Lessons of Iraq War start with U.S. history
By Howard Zinn
Progressive" -- -- On the third anniversary of
President Bush's Iraq debacle, it's important to consider why the
administration so easily fooled so many people into supporting the
I believe there are two reasons, which go deep into our national
One is an absence of historical perspective. The other is an
inability to think outside the boundaries of nationalism.
If we don't know history, then we are ready meat for carnivorous
politicians and the intellectuals and journalists who supply the
carving knives. But if we know some history, if we know how many
times presidents have lied to us, we will not be fooled again.
President Polk lied to the nation about the reason for going to war
with Mexico in 1846. It wasn't that Mexico "shed American blood upon
the American soil" but that Polk, and the slave-owning aristocracy,
coveted half of Mexico.
President McKinley lied in 1898 about the reason for invading Cuba,
saying we wanted to liberate the Cubans from Spanish control, but
the truth is that he really wanted Spain out of Cuba so that the
island could be open to United Fruit and other American
corporations. He also lied about the reasons for our war in the
Philippines, claiming we only wanted to "civilize" the Filipinos,
while the real reason was to own a valuable piece of real estate in
the far Pacific, even if we had to kill hundreds of thousands of
Filipinos to accomplish that.
President Wilson lied about the reasons for entering the First World
War, saying it was a war to "make the world safe for democracy,"
when it was really a war to make the world safe for the rising
President Truman lied when he said the atomic bomb was dropped on
Hiroshima because it was "a military target."
And everyone lied about Vietnam -- President Kennedy about the
extent of our involvement, President Johnson about the Gulf of
Tonkin and President Nixon about the secret bombing of Cambodia.
They all claimed the war was to keep South Vietnam free of
communism, but really wanted to keep South Vietnam as an American
outpost at the edge of the Asian continent.
President Reagan lied about the invasion of Grenada, claiming
falsely that it was a threat to the United States.
The elder Bush lied about the invasion of Panama, leading to the
death of thousands of ordinary citizens in that country. And he lied
again about the reason for attacking Iraq in 1991 -- hardly to
defend the integrity of Kuwait, rather to assert U.S. power in the
oil-rich Middle East.
There is an even bigger lie: the arrogant idea that this country is
the center of the universe, exceptionally virtuous, admirable,
If our starting point for evaluating the world around us is the firm
belief that this nation is somehow endowed by Providence with unique
qualities that make it morally superior to every other nation on
Earth, then we are not likely to question the president when he says
we are sending our troops here or there, or bombing this or that, in
order to spread our values -- democracy, liberty, and let's not
forget free enterprise -- to some God-forsaken (literally) place in
But we must face some facts that disturb the idea of a uniquely
We must face our long history of ethnic cleansing, in which the U.S.
government drove millions of Indians off their land by means of
massacres and forced evacuations.
We must face our long history, still not behind us, of slavery,
segregation and racism.
And we must face the lingering memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It is not a history of which we can be proud.
Our leaders have taken it for granted, and planted the belief in the
minds of many people that we are entitled, because of our moral
superiority, to dominate the world. Both the Republican and
Democratic Parties have embraced this notion.
But what is the idea of our moral superiority based on?
A more honest estimate of ourselves as a nation would prepare us all
for the next barrage of lies that will accompany the next proposal
to inflict our power on some other part of the world.
It might also inspire us to create a different history for
ourselves, by taking our country away from the liars who govern it,
and by rejecting nationalist arrogance, so that we can join people
around the world in the common cause of peace and justice.
Howard Zinn, who served as a bombardier in the Air Force in World
War II, is the author of "A People's History of the United States"
(HarperCollins, 1995). He is also the co-author, with Anthony Arnove,
of "Voices of a People's History of the United States" (Seven
Stories Press, 2004). He can be reached at
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