Howard Zinn, On War, introduced by Staughton Lynd (Seven Stories Press 2011), 272pp
This collection ranks as one of the great denunciations of war. Above all it takes the notion of ‘good’ or ‘humanitarian’ military intervention to pieces. It has moral, practical and theoretical power, and is a handbook for radicals today, argues Chris Nineham.
Zinn, who died two years ago, was the model of a radical, public intellectual. He was a historian famous for his Peoples’ History of the United States. But, like all radicals should, he aspired whenever possible to write popular polemics. And because of this aspiration and his controlled passion, he wrote beautifully.
Most of these were published in mainstream newspapers over the last four decades. The style is cool but steely. His response to the 1975 Rockefeller report in to the CIA’s wrongdoings is typical. The report concluded that ‘in comparison to the total effort’ CIA misdemeanours were ‘not major’:
‘The same report could be made on the Corleone family, after studying them in the motion picture The Godfather. True, they murdered people who challenged their power, but in comparison to all the harmless things they did, like drinking espresso, going to weddings and christenings and bouncing children on their knees, it was nothing to get excited about’ (p.106).
War is hell
Zinn’s contention is that all war is by its nature not just brutal and destructive, but corrupting. He examines a series of incidents to prove his point including the first use of Napalm bombs on the Normandy town of Royan in 1945, in which he participated. ‘The town of Royan, “liberated”, was totally in ruins’ (p.87). He later discovered to his horror that the attack, in which thousands probably died, was senseless, motivated only by French pride and perhaps the desire to test a new technology of killing.
He uses Reagan’s bombing of Tripoli in 1986 to dismiss the notion that terrorism and conventional war are qualitatively different. Reagan ordered the bombing in retaliation for the ‘terrorist’ bombing of a Berlin disco:
‘Of course we don’t call our actions that, but if terrorism is the deliberate killing of innocent people to make a political point, then our bombing of a crowded city in Libya fits the definition as the bombing – by whoever did it – of a crowded discotheque in Berlin’ (p.200).
A careful weighing of the historical evidence in the essay ‘Just and Unjust War’ produces what must be one of the most effective short critiques of the ‘good war’ defence of World War Two. The mass of historical detail he presents has a cumulative power. But Zinn’s broad historical sweep is equally telling:
‘We were victorious over fascism, but this left two superpowers dominating the world, vying for control of other nations, carving out new spheres of influence, on a scale even larger than that attempted by the Fascist powers. Both superpowers supported dictatorships all over the world: the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and the United States in Latin America, Korea and the Philippines’ (p.159).
An activist intellectual
Despite his concern to communicate the horror of war, Zinn is optimistic throughout. He has a confidence in people’s decency. Even war propaganda bolsters that confidence; ‘I suppose it is a tribute to the humanity of ordinary people’ he says, ‘that horrible acts must be camouflaged in a thicket of deceptive words in order to justify them’ (p.229). His aim is to activate that humanity. In August 2002 he wrote ‘The Case against War in Iraq’ specifically to promote discussion. ‘Let the debate begin,’ he says, ‘not just in Congress, but throughout the nation’ (p.243). And as we know, it did.
This activist understanding of the intellectual’s role leads him to challenge the ‘realism’ characteristic of the expert:
‘Scholars, who pride themselves on speaking their minds, often engage in a form of self censorship which is called “realism”. To be “realistic” in dealing with a problem is to work only among the alternatives which the most powerful in society put forth. It is as if we are all confined to a,b,c or d in the multiple choice test, when we know there is another answer’ (p.37).
Getting away with murder
This collection does not dwell long on the underlying causes of war: expansionism is ‘a trait of any unit bursting in power and privilege in a competitive, lawless world’, he says simply. Zinn’s main theoretical concern is how governments get away with the crimes of war. Partly, he argues, they rely on the physical separation of domestic and foreign policy.
Crudely, it is other people who experience the full horror of modern imperial warfare, not those in the metropolitan country. He points out that this itself is nothing to do with an inherent western liberalism, ‘internal groups … have been treated as ruthlessly as enemies in wartime: the blacks, the Indians, the workingmen before they organised, the students when they dared to challenge authority’ (p.82). Only resistance from below has limited the ruling classes’ barbarity.
Opportunist to the core, western imperialists partly rely on the assumption that the values of democracy and liberalism at home are carried over in to their international dealings, ‘American presidents in times of war have pointed to the qualities of the American system as evidence for the justness of the cause’ (p.125).
The way modern, industrial warfare is organised also helps smooth the way to destruction. With a typically suggestive turn of phrase he argues the complex division of labour and command of capitalist war creates an ‘infinite dispersion of responsibility’ (p.99). No one appears positively responsible for the horror that ensues: ‘One can see in the destruction of Royan that infinite chain of causes, that infinite dispersion of responsibility, which can give infinite work to historical scholarship and sociological speculation, and bring an infinitely pleasurable paralysis of the will’ (p.99).
In another remarkable passage, Zinn notes how this division of labour in the real world compartmentalises even our thought processes:
‘The concept of paradox is useful to our innocence. We keep it as a last line of defense, first erecting two other barriers. The first is not to look for, or not to see, those facts that challenge our deepest beliefs. The second is (when the world will not tolerate our ignorance) to keep separate in our consciousness those elements which, brought together, would explode the myths of our culture. When both restraining walls collapse, we fall back, as an emergency measure, on the explanation: It’s one of those paradoxes – an incredible but true combination’ (p.67).
Zinn is famous for believing that, given these mechanisms of mystification, neutrality is an illusion. He called his memoir You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train. But it is clear from this collection how as well as being shamelessly partisan, he also put a premium on understanding history in its totality, on seeing how things interconnect.
He knew it is only by doing this that we can understand the true significance of individual episodes and events, and therefore that grasping the big picture is a precondition for liberation.
There is perhaps one unresolved tension running through the book (not surprising as it spans over 40 years of work). In places his entirely rational preference for non-violent resistance to tyranny by ‘using strikes, boycotts, propaganda, and a dozen other ingenious forms of struggle’ (p.164) leads him to downplay the significance of those instances, from the Spanish Revolution to the Vietnam War, when people have felt they had no choice but to take up arms against their oppressors.
But nothing should take away from the moral, practical and theoretical power of On War. It condemns war, but seeks to understand how it is sustained in order to play a part in ending it. Every sentence strains towards those moments when dictatorships are overthrown ‘by mass movements that mobilised so much popular opposition that the tyrant finally had to flee’ (p.164). A handbook for the 21st Century.