Why War Fails
By Howard Zinn
10/23/06 " The Progressive" -- - - I suggest there is
something important to be learned from the recent experience of
the United States and Israel in the Middle East: that massive
military attacks are not only morally reprehensible but useless
in achieving the stated aims of those who carry them out.
In the three years of the Iraq War, which began with
shock-and-awe bombardment and goes on with day-to-day violence
and chaos, the United States has failed utterly in its claimed
objective of bringing democracy and stability to Iraq. American
soldiers and civilians, fearful of going into the neighborhoods
of Baghdad, are huddled inside the Green Zone, where the largest
embassy in the world is being built, covering 104 acres and
closed off from the world outside its walls.
I remember John Hersey's novel The War Lover, in which a macho
American pilot, who loves to drop bombs on people, and also to
boast about his sexual conquests, turns out to be impotent.
George Bush, strutting in his flight jacket on an aircraft
carrier, and announcing victory in Iraq, has turned out to be an
embodiment of the Hersey character, his words equally boastful,
his military machine equally impotent.
The Israeli invasion and bombing of Lebanon has not brought
security to Israel. Indeed, it has increased the number of its
enemies, whether in Hezbollah or Hamas, or among Arabs who
belong to neither of those groups.
That failure of massive force goes so deep into history that
Israeli leaders must have been extraordinarily obtuse, or
blindly fanatic, to miss it. The memory is not lost to Professor
Ze'ev Maoz at Tel Aviv University, writing recently in the
Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz about a previous Israeli invasion of
Lebanon: "Approximately 14,000 civilians were killed between
June and September of 1982, according to a conservative
estimate." The result, aside from the physical and human
devastation, was the rise of Hezbollah, whose rockets provoked
another desperate exercise of massive force.
The history of wars fought since the end of World War II reveals
the futility of large-scale violence. The United States and the
Soviet Union, despite their enormous firepower, were unable to
defeat resistance movements in small, weak nations. Even though
the United States dropped more bombs in the Vietnam War than in
all of World War II, it was still forced to withdraw. The Soviet
Union, trying for a decade to conquer Afghanistan, in a war that
caused a million deaths, became bogged down and also finally
Even the supposed triumphs of great military powers turn out to
be elusive. After attacking and invading Afghanistan, President
Bush boasted that the Taliban were defeated. But five years
later, Afghanistan is rife with violence, and the Taliban are
active in much of the country. Last May, there were riots in
Kabul, after a runaway American military truck killed five
Afghans. When U.S. soldiers fired into the crowd, four more
people were killed.
After the brief, apparently victorious war against Iraq in 1991,
George Bush Sr. declared (in a moment of rare eloquence): "The
specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands
of the Arabian peninsula." Those sands are bloody once more.
The same George Bush presided over the military attack on Panama
in 1989, which killed thousands and destroyed entire
neighborhoods, justified by the "war on drugs." Another victory,
but in a few years, the drug trade in Panama was thriving as
The nations of Eastern Europe, despite Soviet occupation,
developed resistance movements that eventually compelled the
Soviet military to leave. The United States, which had its way
in Latin America for a hundred years, has been unable, despite a
long history of military interventions, to control events in
Cuba, or Venezuela, or Brazil, or Bolivia.
Overwhelming Israeli military power, while occupying the West
Bank and Gaza, has not been able to stop the resistance movement
of Palestinians. Israel has not made itself more secure by its
continued use of massive force. The United States, despite two
successive wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not more secure.
More important than the futility of armed force, and ultimately
more important, is the fact that war in our time always results
in the indiscriminate killing of large numbers of people. To put
it more bluntly, war is terrorism. That is why a "war on
terrorism" is a contradiction in terms.
The repeated excuse for war, and its toll on civilians-and this
has been uttered by Pentagon spokespersons as well as by Israeli
officials-is that terrorists hide among civilians. Therefore the
killing of innocent people (in Iraq, in Lebanon) is "accidental"
whereas the deaths caused by terrorists (9/11, Hezbollah
rockets) are deliberate.
This is a false distinction. If a bomb is deliberately dropped
on a house or a vehicle on the ground that a "suspected
terrorist" is inside (note the frequent use of the word
"suspected" as evidence of the uncertainty surrounding targets),
it is argued that the resulting deaths of women and children is
not intended, therefore "accidental." The deaths of innocent
people in bombing may not be intentional. Neither are they
accidental. The proper description is "inevitable."
So if an action will inevitably kill innocent people, it is as
immoral as a "deliberate" attack on civilians. And when you
consider that the number of people dying inevitably in
"accidental" events has been far greater than all the deaths of
innocent people deliberately caused by terrorists, one must
reconsider the morality of war, any war in our time.
It is a supreme irony that the "war on terrorism" has brought a
higher death toll among innocent civilians than the hijackings
of 9/11, which killed up to 3,000 people. The United States
reacted to 9/11 by invading and bombing Afghanistan. In that
operation, at least 3,000 civilians were killed, and hundreds of
thousands were forced to flee their homes and villages,
terrorized by what was supposed to be a war on terror. Bush's
Iraq War, which he keeps linking to the "war on terror," has
killed between 40,000 and 140,000 civilians.
More than a million civilians in Vietnam were killed by U.S.
bombs, presumably by "accident." Add up all the terrorist
attacks throughout the world in the twentieth century and they
do not equal that awful toll.
If reacting to terrorist attacks by war is inevitably immoral,
then we must look for ways other than war to end terrorism.
And if military retaliation for terrorism is not only immoral
but futile, then political leaders, however cold-blooded their
calculations, must reconsider their policies. When such
practical considerations are joined to a rising popular
revulsion against war, perhaps the long era of mass murder may
be brought to an end.
Howard Zinn, author of "A
People's History of the United States
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