War is a lie

Published : Mar 11, 2011 00:00 IST

The book presents Howard Zinn's reflections on war and his views on the significance of the bombing of Royan and Hiroshima by the U.S.

ACCORDING to Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn has been on the front lines as an active participant, an inspiring teacher and lecturer, a voice of wisdom and a model of honour and integrity. I can think of few people who are so widely respected and loved and rightly so.

To not read him is to be a disservice to yourself, says Arundhati Roy. Through his personal anecdotes, Zinn has called upon his readers to become more active in resisting war crimes, engage more critically in admonishing war and always [be] hopeful in bad times and... have the courage to stand up to the powers that be.

The Bomb, Zinn's posthumously published book, makes a case for transcendence, a need to think outside the boundaries of permissible thought and dare to say things that no one else will say. In book after book, from A People's History of the United States to You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train, from Terrorism and War to Artists in Times of War and The Bomb, Zinn asks: Are you going to leave the business of the most important issues in the world to the people who run the country?

At the outset he makes a case against those who categorise any one who dares to comment on an important question concerning the nation. If Peter Ustinov criticises the Vietnam war, his opinion is disregarded because he is just an actor. Zinn asserts: All of us, no matter what we do, have the right to make moral decisions about the world. We must be undeterred by the cries of the people who say, You don't know. You are not an expert. These people up there they know'.

The White House or the Congress are not the only bodies who have to take the decisions and who know; the involvement of citizens, as emphasised by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is crucial to the running of the country. When the government becomes destructive then it is patriotic to dissent and to criticise. The Bomb is an account of Zinn's reflections on war and of his historical and political views on the significance of the bombing of Royan, a French town, and Hiroshima by the United States during the Second World War and the influence these incidents had on his metamorphosis from a passive, order-obeying combat officer to one of the most vibrant and outspoken war historians of our time.

The book gives a horrific account of the U.S. military's first use of napalm by dropping it on Royan, destroying everything that came in its way. The war was coming to an end and there was no reason whatsoever to destroy the town and its innocent inhabitants. The tragedy troubled Zinn to his last days, and he never forgave himself or the army commanders, who virtually flogged a dead horse to earn a feather in their cap. It was a false sense of triumph in a war that was already won. To Zinn, such a deed has behind it the most powerful motive of all: the habit of obedience, the universal teaching of all cultures, not to get out of line, not even to think about that which one has not been assigned to think about, the negative motive of not having either a reason or a will to intercede.

As an active bomber pilot returning home from the end of the war in Europe and preparing for combat in Japan, Zinn read the headline Atomic bomb dropped on Japan and was glad to see the end of the war. Like other Americans, he wrote, I had no idea what was going on at the higher levels, and had no idea what that atomic bomb' had done to men, women, children in Hiroshima, anymore than I ever really understood what the bombs I dropped on European cities were doing to human flesh and blood. Bombing from five miles high, I and my fellow crew members could not see what was happening on the ground. We could not hear screams or see blood, could not see torn bodies, crushed limbs. Is it any wonder we see fliers going out on mission after mission, apparently unmoved by thoughts of what they have wrought.

It is a known fact of history that the war with Japan was also over, and the only reason for dropping bombs on France and on Japan was to test napalm and the atomic bomb respectively, and to send a message to Russia to not jump into the war. Zinn points out that LIFE magazine showed a picture of a Japanese person burning to death and commented: This is the only way'. The U.S. government knew that American prisoners of war would die in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and yet it went ahead with the barbaric demonstration of its nuclear capabilities.

Failure of Imagination'

Referring to Bomb After Bomb: A Violent Cartography, a collection of drawings illustrating the history of bombing by Elin O'Hara Slavick, a professor of art at the University of North Carolina, Zinn writes, As I look at her drawings I become painfully aware of how ignorant I was when I dropped those bombs on France and on cities in Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, of the effects of those bombings on human beings. Not because she shows us bloody corpses, amputated limbs, skin shredded by napalm. She does not do that. But her drawings, in ways that I cannot comprehend, compel me to envision such scenes. I am stunned by the thought we the civilised nations' have bombed cities and countrysides and islands.

Yet here in the U.S., which is responsible for most of that, the public, as was true of me, does not understand I mean really understand what bombs do to people. That failure of imagination, I believe, is critical to explaining why we still have wars, why we accept bombing as a common accompaniment to our foreign policies, without horror or disgust. We in this country, unlike people in Europe or Japan or Africa or the Middle East, or the Caribbean, have not had the experience of being bombed. That is why, when the Twin Towers in New York exploded on September 11, there was such shock and disbelief. This turned quickly, under the impact of government propaganda, into a callous approval of bombing Afghanistan, and a failure to see that the corpses of Afghans were the counterparts of those in Manhattan.

Written passionately and full of anger, The Bomb is Zinn's last confession and the last sermon on war and its consequent destruction of human life. To him, the bad wars have a lot in common with the so-called good war', about which there was little if anything good. Indeed, Zinn stands out as one of the most committed advocates of peace and non-violence, sending out a clarion call to people to not allow governments to commit the crime of war in their name: What can we learn, he asks, to free us from the thinking that leads us to stand by while atrocities are committed in our name?

If one takes a brief look at the demonstrations against going to war in Afghanistan or Iraq, one can appreciate the sense of worldwide resistance. Robert La Follette wrote in the June 1917 issue of The Progressive magazine: If there is no sufficient reason for war, the war party will make war on one pretext, then invent another. The Bush government demonstrated this in its misadventure in West Asia. Zinn spoke against war in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, in Iraq and did everything in his power to oppose the very idea of such bloody conflicts in human history. The thousands who have suffered brought him deep distress and infuriated him so much that he felt he had to stand up against all brute powers that destroy life and break the spirit of man.

George Bush, argues Zinn, was eager to dispatch young soldiers halfway around the world into the heart of another nation to fight a decidedly avoidable war. Zinn goes on to ask: Is this not the ultimate betrayal of our young by our government? Their families very often understand this before their sons and daughters do, and remonstrate with them before they go off. He cites the example of Ruth Aitken, who argued with her son, an Army captain, telling him it was a war for oil, while he insisted he was protecting the country from terrorists. He was killed on April 4, 2003, in a battle around Baghdad airport. He was doing his job, his mother said. But it makes me mad that this whole war was sold to the American public and to the soldiers as something it wasn't.

The Iraqi people too have been betrayed. Promised freedom from tyranny, they have experienced desolation and hunger caused by two wars and 12 years of misery owing to the sanctions. The Pentagon's operation of shock and awe left thousands dead and wounded. Lies and deception have always underpinned the American cry for war.

The Bomb draws attention to Zinn's work Rule by Force, where he wrote about America's interventions and its history of war and conquest: It had waged a hundred-year war against the native Americans, driving them off their ancestral lands. The United States had instigated a war with Mexico and taken almost half its land, had sent marines at least twenty times into the countries of the Caribbean for power and profit, had seized Hawaii, had fought a brutal war to subjugate the Filipinos, and had sent 5,000 marines into Nicaragua in 1926. The U.S., while declaring an embargo on munitions, allowed American businesses to send oil to Italy, which was crucial for carrying on war against Ethiopia. Such is the long journey of the vile history of war and of the killing of innocents, which can never be justified. This is the rationale Zinn used to oppose the reasons wars are fought for.

Commenting on the Second World War, Zinn asks: What could possibly justify such carnage? Winning the war against Fascism? Yes, we won'. But what did we win? Was it a new world? Had we done away with Fascism in the world, with racism, with militarism, with hunger and disease? Despite the noble words of the United Nations charter about ending the scourge of war' had we done away with war?

The millions who have died or will die in future wars will always remain oblivious to the reasons why they fought and killed and communism' or capitalism' or any of the abstractions which cover up mass murder.

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