A good war?

Howard Zinn was a historian with a history of his own. Before starting his academic career World War II broke out and he was enlisted in the air force, where he flew on bombing missions over Europe. Quite by chance we came across an interview on the DemocracyNow.org website in which he looks back at the war and draws on his own very personal experience to make an extremely powerful case that even when a war, like the war against fascism, seems obviously good, we should stop and consider the alternatives. The interview can be seen in full as a video on the DemocracyNow.org website. Below is an edited version of what strikes me as the most powerful part of what he had to say.

World War II, they said, was "the Good War," the best. 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 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 Europe. 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 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...

So I began to think about it, and also 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 break. And during that break my wife and I decided we'd take a little vacation in the country. We took a bus to go into the country. And at the bus stop, there was a newsstand, and there was a newspaper with a 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." But wait a while. It's not that simple. What I realized then was that at the beginning of the war you say they are the bad guys, we are the good guys, but in the course of the war, the good guys become the bad guys. War poisons everybody. War corrupts everybody. 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 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 start a huge blaze 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."

So, yes, I began thinking about the so-called "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.


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. No.

So I came to a conclusion that 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 indiscriminate massive killing of huge numbers of people. And children are a good part of those people. Every war is a war against children.

When you fight a war against a tyrant, who do you kill? You kill the victims of the tyrant. You innocent people. 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, acts of violence by enlisted men against officers in Vietnam, 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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