A voice against war

Issue 

REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

Howard Zinn on War
By Howard Zinn
Seven Stories Press, 2001
206 pages, $34.95 (pb)

With every militarist hothead in press and parliament lashing themselves into a frenzy over the war they have just started against Afghanistan, the need grows for voices opposed to a vengeful slaughter which will simply multiply the number of innocent victims and whose blood will feed the soil of discontent from which sprouts the poisonous weed of terrorism.

Howard Zinn, a Boston University professor who has been an anti-war activist since his days as a World War II bomber pilot, is a powerfully articulate voice against war, and his latest collection of writings on war could not have been better timed.

The core of war is "slaughter of the innocent, organised by national leaders, accompanied by lies" for self-serving political ends.

World War I, with its dead millions in the trenches, is officially remembered on November 11. As with Remembrance Day (and Anzac Day) in Australia, Veterans' Day in the US has been turned into a day to "honour war", not to remember the veterans who died or were disabled for the "power and profit of a few". In official hands, the day is not a day for denouncing war but an occasion to "bring out the flags, uniforms, martial music, the patriotic speeches reeking with hypocrisy". People's "decent impulse of feeling" for war veterans and their suffering and loss is manipulated by the military and political establishments into an occasion to honour militarism.

The second world war had the added barbarism of mass terror bombing against civilians. As a keen, 21-year-old anti-fascist in the US Army Air Force, Zinn flew bombing raids against Germany and occupied France. By 1945, however, he had come to despise war, especially the indiscriminate mass slaughter delivered from the air.

Zinn's experience exploded the official claim that only military sites were targeted by "precision" bombing. In his training, Zinn could (with luck) drop a bomb to within six metres of its target but this was from 130 metres. Raids in wartime, however, were flown from 10,000 metres and the closest a skilled bombardier could get to their target was a quarter of a mile. The "accidental" deaths of civilians from bombing ("collateral damage" in its Orwellian code) is an inevitable, and therefore deliberate, part of war.

Truth, as always, is the first casualty of war. The war leaders lie about their motives for going to war, patriotic politicians and press draping their war lust with moral righteousness. The Allied states and ruling classes fought World War II to overthrow Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, not for humanitarian reasons but because these regimes threatened the territory and economic position of the Allies.

The first world war was the "war to end all wars" (Woodrow Wilson), the second world war was the war to make "the world safe for democracy" (Franklin Roosevelt) the Vietnam War was a noble crusade to "stop communism" (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon), the Gulf War against Iraq was a lesson on how "aggression must not go unpunished" (George Bush senior). Bush junior has amply confirmed Zinn's thesis with the latest president's war to "stop terrorism"; this lie obscuring the truth of this latest battle to preserve US global economic and political domination.

It helps the warmongers' case if the victims of their aggressive wars are unseen and unheard. A dutiful establishment media rises splendidly to the challenge of self-censorship by ignoring or concealing the agony and deaths of the victims. The dead innocents of wars waged by the imperialist powers are (to borrow Noam Chomsky's terminology) "unworthy victims" — unworthy of our outrage or sympathy. "Worthy victims", on the other hand, are those murdered by officially recognised enemies.

The war against Afghanistan has again illustrated Zinn's thesis — an Afghan child, worthy of concern if the victim of "Communist invasion", suddenly becomes unworthy, and therefore invisible, if the victim of US invasion. The lives of New Yorkers who die at the hands of non-state terrorists are more "precious" than the lives of Arabs killed by US or Israeli state terrorists. Compared to this politically instrumental double standard, Zinn adopts the moral position that "no life is less precious than another", regardless of race, religion or current "enemy" status.

Moral views such as this are alien to the rulers of the imperialist states who do not recognise their state terrorism as terrorism. Officially recognised terrorists, on the other hand, do exist but, in the official view, are unrelated to any actions of the US in the world. Wars, says Zinn, have produced evil twins, "two sets of atrocities, two campaigns of terrorism" — the Nazi Holocaust and the British fire-bombing of Dresden, Japanese military atrocities in China and the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Serbian "ethnic cleansing" in Kosova and NATO terror bombing of Serbia. Each twin must be condemned, but for that to happen, both must be acknowledged as terrorism.

The attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center has a moral relation to US and Israeli attacks on the Arab Middle East. If the acts of official enemies receive enormous attention as terrorist atrocities while the terrorist atrocities of the US and its allies are starved of political and press attention (or disguised as "Operation Enduring Freedom") then it is "impossible to make a balanced moral judgement", to find solutions to the cycle of revenge and reprisal, to address the underlying issue of global economic inequality and oppression.

"By volume and repetition", a barrage of selective information is pumped out by the tame press, information isolated from political context (the record of the US government and its allied states in the world) and thus acts as propaganda for the government's political agenda and the economic interests of the corporate class the government serves. People's "reasonable reaction" of "we must do something" (about "ethnic cleansing" in Milosevic's Yugoslavia, or about terrorists flying planes into office buildings), in the absence of political context and views outside the narrow orthodoxy of the political establishment, leads to the quick conclusion that "we must bomb them". And, by battle's end, over much higher mountains of corpses, only Milosevic stands in the dock, not Clinton. Only Saddam Hussein is outlawed, not Bush senior. Only bin Laden has a US$50 million price tag on his head, not Bush junior or his predecessors.

It is, says Zinn, "a tribute to the humanity of ordinary people that horrible acts must be camouflaged in a thicket of deceptive words in order to justify them". So the "CNN propaganda factory", in model Stalinist fashion, faithfully reflects the government's dressing up of war in the clothes of security, peace, freedom, democracy, the "national interest", stopping communism/terrorism, or whatever the chosen ideological ruse of the day may be.

War, says Zinn, is "an occasion to reflect on the historical role of the US in the world", a role defined by "aggression, violence and deception" in its relentless conquest of economic empire. The current US-led war against Afghanistan is more of the same — "slaughter of the innocent, organised by national leaders, accompanied by lies" — lies from the world's leading terrorist state about stopping terrorism; lies from its military about "precision bombing" against "suspected terrorist training camps" (millions died from "surgical strikes" against "Vietcong" bases in the US war against Vietnam); lies about the undeserved deaths of the poor in a war being waged in the interests of US corporate and political power.

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