A Veteran Remembers
By Howard Zinn
Let's go back to the beginning of Veterans Day. It used to
be Armistice Day, because at the 11th hour of the 11th day
of the 11th month of 1918, World War I came to an end.
We must not forget that conflict. It revealed the essence of
war, of all wars, because however "just" or "humanitarian"
may be the claims, at the irreducible core of all war is the
slaughter of the innocent, organized by national leaders,
accompanied by lies. World War I was its epitome, as
generals and politicians sent young men forward from their
trenches, bayonets fixed, to gain a few miles, even a few
yards, at frightful cost.
In July 1916 the British General Douglas Haig ordered 11
divisions of English soldiers to climb out of their trenches
and move toward the German lines. The six German divisions
opened up with their machine guns. Of the 110,000 who
attacked, more than half were killed or wounded--all those
bodies strewn on no man's land, the ghostly territory
between the contending trenches. That scenario went on for
years. In the first battle of the Marne there were a million
casualties, 500,000 on each side.
The soldiers began to rebel, which is always the most heroic
thing soldiers can do, for which they should be given
medals. In the French Army, out of 112 divisions, 68 would
have mutinies. Fifty men would be shot by firing squads.
Three of those executions became the basis for the late
filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's antiwar masterpiece, Paths of
Glory. In that film a pompous general castigates his
soldiers for retreating and talks of "patriotism." Kirk
Douglas, the lieutenant colonel who defends his men, enrages
the general by quoting the famous lines of Samuel Johnson:
"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
The supposed moral justification of that war (the evil
Kaiser, the Belgian babies) disintegrated quickly after it
ended with sudden recognition of the 10 million dead in the
mud of France and the gassed, shellshocked, and limbless
veterans confronting the world.
The ugliness of that war was uncomplicated by the moral
righteousness that made later wars, from World War II on,
unsullied in our memory, or at least acceptable. Vietnam was
the stark exception. But even there our national leaders
have worked hard to smother what they call "the Vietnam
syndrome." They want us to forget what we learned at the
Vietnam War's end: that our leaders cannot be trusted, that
modern war is inevitably a war against civilians and
particularly children, that only a determined citizenry can
stop the government when it embarks on mass murder.
Our decent impulse, to recognize the ordeal of our veterans,
has been used to obscure the fact that they died, they were
crippled, for no good cause other than the power and profit
of a few. Veterans Day, instead of an occasion for
denouncing war, has become an occasion for bringing out the
flags, the uniforms, the martial music, the patriotic
speeches reeking with hypocrisy. Those who name holidays,
playing on our genuine feeling for veterans, have turned a
day that celebrated the end of a horror into a day to honor
As a combat veteran myself, of a "good war," against
fascism, I do not want the recognition of my service to be
used as a glorification of war. At the end of that war, in
which 50 million died, the people of the world should have
shouted "Enough!" We should have decided that from that
moment on, we would renounce war--and there would be no
Korean War, Vietnam War, Panama War, Grenada War, Gulf War,
The reason for such a decision is that war in our
time--whatever "humanitarian" motives are claimed by our
political leaders--is always a war against children: the
child amputees created by our bombing of Yugoslavia, the
hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children dead as a result of
our postwar sanctions. Veterans Day should be an occasion
for a national vow: No more war victims on the other side;
no more war veterans on our side.
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