The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Zinn: 7 Conclusions about war

with 12 comments

Baghdad bombingI found historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States so important that now I read everything of his I come across. Always controversial, here are some excerpts from this WWII bombardier’s introduction to “Bomb After Bomb: a Violent Cartography,” by Elin O’Hara Slavick, as reprinted in Counterpunch.

On bombing:

I am stunned by the thought that we, the “civilized” nations, have bombed cities and countrysides and islands for a hundred years. Yet, here in the United States, 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. …

On patriotism, a useful distinction between government and country:

Patriotism is defined as obedience to government, obscuring the difference between the government and the people. Thus, soldiers are led to believe that “we are fighting for our country” when in fact they are fighting for the governmentan artificial entity different from the people of the country – and indeed are following policies dangerous to its own people. …

So obviously true, when you think about it.  Soldiers are condemned to fight on even though their country—indeed, the world—wants them home.  So, for whom do they fight?  The government of the moment, of course.
And seven conclusions about war, so true to our recent national experience:

One: The means of waging war … have become so horrendous in their effects on human beings that no political end– however laudable, the existence of no enemy — however vicious, can justify war.

Two: The horrors of the means are certain, the achievement of the ends always uncertain.

We still struggle to learn that force rarely brings submission.  That illusion draws us like moths to candle-flames.

Three: When you bomb a country ruled by a tyrant, you kill the victims of the tyrant.

Four: War poisons the soul of everyone who engages in it, so that the most ordinary of people become capable of terrible acts.

Victims, all.  Some dismiss the anti-war movement as anti-soldier.  But rising rates of veteran suicide, homelessness, and divorce aren’t results of failing to “support the troops;” they’re the results of sending them to war.

Five: Since the ratio of civilian deaths to military deaths in war has risen sharply with each subsequent war of the past century (10% civilian deaths in World War I,50% in World War II, 70% in Vietnam, 80-90% in Afghanistan and Iraq) and since a significant percentage of these civilians are children, then war is inevitably a war against children.

Six: We cannot claim that there is a moral distinction between a government which bombs and kills innocent people and a terrorist organization which does the same. …

Seven: War, and the bombing that accompanies war, are the ultimate terrorism, for governments can command means of destruction on a far greater scale than any terrorist group.

These considerations lead me to conclude that if we care about human life, about justice, about the equal right of all children to exist, we must, in defiance of whatever we are told by those in authority, pledge ourselves to oppose all wars.

Startling, isn’t it? Your thoughts?

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Written by Monte

December 17, 2007 at 6:18 pm

Posted in patriotism, Politics

12 Responses

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  1. Monte – thanks so much for the insights on OT vs. NT teachings. I totally agree – Jesus hung out with the “untouchables” of his day. It still doesn’t reconcile the Old with the New, and that’s where my big disconnect lies with Christianity. Whatever faith I had as a young’un is gone, so I guess I’m searching for some direction and meaning. A friend of mine recommended the following paper and I read it today. Mind boggling stuff. Check it out if you get a chance. I’d love your take on this, as it was written by a skeptic – but has great research and thought put into it. Much appreciated! Who knows – maybe you can do a blog post on it sometime. It is lengthy, so you’ll have to really “chew the fat” before you dive into it, I think.

    Thanks again!

    Monte Says: Thanks, I’m looking forward to reading it. I guess the short version of my point would go like this: I’m not sure the “connect” between OT and NT teachings, as it’s been commonly taught, is as much a part of Christianity as it is a cultural addition to it, and one that has seriously distracted Christians from following the example of Jesus.

    DGs World By Big D

    December 19, 2007 at 6:49 pm

  2. thank you Monte…though I may tread softy. Frankly, I don’t like to be attacked by people who don’t know me. I may simply lurk from now on. You, Monte, I respect tremendously and wish all people were as calm and loving and moderated.

    I only repeated a statement that you originally posted by Zinn…it had been in the discussion. I don’t understand the hatred that was spewed at me.


    December 19, 2007 at 6:00 pm

  3. Excellent! Works for me.

    DGs World By Big D

    December 19, 2007 at 2:31 pm

  4. Gianna, Thanks for butting into a conversation in which you had no part.

    Excuse me? I may be mistaken but I thought blogs were basically open forums and moderated by the owner. Who are you? I was involved in this conversation from the beginning and continued to be involved when you entered it. I will not engage with you further, however. I do not take kindly to being blatantly disrespected.

    Monte Says: Gianna, I value and respect both you and your comments. You are warmly welcome here always, in any conversation.


    December 19, 2007 at 2:04 pm

  5. Dreseden was not necessary IMHO. As for the bomb, I fear revisionist history setting in. We didn’t know that Japan was considering surrender. And what about the Soviet threat to take advantage of the situation? I see the same thing today with trying to rationalize whether Iraq was worth it or not. We acted on the intelligence at the time, even if it was flawed.
    I agree emotions were running rampant. Wasn’t Nuremberg an illegal show trial? Hindsight will make us all millionaires.
    As for Giannakali, I think you are the terrorist. Maybe San Francisco would be a nice haven for you along with all the rest of your radical USA bashers.

    Monte Says: Thanks for your comment, Zeke. Regarding revisionism, here are some thoughts from A People’s History of the United States:

    New York Times military analyst Hanson Baldwin wrote, shortly after the war,

    The enemy, in a military sense, was in a hopeless strategic position by the time the Potsdam demand for unconditional surrender was made on July 26. … Need we have done it? … the answer is almost certainly negative.

    After citing the US Strategic Bombing Survey’s post-war analysis (that Japan would have surrendered without the A-bombs, even if Russia hadn’t entered the war, and even if no invasion were contemplated), Zinn writes:

    But could American leaders have known this in August 1945? The answer is yes, clearly yes. The Japanese code had been broken … It was known the Japanese had instructed their ambassador in Moscow to work on peace negotiations with the Allies. Japanese leaders had been talking of surrender a year before this, and the Emperor himself had begun to suggest, in June 1945, that alternatives to fighting to the end would be considered. On July 13, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo wired his ambassador in Moscow: “Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace …” Martin Sherwin, after an exhaustive study of the relevant historical documents, concludes: “…American intelligence was able to -and did – relay this message to the President, but it had no effect whatever on efforts to bring the war to a conclusion.” If only the Americans had not insisted on unconditional surrender – that is, if they were willing to accept one condition to the surrender – that the Emperor, a holy figure to the Japanese, remain in place – the Japanese would have agreed to stop the war. … General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, described Truman as a man on a toboggan, the momentum too great to stop it.

    Regarding Dresden’s necessity, I am loathe to think that mass-murder of mamas and school-children is ever necessary. Roosevelt had described German bombing of England and Holland as “inhuman barbarism that has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.” But 100,000 perished in Dresden alone, far outstripping the barbarism to which Roosevelt referred.

    Regarding Iraq, the weakness of the intelligence was clear in the NIE report made available to Congress in a locked room days before the war powers vote. Only a handful of them read it, preferring the President’s version, instead. The Congress failed us.

    And finally, while I genuinely welcome your presence here, I do hope you’ll use discretion about hyperbole. Gianna has a defensible point – if terrorism is “inflicting casualties on innocent civilians for political or ideological gain,” American history – from the Indian Wars to the Mexican wars to the Spanish-American war to Dresden to the CIA dismantling of Iranian democracy in 1953 (do see A history of US-Iran relations) – is full of examples. Many’s the patriot who has called the US government on its excesses; if opposing government behavior is hating America, we’d better all move to San Francisco. Calling someone a terrorist for criticizing government kind of flies in the face of what America is all about.

    And many of the people who visit here are friends of mine. Disagreement is part of what we’re here for (and your disagreements are more than welcome), but scorn takes the focus off the issues and wounds good people.


    December 19, 2007 at 1:09 pm

  6. Gianna, Thanks for butting into a conversation in which you had no part. No comparison was made between WWII and today, nor was any such comparison intended. If you truly feel the US is a terrorist-run country, you must have a deep moral issue with being a resident here. You might have a daily inner struggle, trying to reconcile the fact that you are a resident of the US and you pay taxes to the US and our country is spending your hard-earned money on terrorism. Maybe you should move. Try Canada. Or Switzerland.

    DGs World By Big D

    December 19, 2007 at 11:56 am

  7. I think WWII compared to what we are doing now is like apples and oranges. We are bullies in the world today and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all to call us terrorists for what we have done in Iraq. I wish I had more energy to say more. Sorry.


    December 18, 2007 at 10:55 pm

  8. Good stuff. Appreciate your views on this. It is interesting how one situation and / or decision feeds into another and so on, until a huge massive ball of problems starts rolling along. Personally, I’d rather everyone just hug it out and get along, but I’m not naive enough to think that is possible. I’ve always said, “If women ruled the world, we’d all gossip about each other behind our backs, then all go shopping together and have a martini! No one would die, we’d just get soused.” My husband just rolls his eyes at my simpleton’s stance, but I really think there is a grain of truth there. Women rarely lust for power to that level, and I KNOW that the inhumane atrocities that Hitler dumped upon the Jews would never have happened, had he been a woman. It’s just unthinkable. We carry babies and deliver them – the thought of killing a baby is beyond me. I don’t think a female would have enacted that type of evil, but I could be wrong.

    That said, I appreciate the fact that you are not an isolationist. Obviously, neither am I! The way I see it is this: war is sometimes a necessary evil. It sucks, it is awful, it is never pleasant, and it absolutely kills and destroys. But, sadly, sometimes it must happen. Which brings me to the Old Testament. I am SOOOOOO confused by God. Why did he command the Israelites to wipe out the people of Canaan? Their livestock, their women, their children, their babies? Why? I don’t get it. God was pretty bloody awful in the OT. Why is that? This is one of the reasons I am so confused by Christianity. Jesus’ message appeared to be one of peace. His father’s message was pretty brutal back in the day. I can’t reconcile the two. Thanks again for listening. I don’t even know you, and yet you’ve responded to me more than my own minister who lives down the street! Go figure.

    Monte Says: Yes, foreign policy things do snowball, don’t they? I do believe there is some evidence to support your feelings about women in government that suggests that nations where women play numerically significant roles in politics are somewhat less likely to initiate war – but I don’t remember where I saw it.

    Regarding the brutal destruction of Canaan, I am baffled and appalled. But I don’t think the implications toward Christianity are quite as clear-cut as they’ve often been made out to be. It’ll take a few paragraphs to explain – hope that’s OK!

    You are right: “Jesus’ message appeared to be one of peace.” And how! “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you …” Radically so. When asked what mattered most from the Jewish past in terms of pleasing God, he said the now-famous words “Love your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” And when the person who asked tries to weasel out, he tells a story, and makes a despised foreigner the hero (the “good Samaritan”), which might be like telling a story to Pat Robertson in which an Al Qaeda member is the good guy. Clearly, he’s suggesting new relationships between people of different nations.

    In fact, “new” often is used in the Bible to describe Jesus: new covenant, new way, new commandment (love one another). And Jesus rather flagrantly violates not just the customs of the Jewish Scriptures, but their commands. His disciples don’t follow ceremonial washing, he touches dead bodies without going through the required purification period, he comes in contact with a woman having her period, likewise. He refuses to support legal penalties (like stoning adulterers). Rather than maintaining the separateness of Judaism, he always is hanging out with people who are ill or poor or regarded as especially evil. He is put to death, not, I believe, over Jewish-“Christian” conflict, but over religious strictness vs. caring for people: he’s too inclusive for the ultra-religious (some things never change!) Luke especially tells it that way.

    Perhaps most importantly, the New Testament treats Jesus as the clearest element of the revelation of God to humans: “He is the image of the invisible God,” Paul writes. “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” And Hebrews: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”

    OK, where are we? We have a Jesus who shrugs off much of the Old Testament whenever it gets in the way of loving people. He absolutely detests religious custom when people are hurt as a result of it. And we have a Bible that advocates Jesus as the clearest representation of God. And Jesus himself commands those who care to follow him to do what he does.

    So, like I said, I’m baffled by the Canaan stories. Why they would be so very brutal, when Jesus is so aggressively pro-outcast, I can’t imagine. But it seems like Jesus is saying, “What I do is what I want humans to do. What I am is what God is like.”

    Finally, in my own experience, as the years go by, I find myself more and more certain of Jesus, but less and less certain of the doctrinal positions people have concocted (mostly in the last few centuries). What the relationship of the Old Testament to the New is – that’s something the Bible itself just doesn’t say a lot about, and the blanks appear to have been mainly filled in by modern conclusions. When God has seemed closest to me, he has seemed like Jesus, and his interest has seemed to be that I become able to love like Jesus loves.

    There’s much I don’t understand, and I’m sure I’m partly wrong about this. But Jesus does seem real to me, and following him does seem wise, and does lead me away from brutality and toward peace. I’m better for having done so.

    Thanks for asking, and for enduring my long answer!

    DGs World By Big D

    December 18, 2007 at 6:29 pm

  9. Hi Big D, good questions! First, understand, I am not sure my own views are as completely exclusive of defensive war as those of Zinn.
    Having said that, let me offer these thoughts:
    1. Utter craziness set in at the end of WWII. Japan had lost the war – it was an island nation without sufficient natural resources to continue the war. The US government, bent on nothing less than unconditional surrender, was planning an invasion to secure total domination rather than an end to the war.
    2. Firebombings of Japanese cities roasted hundreds of thousands of moms with their babies and elderly parents. Those who ordered the incendiaries admitted that they’d be tried for war crimes if the US lost the war. The world still cringes when American officials say it’s wrong to kill civilians.
    3. Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened while the Japanese were gathering to consider terms of surrender. It could have been negotiated.
    But something very ugly had happened to the USA, that made us into people who excused – and still excuse – mass murder of women, children, and elderly people.
    4. The Japanese, at the outset of the war, bombed Pearl Harbor because American troops were stationed in the Philippines, and had been since the genocidal American invasion there (which had culminated in mass murders of indigenous peoples – see A Tale for Every American), decades earlier. Now the US was cutting off oil to the Japanese, so the Japanese needed sea lanes to get oil and rubber from SE Asia. US troops in the Philippines were in the way, and the US fleet in Pearl Harbor was all that protected them. Had the lust for unlimited commerce that created the Spanish-American war been whistled to a halt, Pearl Harbor wouldn’t have been bombed. Yes, the Japanese had committed savage and immoral acts, but they were provoked by American lust. Indeed, probably 200,000 Filipinos died in the US invasion of their home. US atrocity was in the same league as that of the Japanese.
    5. My Dad fought in North Africa and Italy. He was there – though the enemy was Nazi Germany – because the Germans had seized what the British had seized from African nations. Indeed, all of Africa was claimed by European powers. The Nazis were doing what the British had done earlier. And before it was over, hundreds of thousands of German civilians – like the Japanese – would die horrible deaths as the US and Britain fire-bombed the women and children of non-military cities.

    The Nazi government and the Japanese government had to be stopped. Their victimization of millions was unspeakable. But I often wonder how much of the war would have happened if Western nations’ governments hadn’t also been lost in lust for power and commerce.

    And still it continues. Have you seen A history of US-Iran relations?

    We can’t turn back the clock. But I sure wish we could persuade government and big business not to keep grabbing and grabbing and grabbing, setting us up for future conflict. I am no isolationist. I am opposed, not to international interaction, but to domination of the world for the sake of gain: our sins always come back to us in the form of the deaths of our own and the dehumanization of our national character.


    December 18, 2007 at 5:43 pm

  10. Hi Monte –
    All interesting insights. I pose this question with sincerity: If we hadn’t bombed Japan in the 40s, and Hitler had kept surging ahead with Japan’s help, what would our world look like today? What if the Nazis had won WWII? What if the US hadn’t joined the fight, even after the kamikazes bombed our ships in Hawaii? I would love to hear your take on this scenario.

    My best answer to the question I pose above is this: I would probably still be here. My family is German, and I have the blonde hair / blue eyes that Hitler so craved to reproduce. I’d also be typing this in German, although I doubt the internet would be allowed to stream out the uncensored thoughts of free people. Maybe we wouldn’t even have an internet. Would you be here? What about your friends / family?

    Your thoughts? Much appreciated! :)

    DGs World By Big D

    December 18, 2007 at 4:14 pm

  11. ah Monte,
    You’re traveling in the wrong circles. I know lots of people who say such things—but you are in the process of creating such a circle that is clear!


    December 17, 2007 at 11:46 pm

  12. thank you Monte,
    You just reminded me I still need to read Zinn.

    I have no problem agreeing with the most controversial of the above statements.

    I think that they have a deep integrity and morality in them.

    Monte Says: You’re welcome, Gianna – I agree with you! It seems like they are things no one dares to say.


    December 17, 2007 at 9:22 pm

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