. I mean, maybe it would have taken longer. You know, maybe there could have been slave rebellions which hammered away at the Southern slave structure, hammered away at them in a war of attrition, not a big bloody mass war, but a war of attrition and guerrilla warfare, and John Brown-type raids.

Remember John Brown, who wanted to organize raids and a slave rebellion? Yeah, a little guerrilla action, not totally peaceful, no. But not massive slaughter. Well, John Brown was executed by the state of Virginia and the national government. He was executed in 1859 for wanting to lead slave revolts. And the next year, the government goes to war in a war that cost 600,000 lives and then, presumably, as people came to believe, to end slavery. There’s a kind of tragic irony in that juxtaposition of facts. So it’s worth thinking about, about the Civil War, and not to simply say, “Well, Civil War ended slavery, therefore whatever the human cost was, it was worth it.” It’s worth rethinking.

Now we come to World War II. Looking at my watch, I don’t mean it.

TIME KEEPER: You’re on a roll tonight. You’re good.

HOWARD ZINN: No, I don’t mean it.

Well, World War II, “the Good War,” the best. Fascism. I mean, that’s why I enlisted in the Air Force: fight against fascism. It’s a good war, it’s a just war. What could be, you know, more obvious? They are evil; we are good.

And so, I became a bombardier in the Air Force. I dropped bombs on Germany, on Hungary, on Czechoslovakia — even on a little town in France three weeks before the war was to end, when everybody knew the war was to end and we didn’t need to drop any more bombs, but we dropped bombs. On a little town in France, we were trying out napalm, the first use of napalm in the European theater. I think by now you all know what napalm is. One of the ugliest little weapons. But trying it out, and adding metals. And who knows what reason, what complex of reasons, led us to bomb a little town in France, when everybody knew the war was ending? And yes, there were German soldiers there, hanging around. They weren’t doing anything, weren’t bothering anybody, but they’re there, and gives us a good excuse to bomb. We’ll kill the Germans, we’ll kill some Frenchmen, too. What does it matter? It’s a good war. We’re the good guys.

One thing — and I didn’t think about any of this while I was bombing. I didn’t examine: oh, who are we bombing, and why are we bombing, and what’s going on here, and who is dying? I didn’t know who was dying, because when you bomb from 30,000 feet, well, this is modern warfare; you do things at a distance. It’s very impersonal. You just press a button, you know, and somebody dies. But you don’t see them. So I dropped bombs from 30,000 feet. I didn’t see any human beings. I didn’t see what’s happening below. I didn’t hear children screaming. I didn’t see arms being ripped off people. No, just dropped bombs. You see little flashes of light down below as the bombs hit. That’s it. And you don’t think. It’s hard to think when you’re in the military. Really, it’s hard to sit back and examine, ask what you’re doing. No, you’ve been trained to do a job, and you do your job.

So I didn’t think about any of this until after the war, when I began to think about that raid on France. And then I began to think about the raid on Dresden, where 100,000 people were killed in one night, day of bombing. Read Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse Five. He was there. He was a prisoner of war and there in the basement, you know, a kind of meat locker, a slaughterhouse. And then I became aware of the other bombings that had taken place. But, you know, when you’re in a war, you don’t see the big picture, and you don’t — you really don’t — I didn’t know until afterward, 600,000 German civilians were killed by our bombing. They weren’t Nazis. Well, yeah, you might say they were passive supporters and that they didn’t rebel. Well, a few rebelled. But how many Americans rebel against American wars? Are we all complicit for what we did in Vietnam, killing several million people? Well, maybe we are, but there was a kind of stupid, ignorant innocence about us. And the same thing was true of the Germans. And we killed 600,000. If some great power, while we were dropping bombs on Vietnam, had come over here and dropped bombs on American cities in retaliation, it would’ve been — and they say, “Well, these are imperialists, we’ll kill them all” — no, the American people were not themselves imperialists, but they were passive bystanders, until they woke up, yeah.

So I began to think about it, as I began to think about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And I had welcomed the bombing of Hiroshima when it took place, because I didn’t know. I didn’t know what it really meant. We had finished our bombing missions in Europe, we had won the war in Europe, and my crew and I, we flew our plane, the same plane we had flown missions on, we flew that same plane back across the Atlantic, and we were given a thirty-day furlough. And then the idea was we were going to go on to the Pacific, because the war against Japan was still going on. And during this thirty-day furlough in early August, my wife and I decided, because we had been married just before I went overseas — my wife and I decided we’d take a little vacation in the country. And we took a bus to go into the country. And at the bus stop, there was a newsstand, and there was a newspaper and the big headline “Atomic Bomb Dropped on Hiroshima.” Well, oh, great! Didn’t really know what an atomic bomb was, but it was sort of obvious from the headlines, oh, and it was a big bomb. Well, I had dropped bombs. This was just a bigger bomb.

But I had no idea what it meant until I read John Hersey’s book on Hiroshima. John Hersey had gone into Hiroshima after the bombing, and he had talked to survivors. Survivors? You can imagine what those survivors looked like. They were kids and old people and women and all sorts of Japanese people. And they were without arms or legs, or they were blinded, or their skin could not be looked at. John Hersey interviewed them and got some idea and reported — he was a great journalist — he reported what the bombing of Hiroshima was like to the people who were there. And when I read his account, for the first time, I understood. This is what bombing does to human beings. This is what my bombs had done to people.

And I began to rethink the idea of a “good war,” of our world war against fascism. “Oh, well, it’s OK, because we did defeat Hitler.” That’s just it, just like we did get independence from England, we did end slavery. But wait a while. A lot of other — it’s not that simple. And World War II is not that simple. “Oh, we defeated Hitler, therefore eveything is OK. We were the good guys; they were the bad guys.” But what I realized then was that once you decide — and this is what we decided at the beginning of the war, this is what, you know, I decided — they were the bad guys, we were the good guys, what I didn’t realize was that in the course of the war, the good guys become the bad guys. War poisons everybody. War corrupts everybody. And so, the so-called good guys begin behaving like the bad guys. The Nazis dropped bombs and killed civilians in Coventry, in London, in Rotterdam. And we drop bombs and kill civilians, and we commit atrocities, and we go over Tokyo several months before Hiroshima.

And I’ll bet you 90 percent of the American people do not know about the raid of Tokyo. Everybody has heard about Hiroshima. I’ll bet 90 percent of the American people — I don’t you know if you have — know that several months before Hiroshima, we sent planes over Tokyo to set Tokyo afire with firebombs, and 100,000 people died in one night of bombing in Tokyo. Altogether we killed over half a million people in Japan, civilians. And some people said, “Well, they bombed Pearl Harbor.” That’s really something. These people did not bomb Pearl Harbor. Those children did not bomb Pearl Harbor. But this notion of violent revenge and retaliation is something we’ve got to get rid of.

So I began, yeah, reconsidering all of that, rethinking all of that, investigated the bombing of Hiroshima, investigated the excuse that was made — “Oh, you know, if we don’t bomb Hiroshima, well, we have to invade Japan, and a million people will die.” And I investigated all of that, found it was all nonsense. We didn’t have to invade Japan in order for Japan to surrender. Our own official investigative team, the Strategic Bombing Survey, which went into Japan right after the war, interviewed all the high Japanese military, civilian officials, and their conclusion was Japan was ready to end the war. Maybe not the next week, maybe in two months, maybe in three months. “Oh, no, we can’t wait. We don’t want to wait. We’ve got these bombs. We’ve got to see what they look like.” Do you know how many people die because of experimentation with weapons? We were experimenting. We were experimenting on the children of Hiroshima. “Let’s see what this does. Hey, and also, let’s show the Russians. Let’s show the Russians we have this bomb.” A British Scientist who was an adviser to Churchill called the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima “the first step of the Cold War.” Soviet Union was in the mind of the people around Harry Truman — James Burns, Forrestal and others.

So, yes, I began thinking about “the good war” and how it corrupts and poisons. And then I looked at the world after the war. Oh, yeah, what were the results? Yeah, I said bad things about the war. I’m sorry, all those casualties, but it ended — it stopped fascism. Now wait a while. Let’s look closely at that. Yeah, it got rid of Hitler, got rid of Mussolini. Did it get rid of fascism in the world? Did it get rid of racism in the world? Did it get rid of militarism in the world? No, you had two superpowers now arming themselves with nuclear weapons, enough nuclear weapons that if they were used, they would make Hitler’s Holocaust look puny. And there were times, in fact, in the decades that followed when we came very, very close to using those nuclear weapons.

So the world after World War II — and this is so important — you don’t just look at, “Oh, we won.” No, what happens after that? What happens five years after that? What happens ten years after that? What happens to the GIs who came back alive, five or ten years later? And maybe one of them will go berserk at Fort Hood. Think about that. Think about all the superficial comments made of “Oh, let’s examine this guy psychologically and his religious [inaudible], and let’s not go deeper into that and say these are war casualties.” Those people he killed were war casualties; he was a war casualty. That’s what war does. War poisons people’s minds. So we got rid of Hitler. But what was the world like?

When I was discharged from the Army, from the Air Force, I got a letter from General Marshall. He was the general of generals. He was sending a letter, not a personal letter to me — “Dear Howie…” No. A letter that was sent to 16 million men who had served in the Armed Forces, some women, too. And the letter was something like this: “We’ve won the war. Congratulations for your service. It will be a new world.” It wasn’t a new world. And we know it hasn’t been a new world since World War II. War after war after war after war, and 50 million people were dead in that war to end all wars, to end fascism and dictatorship and militarism. No.

So, yes, I came to a conclusion that war cannot be tolerated, no matter what we’re told. And if we think that there are good wars and that, therefore, well, maybe this is a good war, I wanted to examine the so-called good wars, the holy wars, and — yeah, and take a good look at them and think again about the phenomenon of war and come to the conclusion, well, yes, war cannot be tolerated, no matter what we’re told, no matter what tyrant exists, what border has been crossed, what aggression has taken place. It’s not that we’re going to be passive in the face of tyranny or aggression, no, but we’ll find ways other than war to deal with whatever problems we have, because war is inevitably — inevitably — the indiscriminant massive killing of huge numbers of people. And children are a good part of those people. Every war is a war against children.

So it’s not just getting rid of Saddam Hussein, if we think about it. Well, we got rid of Saddam Hussein. In the course of it, we killed huge numbers of people who had been victims of Saddam Hussein. When you fight a war against a tyrant, who do you kill? You kill the victims of the tyrant. Anyway, all this — all this was simply to make us think again about war and to think, you know, we’re at war now, right? In Iraq, in Afghanistan and sort of in Pakistan, since we’re sending rockets over there and killing innocent people in Pakistan. And so, we should not accept that.

We should look for a peace movement to join. Really, look for some peace organization to join. It will look small at first, and pitiful and helpless, but that’s how movements start. That’s how the movement against the Vietnam War started. It started with handfuls of people who thought they were helpless, thought they were powerless. But remember, this power of the people on top depends on the obedience of the people below. When people stop obeying, they have no power. When workers go on strike, huge corporations lose their power. When consumers boycott, huge business establishments have to give in. When soldiers refuse to fight, as so many soldiers did in Vietnam, so many deserters, so many fraggings, acts of violence by enlisted men against officers in Vietnam, B-52 pilots refusing to fly bombing missions anymore, war can’t go on. When enough soldiers refuse, the government has to decide we can’t continue. So, yes, people have the power. If they begin to organize, if they protest, if they create a strong enough movement, they can change things.

That’s all I want to say. Thank you.

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ColumnJul 06, 2023After the July 4th Fireworks, History Itself is Still Under Attack
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