|Just and Unjust War
By Howard Zinn
enlisted in the Army Air Corps in World War II and was an eager
bombardier, determined to do everything I could to help defeat
fascism. Yet, at the end of the war, when I collected my little
mementos--my photos, logs of some of my missions--I wrote on the
folder, without really thinking, and surprising myself: "Never
Again." In the years after the war, I began to plumb the reasons
for that spontaneous reaction, and came to the conclusions which
I describe in the following essay, published as a chapter in my
book Declarations of Independence (HarperCollins, 1990).
before (in Postwar America, Bobbs Merrill, 1973), I had written
an essay called "The Best of Wars," in which I questioned--I was
unaware of anyone else asking the same question--the total
acceptance of World War II. After my own experience in that war,
I had moved away from my own rather orthodox view that there are
just wars and unjust wars, to a universal rejection of war as a
solution to any human problem. Of all the positions I have taken
over the years on questions of history and politics, this has
undoubtedly aroused the most controversy. It is obviously a
difficult viewpoint to present persuasively. I try to do that
here, and leave it to the reader to judge whether I have
"ich" -- - There are some people who do not question war.
In 1972, the general who was head of the U.S. Strategic Air
Command told an interviewer, "I've been asked often about my
moral scruples if I had to send the planes out with hydrogen
bombs. My answer is always the same. I would be concerned only
with my professional responsibility."
It was a
Machiavellian reply. Machiavelli did not ask if making war was
right or wrong. He just wrote about the best way to wage it so
as to conquer the enemy. One of his books is called The Art of
title might make artists uneasy. Indeed, artists--poets,
novelists, and playwrights as well as musicians, painters, and
actors--have shown a special aversion to war. Perhaps because,
as the playwright Arthur Miller once said, "When the guns boom,
the arts die." But that would make their interest too
self-centered; they have always been sensitive to the fate of
the larger society round them. They have questioned war, whether
in the fifth century before Christ, with the plays of Euripedes,
or in modern times, with the paintings of Goya and Picasso.
Machiavelli was being realistic. Wars were going to be fought.
The only question was how to win them.
people have believed that war is not just inevitable but
desirable. It is adventure and excitement, it brings out the
best qualities in men--courage, comradeship, and sacrifice. It
gives respect and glory to a country. In 1897, Theodore
Roosevelt wrote to a friend, "In strict confidence...I should
welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one."
time, fascist regimes have glorified war as heroic and
ennobling. Bombing Ethiopia in 1935, Mussolini's son-in-law
Count Ciano described the explosions as an aesthetic thrill, as
having the beauty of a flower unfolding.
1980s, two writers of a book on war see it as an effective
instrument of national policy and say that even nuclear war can,
under certain circumstances, be justified. They are contemptuous
of "the pacifist passions: self-indulgence and fear," and of
"American statesmen, who believe victory is an archaic concept."
They say, "The bottom line in war and hence in political warfare
is who gets buried and who gets to walk in the sun."
people are not that enamored of war. They see it as bad, but
also as a possible means to something good. And so they
distinguish between wars that are just and those that are
unjust. The religions of the West and Middle East--Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam--approve of violence and war under
certain circumstances. The Catholic church has a specific
doctrine of "just" and "unjust" war, worked out in some detail.
Political philosophers today argue about which wars, or which
actions in wars, may be considered just or unjust.
both viewpoints--the glorification of war and the weighing of
good and bad wars--there is a third: that war is too evil to
ever be just. The monk Erasmus, writing in the early sixteenth
century, was repelled by war of any kind. One of his pupils was
killed in battle and he reacted with anguish:
me, what had you to do with Mars, the stupidest of all the
poet's gods, you who were consecrated to the Muses, nay to
Christ? Your youth, your beauty, your gentle nature, your
honest mind--what had they to do with the flourishing of
trumpets, the bombards, the swords?
described war: "There is nothing more wicked, more disastrous,
more widely destructive, more deeply tenacious, more loathsome."
He said this was repugnant to nature: "Whoever heard of a
hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other,
as men do everywhere?"
saw war as useful to governments, for it enabled them to enhance
their power over their subjects: "...once war has been declared,
then all the affairs of the State are at the mercy of the
appetites of a few."
absolute aversion to war of any kind is outside the orthodoxy of
modern thinking. In a series of lectures at Oxford University in
the 1970s, English scholar Michael Howard talked disparagingly
about Erasmus. He called him simplistic, unsophisticated, and
someone who did not see beyond the "surface manifestations" of
war. He said,
all [Erasmus's] genius he was not a profound political
analyst, nor did he ever have to exercise the
responsibilities of power. Rather he was the first in that
long line of humanitarian thinkers for whom it was enough to
chronicle the horrors of war in order to condemn it.
had praise for Thomas More: "Very different was the approach of
Erasmus's friend, Thomas More; a man who had exercised political
responsibility and, perhaps in consequence, saw the problem in
all its complexity." More was a realist; Howard says,
accepted, as thinkers for the next two hundred years were to
accept that European society was organized in a system of
states in which war was an inescapable process for the
settlement of differences in the absence of any higher
common jurisdiction. That being the case, it was a
requirement of humanity, of religion and of common sense
alike that those wars should be fought in such a manner as
to cause as little damage as possible.. For better or worse
war was an institution which could not be eliminated from
the international system. All that could be done about it
was, so far as possible, to codify its rationale and to
civilize its means.
Machiavelli said: Don't question the ends of the prince, just
tell him how best to do what he wants to do, make the means more
efficient. Thomas More said: You can't do anything about the
ends, but try to make the means more moral.
400 years following the era of Machiavelli and More, making war
more humane became the preoccupation of certain liberal
"realists." Hugo Grotius, writing a century after More, proposed
laws to govern the waging of war ( Concerning the Law of War and
Peace). The beginning of the twentieth century saw international
conferences at The Hague in the Netherlands and at Geneva in
Switzerland which drew up agreements on how to wage war.
realistic approaches however, had little effect on the reality
of war. Rather than becoming more controlled, war became more
uncontrolled and more deadly, using more horrible means and
killing more noncombatants than ever before in the history of
mankind. We note the use of poison gas in World War I, the
bombardment of cities in World War II, the atomic destruction of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of that war, the use of
napalm in Vietnam, and the chemical warfare in the Iran-Iraq war
of the early 1980s.
Einstein, observing the effects of attempts to "humanize" wars,
became more and more anguished. In 1932, he attended a
conference of sixty nations in Geneva and listened to the
lengthy discussions of which weapons were acceptable and which
were not, which forms of killing were legitimate and which were
was a shy, private person, but he did something extraordinary
for him: he called a press conference in Geneva. The
international press turned out in force to hear Einstein,
already world famous for his theories of relativity. Einstein
told the assembled reporters, "One does not make wars less
likely by formulating rules of warfare....War cannot be
humanized. It can only be abolished." But the Geneva conference
went on, working out rules for "humane" warfare, rules that were
repeatedly ignored in the world war soon to come, a war of
1990, President George Bush, while approving new weapons systems
for nuclear warheads (of which the United States had about
30,000) and refusing to join the Soviet Union in stopping
nuclear testing, was willing to agree to destroy chemical
weapons, but only over a ten-year period. Such are the
absurdities of "humanizing" war.
Liberal States and Just Wars: Athens
argument that there are just wars often rests on the social
system of the nation engaging in war. It is supposed that if a
"liberal" state is at war with a "totalitarian" state, then the
war is justified. The beneficent nature of a government is
assumed to give rightness to the wars it wages.
Athens has been one of the most admired of all societies,
praised for its democratic institutions and its magnificent
cultural achievements. It had enlightened statesmen (Solon and
Pericles), pioneer historians (Herodotus and Thucydides), great
philosophers (Plato and Aristotle), and an extraordinary quartet
of playwrights (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and
Aristphanes). When it went to war in 431 BC against its rival
power, the city-state of Sparta, the war seemed to be between a
democratic society and a military dictatorship.
qualities of Athens were described early in that war by the
Athenian leader Pericles at a public celebration for the
warriors, dead or alive. The bones of the dead were placed in
chests; there was an empty litter for the missing. There was a
procession, a burial, and then Pericles spoke. Thucydides
recorded Pericles' speech in his History of the Peloponnesian
I praise the dead, I should like to point out by what
principles of action we rose to power, and under what
institutions and through what manner of life our empire
became great. Our form of government does not enter into
rivalry with the institutions of others.... It is true that
we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the
hands of the many and not of the few.... The law secures
equal justice to all alike.... Neither is poverty a bar....
There is no exclusiveness in our public life.... At home the
style of our life is refined.... Because of the greatness of
our city the fruits of the whole earth flow in upon us....
And although our opponents are fighting for their homes and
we on foreign soil, we seldom have any difficulty in
overcoming them.... I have dwelt upon the greatness of
Athens because I want to show you that we are contending for
a higher prize than those who enjoy none of these
Similarly, American presidents in time of war have pointed to
the qualities of the American system as evidence for the
justness of the cause. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt
were liberals, which gave credence to their words exalting the
two world wars, just as the liberalism of Truman made going into
Korea more acceptable and the idealism of Kennedy's New Frontier
and Johnson's Great Society gave an early glow of righteousness
to the war in Vietnam.
should take a closer look at the claim that liberalism at home
carries over into military actions abroad.
tendency, especially in time of war, is to exaggerate the
difference between oneself and the opponent, to assume the
conflict is between total good and total evil. It was true that
Athens had certain features of political democracy. Each of ten
tribes selected 50 representatives, by lot, to make a governing
council of 500. Trial juries were large, from 100 to 1,000
people, with no judge and no professional lawyers; the cases
were handled by the people involved.
these democratic institutions only applied to a minority of the
population. A majority of the people--125,000 out of
225,000--were slaves. Even among the free people, only males
were considered citizens with the right to participate in the
slaves, 50,000 worked in industry (this is as if, in the United
States in 1990, 50 million people worked in industry as slaves)
and 10,000 worked in the mines. H.D. Kitto, a leading scholar on
Greek civilization and a great admirer of Athens, wrote: "The
treatment of the miners was callous in the extreme, the only
serious blot on the general humanity of the Athenians.. Slaves
were often worked until they died." (To Kitto and others,
slavery was only a "blot" on an otherwise wonderful society.)
system in Athens was certainly preferable to summary executions
by tyrants. Nevertheless, it put Socrates to death for speaking
his mind to young people.
was more democratic than Sparta, but this did not affect its
addiction to warfare, to expansion into other territories, to
the ruthless conduct of war against helpless peoples. In modern
times we have seen the ease with which parliamentary democracies
and constitutional republics have been among the most ferocious
of imperialists. We recall the British and French empires of the
nineteenth century and the United States as a world imperial
power in this century.
Throughout the long war with Sparta, Athens' democratic
institutions and artistic achievements continued. But the death
toll was enormous. Pericles, on the eve of war, refused to make
concessions that might have prevented it. In the second year of
war, with the casualties mounting quickly, Pericles urged his
fellow citizens not to weaken: "You have a great polis, and a
great reputation; you must be worthy of them. Half the world is
yours--the sea. For you the alternative to empire is slavery."
kind of argument ("Ours is a great nation. It is worth dying
for.") has persisted and been admired down to the present.
Kitto, commenting on that speech by Pericles, again overcome by
we reflect that this plague was as awful as the Plague of
London, and that the Athenians had the additional horror of
being cooped up inside their fortifications by the enemy
without, we must admire the greatness of the man who could
talk to his fellow citizens like this, and the greatness of
the people who could not only listen to such a speech at
such a time but actually be substantially persuaded by it.
enough persuaded by it so that the war with Sparta lasted
twenty-seven years. Athens lost through plague and war
(according to Kitto's own estimate) perhaps one-fourth of its
liberal it was for its free male citizens at home, Athens became
more and more cruel to its victims in war, not just to its enemy
Sparta, but to every one caught in the crossfire of the two
antagonists. As the war went on, Kitto himself says, "a certain
treatment of the inhabitants of the island of Melos be best
described as "a certain irresponsibility"? Athens demanded that
the Melians submit to its rule. The Melians, however, argued (as
reported by Thucydides), "It may be to your interest to be our
masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?" The Melians
would not submit. They fought and were defeated. Thucydides
wrote, "The Athenians thereupon put to death all who were of
military age, and made slaves of the women and children." (It
was shortly after this event that Euripides wrote his great
antiwar play, The Trojan Women).
experience of Athens suggests is that a nation may be relatively
liberal at home and yet totally ruthless abroad. Indeed, it may
more easily enlist its population in cruelty to others by
pointing to the advantages at home. An entire nation is made
into mercenaries, being paid with a bit of democracy at home for
participating in the destruction of life abroad.
Liberalism at War
Liberalism at home, however, seems to become corrupted by war
waged abroad. French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau noted
that conquering nations "make war at least as much on their
subjects as on their enemies." Tom Paine, in America, saw war as
the creature of governments, serving their own interests, not
the interests of justice for their citizens. "Man is not the
enemy of man but through the medium of a false system of
government." In our time, George Orwell has written that wars
are mainly internal.
certain effect of war is to diminish freedom of expression.
Patriotism becomes the order of the day, and those who question
the war are seen as traitors, to be silenced and imprisoned.
Twain, observing the United States at the turn of the century,
its wars in Cuba and the Philippines, described in The
Mysterious Stranger the process by which wars that are at first
seen as unnecessary by the mass of the people become converted
into "just" wars:
loud little handful will shout for war. The pulpit will
warily and cautiously protest at first.... The great mass of
the nation will rub its sleepy eyes, and will try to make
out why there should be a war, and they will say earnestly
and indignantly: "It is unjust and dishonorable and there is
no need for war."
the few will shout even louder.... Before long you will see
a curious thing: anti-war speakers will be stoned from the
platform, and free speech will be strangled by hordes of
furious men who still agree with the speakers but dare not
the statesmen will invent cheap lies...and each man will be
glad of these lies and will study them because they soothe
his conscience; and thus he will bye and bye convince
himself that the war is just and he will thank God for a
better sleep he enjoys by his self-deception.
Mark Twain died in 1910. In 1917, the United States entered the
slaughterhouse of the European war, and the process of silencing
dissent and converting a butchery into a just war took place as
he had predicted.
Woodrow Wilson tried to rouse the nation, using the language of
a crusade. It was a war, he said, "to end all wars." but large
numbers of Americans were reluctant to join. A million men were
needed, yet in the first six weeks after the declaration of war
only 73,000 volunteered. It seemed that men would have to be
compelled to fight by fear of prison, so Congress enacted a
Socialist Party at the time was a formidable influence in the
country. It had perhaps 100,000 members, and more than a
thousand Socialists had been elected to office in 340 towns and
cities. Probably a million Americans read Socialist newspapers.
There were fifty-five weekly Socialist newspapers in Oklahoma,
Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas alone; over a hundred Socialists
were elected to office in Oklahoma. The Socialist party
candidate for president, Eugene Debs, got 900,000 votes in 1912
(Wilson won with 6 million).
before the United States entered the European war, Helen Keller,
blind and deaf and a committed Socialist, told an audience at
against war, for without you no battles can be fought!
Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all
other tools of murder! Strike against preparedness that
means death and misery to millions of human beings! Be not
dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction! Be heroes
in an army of construction!
after Congress declared war, the Socialist party met in an
emergency convention and called the declaration "a crime against
the American people." Antiwar meetings took place all over the
country. In the local elections of 1917, Socialists made great
gains. Ten Socialists were elected to the New York State
legislature. In Chicago the Socialist party had won 3.6 percent
of the vote in 1915 and it got 34.7 percent in 1917. But with
the advent of war, speaking against it became a crime; Debs and
hundreds of other Socialists were imprisoned.
war ended, 10 million men of various countries had died on the
battlefields of Europe, and millions more had been blinded,
maimed, gassed, shell-shocked, and driven mad. It was hard to
find in that war any gain for the human race to justify that
suffering, that death.
when the war was studied years later, it was clear that no
rational decision based on any moral principle had led the
nations into war. Rather, there were imperial rivalries, greed
for more territory, a lusting for national prestige, and the
stupidity of revenge. And at the last moment, there was a
reckless plunge by governments caught up in a series of threats
and counterthreats, mobilizations and counter-mobilizations,
ultimatums and counter-ultimatums, creating a momentum that
mediocre leaders had neither the courage nor the will to stop.
As described by Barbara Tuchman in her book The Guns of August:
pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed,
governments struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no
use. Agents at frontiers were reporting every cavalry patrol
as a deployment to beat the mobilization gun. General
staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables, were pounding
the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain
an hour's head start. Appalled upon the brink, the chiefs of
state who would be ultimately responsible for their
country's fare attempted to back away, but the pull of
military schedules dragged them forward.
Bitterness and disillusion followed the end of the war, and this
was reflected in the literature of those years: Ernest
Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, John Dos Passo's U.S.A., and
Ford Madox Ford's No More Parades. In Europe, German war veteran
Erich Maria Remarque wrote the bitter antiwar novel All Quiet on
the Western Front.
French playwright Jean Giradoux wrote La guerre de Troi n'aura
pas lieu (The Trojan War Will Not Take Place; the English
translation was retitled Tiger at the Gates). The war of the
Greeks against Troy, more than a thousand years before Christ,
was provoked, according to legend, by the kidnapping of the
beautiful Helen by the Trojans. Giraudoux at one point uses
Hecuba, an old woman, and Demokos, a Trojan soldier, to show how
the ugliness of war is masked by attractive causes, as in this
case, the recapture of Helen.
Demokos: Tell us before you go, Hecuba, what it is you
think war looks like.
Hecuba: Like the bottom of a baboon. When the baboon is
up in a tree, with its hind end facing us, there is the face
of war exactly; scarlet, scaly glazed, framed in a clotted
Demokos: So war has two faces: this you describe, and
first impressions of something called war had come at the age of
ten, when I read with excitement a series of books about "the
boy allies"--A French boy, an English boy, an American boy, and
a Russian boy, who became friends, united in the wonderful cause
to defeat Germany in World War I. It was an adventure, a
romance, told in a group of stories about comradeship and
heroism. It was war cleansed of death and suffering.
anything was left of that romantic view of war, it was totally
extinguished when, at eighteen, I read a book by a Hollywood
screenwriter named Dalton Trumbo (jailed in the 1950s for
refusing to talk to the House Committee on Un-American
Activities about his political affiliations). The book was
called Johnny Got His Gun. It is perhaps, the most powerful
antiwar novel ever written.
war in its ultimate horror. A slab of flesh in an American
uniform had been found on the battlefield, still alive, with no
legs, no arms, no face, blind, deaf, unable to speak, but the
heart still beating, the brain still functioning, able to think
about his past, ponder his present condition, and wonder if he
will ever be able to communicate with the world outside.
the oratory of the politicians who sent him off to war--the
language of freedom, democracy, and justice--is now seen as the
ultimate hypocrisy. A mute, thinking torso on a hospital bed, he
finds a way to communicate with a kindly nurse, and when a
visiting delegation of military brass comes by to pin a medal on
his body, he taps out a message. He says: Take me into the
workplaces, into the schools, show me to the little children and
to the college students, let them see what war is like.
me wherever there are parliaments and diets and congresses
and chambers of statesmen. I want to be there when they talk
about honor and justice and making the world safe for
democracy and fourteen points and the self determination of
peoples.... Put my glass case upon the speaker's desk and
every time the gavel descends let me feel its vibration....
Then let them speak of trade policies and embargoes and new
colonies and old grudges. Let them debate the menace of the
yellow race and the white man's burden and the course of
empire and why should we take all this crap off Germany or
whoever the next Germany is.... Let them talk more munitions
and airplanes and battleships and tanks and gases and why of
course we've got to have them we can't get along without
them how in the world could we protect the peace if we
didn't have them....
before they vote on them before they give the order for all
the little guys to start killing each other let the main guy
rap his gavel on my case and point down at me and say here
gentlemen is the only issue before this house and that is
are you for this thing here or are you against it.
Got His Gun had a shattering effect on me when I read it. It
left me with a bone-deep hatred of war.
the same time I read a book by Walter Millis, The Road to War,
which was an account of how the United States had been led into
World War I by a series of lies and deceptions. Afterward I
would learn more about those lies. For instance, the sinking of
the ship Lusitania by German submarines was presented as a
brutal, unprovoked act against a harmless passenger vessel. It
was later revealed that the Lusitania was loaded with munitions,
intended for use against Germany; the ship's manifest had been
falsified to hide that. This didn't lessen the ugliness of the
sinking, but did show something about the ways in which nations
are lured into war.
consciousness accounted for some of my feeling about war. I
agreed with the judgment of the Roman biographer Plutarch, who
said, "The poor go to war, to fight and die for the delights,
riches, and superfluities of others."
in early 1943, at the age of twenty-one, I enlisted in the U.S.
Army Air Force. American troops were already in North Africa,
Italy, and England; there was fierce fighting on the Russian
front and the United States and Britain were preparing for the
invasion of Western Europe. Bombing raids were taking place
daily on the continent, U.S. planes bombing during the day,
British planes bombing at night. I was so anxious to get
overseas and start dropping bombs that after my training ~n
gunnery school and bombing school I traded places with another
man who was scheduled to go overseas sooner than me.
learned to hate war. But this war was different. It was not for
profit or empire, it was a people's war, a war against the
unspeakable brutality of fascism. I had been reading about
Italian fascism in a book about Mussolini by journalist George
Seldes called Sawdust Caesar. I was inspired by his account of
the Socialist Matteotti, who stood up in the Italian Chamber of
Deputies to denounce the establishment of a dictatorship. The
black-shirted thugs of Mussolini's party picked up Matteotti
outside his home one morning and shot him to death. That was
Mussolini's Italy, deciding to restore the glory of the old
Roman Empire, invaded the East African country of Ethiopia, a
pitifully poor country. Its people, armed with spears and
muskets, tried to fight off an Italian army equipped with the
most modern weapons and with an air force that, unopposed,
dropped bombs on the civilian populations of Ethiopian towns and
villages. The Ethiopians who resisted were slaughtered, and
black poet Langston Hughes wrote,
little fox is still--
The dogs of war have made their kill.
thirteen when this happened and was only vaguely aware of
headlines: "Italian Planes Bomb Addis Ababa." But later I read
about it and also about German Nazism. John Gunther's Inside
Europe introduced me to the rise of Hitler, the SA, the SS, the
attacks on the Jews, the shrill oratory of the little man with
the mustache, and the monster rallies of Germans in sports
stadia who shouted in unison: "Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!"
Opponents were beaten and murdered. I learned the phrase
across a book called The Brown Book of the Nazi Terror. It told
in detail about the burning of the German Reichstag shortly
after Hitler came to power and the arrest of Communists accused
of setting the fire, clearly a frame-up. It told also of the
extraordinary courage of the defendants, led by the remarkable
Bulgarian Communist George Dimitrov, who rose in the courtroom
to point an accusing finger at Hermann Goering, Hitler's
lieutenant. Dimitrov tore the prosecution's case to shreds and
denounced the Nazi regime. The defendants were acquitted by the
court. It was an amazing moment, which would never be repeated
Hitler and Mussolini sent their troops and planes to support the
Spanish Fascist Franco, who had plunged his country into civil
war to overthrow the mildly socialist Spanish government. The
Spanish Civil War became the symbol all over the world of
resistance to fascism, and young men--many of them socialists,
Communists and anarchists--volunteered from a dozen countries,
forming brigades (from the United States, the Abraham Lincoln
Brigade), going immediately into battle against the
better-equipped army of Franco. They fought heroically and died
in great numbers. The Fascists won.
the Hitler onslaught in Europe--Austria, Czechoslovakia, and
Poland. France and England entered the war, and, a year after
the quick defeat of France, three million German soldiers
supported by tanks, artillery, and dive bombers turned eastward
to attack the Soviet Union ("Operation Barbarossa") along a
had to be resisted and defeated. I had no doubts. This was a
stationed at an airfield out in the countryside of East Anglia
(between the towns of Diss and Eye), that part of England that
bulges eastward toward the Continent. East Anglia was crowded
with military airfields, from which hundreds of bombers went out
every day across the Channel.
little airfield housed the 490th Bomb Group. Its job was to make
sure that every morning twelve B17s--splendid-looking,
low-winged, four-engined heavy bombers--each with a crew of
nine, wearing sheepskin jackets and fur-lined boots over
electrically heated suits and equipped with oxygen masks and
throat mikes--were ready to fly. We would take off around dawn
and assemble with other groups of twelve, and then these huge
flotillas would make their way east. Our bomb bay was full; our
fifty-caliber machine guns (four in the nose, one in the upper
turret, one in the ball turret, two in the waist, and one in the
tail) were loaded and ready for attacking fighter planes.
remember one morning standing out on that airfield, arguing with
another bombardier over who was scheduled to fly that morning's
mission. The target was Regensburg, and Intelligence reported
that it was heavily defended by antiaircraft guns, but the two
of us argued heatedly over who was going to fly that mission. I
wonder today, was his motive like mine--wanting to fly another
mission to bring closer the defeat of fascism. Or was it because
we had all been awakened at one AM in the cold dark of England
in March, loaded onto trucks, taken to hours of briefings and
breakfast, weighed down with equipment, and after going through
all that, he did not want to be deprived of another step toward
his air medal, another mission. Even though he might be killed.
that was partly my motive too, I can't be sure. But for me, it
was also a war of high principle, and each bombing mission was a
mission of high principle. The moral issue could hardly be
clearer. The enemy could not be more obviously evil--openly
espousing the superiority of the white Aryan, fanatically
violent and murderous toward other nations, herding its own
people into concentration camps, executing them if they dared
dissent. The Nazis were pathological killers. They had to be
stopped, and there seemed no other way but by force.
was such a thing as a just war, this was it. Even Dalton Trumbo,
who had written Johnny Got His Gun, did not want his book
to be reprinted, did not want that overpowering antiwar message
to reach the American public, when a war had to be fought
therefore, anyone wants to argue (as I am about to do) that
there is no such thing as a just war, then World War II is the
the last bombing missions of the war, got my Air Medal and my
battle stars. I was quietly proud of my participation in the
great war to defeat fascism. But when I packed up my things at
the end of the war and put my old navigation logs and snapshots
and other mementos in a folder, I marked that folder, almost
without thinking, "Never Again."
not sure why I did that, because it was not until years later
that I began consciously to question the motives, the conduct,
and the consequences of that crusade against fascism. The point
was not that my abhorrence of fascism was in any way diminished.
I still believed something had to be done to stop fascism. But
that clear certainty of moral rightness that propelled me into
the Air Force as an enthusiastic bombardier was now clouded over
by many thoughts.
my conversations with that gunner on the other crew, the one who
loaned me The Yogi and the Commisar, gave me the first flickers
of doubt. He spoke of the war as "an imperialist war," fought on
both sides for national power. Britain and the United States
opposed fascism only because it threatened their own control
over resources and people. Yes, Hitler was a maniacal dictator
and invader of other countries. But what of the British Empire
and its long history of wars against native peoples to subdue
them for the profit and glory of the empire? And the Soviet
Union--was it not also a brutal dictatorship, concerned not with
the working classes of the world but with its own national
puzzled. "Why," I asked my friend, "are you flying missions,
risking your life, in a war you don't believe in?" His answer
astonished me. "I'm here to speak to people like you."
out later he was a member of the Socialist Workers party; they
opposed the war but believed that instead of evading military
service they should enter it and propagandize against the war
every moment they could. I couldn't understand this, but I was
impressed by it. Two weeks after that conversation with him, he
was killed on a mission over Germany.
war, my doubts grew. I was reading history. Had the United
States fought in World War II for the rights of nations to
independence and self-determination? What of its own history of
expansion through war and conquest? It had waged a hundred-year
war against the native Americans, driving them off their
ancestral lands. The United States had instigated a war with
Mexico and taken almost half its land, had sent marines at least
twenty times into the countries of the Caribbean for power and
profit, had seized Hawaii, had fought a brutal war to subjugate
the Filipinos, and had sent 5,000 marines into Nicaragua in
1926. Our nation could hardly claim it believed in the right of
self-determination unless it believed in it selectively.
the United States had observed Fascist expansion without any
strong reactions. When Italy invaded Ethiopia, the United
States, while declaring an embargo on munitions, allowed
American businesses to send oil to Italy, which was crucial for
carrying on the war against Ethiopia. An official of the U.S.
State Department, James E. Miller, reviewing a book on the
relations between the United States and Mussolini, acknowledged
that "American aid certainly reinforced the hold of fascism."
the Spanish Civil War, while the Fascist side was receiving arms
from Hitler and Mussolini, Roosevelt's administration sponsored
a Neutrality Act that shut off help to the Spanish government
the invasion of Austria nor Czechoslovakia nor Poland brought
the United States into armed collision with fascism. We went to
war only when our possession Hawaii was attacked and when our
navy was disabled by Japanese bombs. There was no reason to
think that it was Japan's bombing of civilians at Pearl Harbor
that caused us to declare war. Japan's attack on China in 1937,
her massacre of civilians at Nanking, and her bombardments of
helpless Chinese cities had not provoked the United States to
sudden indignation against Japan contained a good deal of
hypocrisy. The United States, along with Japan and the great
European powers, had participated in the exploitation of China.
Our Open Door Policy of 1901 accepted that ganging up of the
great powers on China. The United States had exchanged notes
with Japan in 1917 saying, "the Government of the United States
recognizes that Japan has special interests in China," and in
1928, American consuls in China supported the coming of Japanese
only when Japan threatened potential U.S. markets by its
attempted takeover of China, but especially as it moved toward
the tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia, that the United
States became alarmed and took those measures that led to the
Japanese attack: a total embargo on scrap iron and a total
embargo on oil in the summer of 1941.
Department memorandum on Japanese expansion, a year before Pearl
Harbor, did not talk of the independence of China or the
principle of self-determination. It said,
general diplomatic and strategic position would be considerably
weakened--by our loss of Chinese, Indian and South Seas markets
(and by our loss of much of the Japanese market for our goods,
as Japan would become more and more self-sufficient) as well as
by insurmountable restrictions upon our access to the rubber,
tin jute, and other vital materials of the Asian and Oceanic
to Save the Jews
United States enter the war because of its indignation at
Hitler's treatment of the Jews? Hitler had been in power a year,
and his campaign against the Jews had already begun when, in
January 1934, a resolution was introduced into the Senate
expressing "surprise and pain" at what the Germans were doing
and asking for a restoration of Jewish rights. The State
Department used its influence to get the resolution buried in
after we were in the war against Germany (it should be noted
that after Pearl Harbor Germany declared war on the United
States, not vice versa) and reports began to arrive that Hitler
was planning the annihilation of the Jews, Roosevelt's
administration failed to take steps that might have saved
thousands of lives.
minister of propaganda for Hitler's Germany, wrote in his diary
on December 13, 1942: "At bottom, however, I believe both the
English and the Americans are happy we are exterminating the
Jewish riffraff." Goebbels was undoubtedly engaging in wishful
thinking, but in fact, the English and American governments had
not shown by their actions that they were terribly concerned
about the Jews. As for Roosevelt, he shunted the problem to the
State Department, where it did not become a matter of high
example of this failure to treat the situation as an emergency,
Raul Hilberg, a leading scholar of the Holocaust, points to an
event that took place in 1942. Early in August of that year,
with 1,500,000 Jews already dead, the Jewish leader Stephen Wise
was informed indirectly through a German industrialist that
there was a plan in Hitler's headquarters for the extermination
of all Jews; Wise brought the information to Under Secretary of
State Sumner Welles. Welles asked him not to release the story
until it was investigated for confirmation. Three months were
spent checking the report. During that time a million Jews were
killed in Europe.
doubtful that all those Jews could have been saved. But
thousands could have been rescued. All the entrenched
governments and organizations were negligent.
British were slow and cautious. In March 1943, in the presence
of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of State Hull pressed
British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden on plans to rescue the
60,000 Jews in Bulgaria threatened with death. According to a
memo by Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins who was at that meeting,
Eden worried that Polish and German Jews might then also ask to
be rescued. "Hitler might well take us up on any such offer and
there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in
the world to handle them." When there was a possibility of
bombing the railroad lines leading into the murder chambers of
Auschwitz, to stop further transportation of Jews there, the
opportunity was ignored.
be noted that the Jewish organizations themselves behaved
shamefully. In 1984, the American Jewish Commission on the
Holocaust reviewed the historical record. It found that the
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a relief agency
set up during World War II by the various Jewish groups, "was
dominated by the wealthier and more 'American' elements of U.S.
Jewry.... Thus, its policy was to do nothing in wartime that the
U.S. government would not officially continence."
Hilberg points out that the Hungarian Jews might have been saved
by a bargain: the Allies would not make air raids on Hungary if
the Jews would be kept in the cities and not sent away. But "the
Jews could not think in terms of interfering with the war
effort, and the Allies on their part could not conceive of such
a promise.... The Allied bombers roared over Hungary at will,
killing Hungarians and Jews alike."
As I read
this I recalled that one of the bombing raids I had done was on
a town in Hungary.
did waging war against Hitler fail to save the Jews, it may be
that the war itself brought on the Final Solution of genocide.
This is not to remove the responsibility from Hitler and the
Nazis, but there is much evidence that Germany's anti-Semitic
actions, cruel as they were, would not have turned to mass
murder were it not for the psychic distortions of war, acting on
already distorted minds. Hitler's early aim was forced
emigration, not extermination, but the frenzy of it created an
atmosphere in which the policy turned to genocide. This is the
view of Princeton historian Arno Mayer, in his book Why Did the
Heavens Not Darken, and it is supported by the chronology--that
not until Germany was at war was the Final Solution adopted.
in his classic work on the Holocaust, says, "From 1938 to 1940,
Hitler made extraordinary and unusual attempts to bring about a
vast emigration scheme.... The Jews were not killed before the
emigration policy was literally exhausted." The Nazis found that
the Western powers were not anxious to cooperate in emigration
and that no one wanted the Jews.
examine another claim, that World War II was fought for the
right of nations to determine their own destiny. This was
declared with great fanfare by Winston Churchill and Franklin
Roosevelt when they met off the coast of Newfoundland in August
1941 and announced the Atlantic Charter, saying their countries,
looking to the postwar world, respected "the right of all
peoples to choose the form of government under which they will
live." This was a direct appeal to the dependent countries of
the world, especially the colonies of Britain, France, Holland,
and Belgium, that their rights of self-determination would be
upheld after the war. The support of the nonwhite colonial world
was seen as crucial to the defeat of fascism.
two weeks before the Atlantic Charter, with the longtime French
colony of Indochina very much in mind, acting Secretary of State
Sumner Welles had given quiet assurances to the French: "This
Government, mindful of its traditional friendship for France,
has deeply sympathized with the desire of the French people to
maintain their territories and to preserve them intact." And in
late 1942, Roosevelt's personal representative told French
General Henri Giraud, "It is thoroughly understood that French
sovereignty will be reestablished as soon as possible throughout
all the territory; metropolitan or colonial, over which flew the
French flag in 1939." (These assurances of the United States are
especially interesting in view of the claims of the United
States during the Vietnam War, that the United States was
fighting for the right of the Vietnamese to rule themselves.)
neither saving the Jews nor guaranteeing the principle of
self-determination was the war aim of the United States (and
there is no evidence that either was the aim of Britain or the
Soviet Union), then what were the principal motives?
Overthrowing the governments of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo was
certainly one of them. But was this desired on humanitarian
grounds or because these regimes threatened the positions of the
Allies in the world?
rhetoric of morality--the language of freedom and democracy--had
some substance to it, in that it represented the war aims of
many ordinary citizens. However, it was not the citizenry but
the governments who decided how the war was fought and who had
the power to shape the world afterward.
the halo of righteousness that surrounded the war against
fascism, the usual motives of governments, repeatedly shown in
history, were operating: the aggrandizement of the nation, more
profit for its wealthy elite, and more power to its political
the most distinguished of British historians, A.J.P. Taylor,
commented on World War II that "the British and American
governments wanted no change in Europe except that Hitler should
disappear." At the end of the war, novelist George Orwell,
always conscious of class, wrote, "I see the railings [which
enclosed the parks and had been torn up so the metal could be
used in war production] are returning in one London park after
another, so the lawful denizens of the squares can make use of
their keys again, and the children of the poor can be kept out."
II was an opportunity for United States business to penetrate
areas that up to that time had been dominated by England.
Secretary of State Hull said early in the war,
Leadership toward a new system of international
relationships in trade and other economic affairs will
devolve very largely upon the United States because of our
great economic strength. We should assume this leadership,
and the responsibility that goes with it, primarily for
reasons of pure national self-interest.
Luce, who owned three of the most influential magazines in the
United States --Life, Time, and Fortune--and had powerful
connections in Washington, wrote a famous editorial for Life in
1941 called "The American Century." This was the time, he said,
"to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the
most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence
to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for
such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit."
British, weakened by war, clearly could not maintain their old
empire. In 1944 England and the United States signed a pact on
oil agreeing on "the principle of equal opportunity." This meant
the United States was muscling in on England's traditional
domination of Middle East oil. A study of the international oil
business by the English writer Anthony Sampson concluded,
end of the war the dominant influence in Saudi Arabia was
unquestionably the United States. King Ibn Saud was regarded
no longer as a wild desert warrior, but as a key piece in
the power-game, to be wooed by the West Roosevelt, on his
way back from Yalta in February, 1945, entertained the King
on the cruiser Quincy, together with his entourage of fifty,
including two sons, a prime minister, an astrologer and
flocks of sheep for slaughter.
a critic inside the American government, not a politician but
poet Archibald MacLeish, who briefly served as assistant
secretary of state. He worried about the postwar world: "As
things are now going the peace we will make, the peace we seem
to be making, will be a peace of oil, a peace of gold, a peace
of shipping, a peace, in brief, without moral purpose or human
war was truly a war of moral purpose, against the Nazi idea of
superior and inferior races, then we might have seen action by
the U.S. government to eliminate racial segregation. Such
segregation had been declared lawful by the Supreme Court in
1896 and existed in both South and North, accepted by both state
and national governments.
forces were segregated by race. When I was in basic training at
Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, in 1943, it did not occur to me,
so typical an American white was I, that there were no black men
in training with us. But it was a huge base, and one day, taking
a long walk to the other end of it, I was suddenly aware that
all the GIs around me were black. There was a squad of blacks
taking a ten-minute break from hiking in the sun, lying on a
small grassy incline, and singing a hymn that surprised me at
the moment, but that I realized later was quite appropriate to
their situation: "Ain't Gonna Study War No More."
crew sailed to England on the Queen Mary. That elegant
passenger liner had been converted into a troop ship. There were
16,000 men aboard, and 4,000 of them were black. The whites had
quarters on deck and just below deck. The blacks were housed
separately, deep in the hold of the ship, around the engine
room, in the darkest, dirtiest sections. Meals were taken in
four shifts (except for the officers, who ate in prewar Queen
Mary style in a chandeliered ballroom--the war was not being
fought to disturb class privilege), and the blacks had to wait
until three shifts of whites had finished eating.
home front, racial discrimination in employment continued, and
it was not until A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of
Sleeping Car Porters, a union of black workers, threatened to
organize a march on Washington during the war and embarrass the
Roosevelt administration before the world that the president
signed an order setting up a Fair Employment Practices
Commission. But its orders were not enforced and job
discrimination continued. A spokesman for a West Coast aviation
plant said, "The Negro will be considered only as janitors and
in other similar capacities.... Regardless of their training as
aircraft workers, we will not employ them."
no organized black opposition to the war, but there were many
signs of bitterness at the hypocrisy of a war against fascism
that did nothing about American racism. One black journalist
wrote: "The Negro...is angry, resentful, and utterly apathetic
about the war. 'Fight for what?' he is asking. 'This war doesn't
mean a thing to me. If we win I lose, so what?'"
at a black college told his teacher: "The Army jim-crows us. The
Navy lets us serve only as messmen. The Red Cross refuses our
blood. Employers and labor unions shut us out. Lynchings
continue. We are disenfranchised, jim-crowed, spat upon. What
more could Hitler do than that?" That student's statement was
repeated by Walter White, a leader of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to an audience of
several thousand black people in the Midwest, expecting that
they would disapprove. Instead, as he recalled, "To my surprise
and dismay the audience burst into such applause that it took me
some thirty or forty seconds to quiet it."
January 1943, there appeared in a Negro newspaper a "Draftee's
I go to war:
To fight, to die.
Tell me, what for?
Dear Lord, I'll fight,
I do not fear,
Germans or Japs
My fears are here
little-known incident of World War II, two transport ships being
loaded with ammunition by U.S. sailors at the Port Chicago naval
base in California suddenly blew up on the night of July 17,
1944. It was an enormous explosion, and its glare could be seen
in San Francisco, thirty-five miles away. More than 300 sailors
were killed, two-thirds of them black, because blacks were given
the hard jobs of ammunition loaders. "It was the worst home
front disaster of World War II," historian Robert Allen writes
in his book The Port Chicago Mutiny.
weeks later 328 of the survivors were asked to load ammunition
again; 258 of them refused, citing unsafe conditions. They were
immediately jailed. Fifty of them were then court-martialed on a
charge of mutiny, and received sentences ranging from eight to
fifteen years imprisonment. It took a massive campaign by the
NAACP and its counsel, Thurgood Marshall, to get the sentences
Japanese who lived on the West Coast of the United States, it
quickly became clear that the war against Hitler was not
accompanied by a spirit of racial equality. After the attack by
Japan on Pearl Harbor, anger rose against all people of Japanese
ancestry. One Congressman said, "I'm for catching every Japanese
in America, Alaska and Hawaii now and putting them in
concentration camps.... Damn them! Let's get rid of them now!"
grew. Roosevelt, persuaded by racists in the military that the
Japanese on the West Coast constituted a threat to the security
of the country, signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942.
This empowered the army, without warrants or indictments or
hearings, to arrest every Japanese-American on the West
Coast--110,000 men, women and children--to take them from their
homes, to transport them to camps far in the interior, and to
keep them there under prison conditions.
Three-fourths of the Japanese so removed from their homes were
Nisei--children born in the United States of Japanese parents
and, therefore American citizens. The other fourth--the Issei,
born in Japan--were barred by law from becoming citizens. In
1944 the United States Supreme Court upheld the forced
evacuation on the grounds of military necessity.
uncovered in the 1980s by legal historian Peter Irons showed
that the army falsified material in its brief to the Supreme
Court. When Congress in 1983 was considering financial
compensation to the Japanese who had been removed from their
homes and lost their possessions during the war, John J. McCloy
wrote an article in The New York Times opposing such
compensation, defending the action as necessary. As Peter Irons
discovered in his research, it was McCloy, then assistant
secretary of war, who had ordered the deletion of a critical
footnote in the Justice Department brief to the Supreme Court, a
footnote that cast great doubt on the army's assertions that the
Japanese living on the West Coast were a threat to American
Weglyn was a young girl when her family experienced evacuation
and detention. She tells in her book Years of Infamy of bungling
in the evacuation; of misery, confusion, and anger; but also of
Japanese-American dignity and of fighting back. There were
strikes, petitions, mass meetings, refusals to sign loyalty
oaths, and riots against the camp authorities.
few Americans protested publicly. The press often helped to feed
racism. Reporting the bloody battle of Iwo Jima in the Pacific,
Time magazine said, "The ordinary unreasoning Jap is ignorant.
Perhaps he is human. Nothing indicates it."
1970s, Peter Ota, then fifty-seven, was interviewed by Studs
Terkel. His parents had come from Japan in 1904, and became
respected members of the Los Angeles community. Ota was born in
the United States. He remembered what had happened in the war:
evening of December 7, 1941, my father was at a wedding. He
was dressed in a tuxedo. When the reception was over, the
FBI agents were waiting. They rounded up at least a dozen
wedding guests and took'em to county jail.
few days we didn't know what happened. We heard nothing.
When we found out, my mother, my sister and myself went to
jail.. When my father walked through the door my mother was
so humiliated.... She cried. He was in prisoner's clothing,
with a denim jacket and a number on the back. The shame and
humiliation just broke her down.... Right after that day she
got very ill and contracted tuberculosis. She had to be sent
to a sanitarium.... She was there till she died....
father was transferred to Missoula, Montana. We got letters
from him--censored, of course.... It was just my sister and
myself I was fifteen, she was twelve.... School in camp was
a joke.... One of our basic subjects was American history.
They talked about freedom all the time. (Laughs.)
England there was similar hysteria. People with German-sounding
names were picked up and interned. In the panic, a number of
Jewish refugees who had German names were arrested and thrown
into the same camps. There were thousands of Italians who were
living in England, and when Italy entered World War II in June
of 1940, Winston Churchill gave the order: "Collar the lot."
Italians were picked up and interned, the windows of Italian
shops and restaurants were smashed by patriotic mobs. A British
ship carrying Italian internees to Canada was sunk by a German
submarine and everyone drowned.
supposed to be a war for freedom. But in the United States, when
Trotskyists and members of the Socialist Workers Party spoke out
in criticism of the war, eighteen of them were prosecuted in
1943 in Minneapolis. The Smith Act, passed in 1940, extended the
anti-freespeech provisions of the World War I Espionage Act to
peacetime. It prohibited joining any group or publishing any
material that advocated revolution or that might lead to refusal
of military service. The Trotskyists were sentenced to prison
terms, and the Supreme Court refused to review their case.
were made during the war, and wealth was concentrated in fewer
and fewer hands. By 1941 three-fourths of the value of military
contracts were handled by fifty-six large corporations. Pressure
was put on the labor unions to pledge they would not strike. But
they saw their wages frozen, and profits of corporations rising,
and so strikes went on. There were 14,000 strikes during the
war, involving over 6 million workers, more than in any
comparable period in American history.
insight into what great profits were made during the war came
years later, when the mulitmillionaire John McCone was nominated
by President John F. Kennedy to head the CIA. The Senate Armed
Services Committee, considering the nomination, was informed
that in World War II, McCone and associates in a shipbuilding
company had made $44 million on an investment of $100,000.
Reacting indignantly to criticism of McCone, one of his
supporters on the Senate committee asked him:
Sen. Symington: Now, it is still legal in America, if
not to make a profit, at least to try to make a profit, is
McCone: That is my understanding.
Catton, a writer and historian working in Washington during the
war, commented bitingly on the retention of wealth and power in
the same hands, despite a war that seemed to promise a new world
of social reform. He wrote:
were committed to a defeat of the Axis but to nothing
else.... It was solemnly decided that the war effort must
not be used to bring about social or economic reform and to
him that hath shall be given....
through it all...the people were not trusted with the facts
or relied on to display that intelligence, sanity, and
innate decency of spirit, upon which democracy...finally
rests. In a very real sense, our government spent the war
years looking desperately for some safe middle ground
between Hitler and Abraham Lincoln.
Dresden and Hiroshima
becomes difficult to sustain the claim that a war is just when
both sides commit atrocities, unless one wants to argue that
their atrocities are worse than ours. True, nothing done by the
Allied Powers in World War II matches in utter viciousness the
deliberate gassing, shooting, and burning of six million Jews
and four million others by the Nazis. The deaths caused by the
Allies were less, but still so massive as to throw doubt on the
justice of a war that includes such acts.
the war, various world leaders condemned the indiscriminate
bombing of city populations. Italy had bombed civilians in
Ethiopia; Japan, in China; Germany and Italy, in the Spanish
Civil War. Germany had dropped bombs on Rotterdam in Holland, on
Coventry in England and other places. Roosevelt described these
bombings as "inhuman barbarism that has profoundly shocked the
conscience of humanity."
soon, the United States and Britain were doing the same thing
and on a far larger scale. When the Allied leaders met at
Casablanca in January 1943, they agreed on massive air attacks
to achieve "the destruction and dislocation of the German
military, industrial and economic system and the undermining of
the morale of the German people to the point where their
capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened." Churchill
and his advisers had decided that bombing working-class
districts of German cities would accomplish just that, "the
undermining of the morale of the German people."
saturation bombing of the German cities began. There were raids
of a thousand planes on Cologne, Essen, Frankfurt, and Hamburg.
British flew at night and did "area bombing" with no pretense of
aiming at specific military targets.
Americans flew in the daytime, pretending to precision, but
bombing from high altitudes made that impossible. When I was
doing my practice bombing in Deming, New Mexico, before going
overseas, our egos were built up by having us fly at 4,000 feet
and drop a bomb within twenty feet of the target. But at 11,000
feet, we were more likely to be 200 feet away. And when we flew
combat missions, we did it from 30,000 feet, and might miss by a
quarter of a mile. Hardly "precision bombing."
huge self-deception. We had been angered when the Germans bombed
cities and killed several hundred or a thousand people. But now
the British and Americans were killing tens of thousands in a
single air strike. Michael Sherry, in his study of aerial
bombing, notes that "so few in the air force asked questions."
Sherry says there was no dear thinking about the effects of the
bombing. Some generals objected, but were overruled by
civilians. The technology crowded out moral considerations. Once
the planes existed, targets had to be found.
terror bombing, and the German city of Dresden was the extreme
example. (The city and the event are immortalized in fiction by
Kurt Vonnegut's comic, bitter novel, Slaughterhouse Five.) It
was February, 1945, the Red Army was eighty miles to the east
and it was clear that Germany was on the way to defeat. In one
day and one night of bombing, by American and British planes,
the tremendous heat generated by the bombs created a vacuum, and
an enormous firestorm swept the city, which was full of refugees
at the time, increasing the population to a million. More than
100,000 people died.
British pilot of a Lancaster bomber recalled, "There was a sea
of fire covering in my estimation some forty square miles. We
were so aghast at the awesome blaze that although alone over the
city, we flew around in a stand-off position for many minutes
before turning for home, quite subdued by our imagination of the
horror that must be below."
incident remembered by survivors is that on the afternoon of
February 14, 1945, American fighter planes machine-gunned
clusters of refugees on the banks of the Elbe. A German woman
told of this years later: "We ran along the Elbe stepping over
Churchill, who seemed to have no moral qualms about his policy
of indiscriminate bombing, described the annihilation of Dresden
in his wartime memoirs with a simple statement: "We made a heavy
raid in the latter month on Dresden, then a centre of
communication of Germany's Eastern Front."
point in the war Churchill ordered thousands of anthrax bombs
from a plant that was secretly producing them in the United
States. His chief science adviser, Lord Cherwell, had informed
him in February 1944: "Any animal breathing in minute quantities
of these N (anthrax) spores is extremely likely to die suddenly
but peacefully within the week. There is no known cure and no
effective prophylaxis. There is little doubt that it is equally
lethal to human beings." He told Churchill that a half dozen
bombers could carry enough four-pound anthrax bombs to kill
everyone within a square mile. However, production delays got in
the way of this plan.
Richard Burton once wrote an article for The New York Times
about his experience playing the role of Winston Churchill in a
course of preparing myself...I realized afresh that I hate
Churchill and all of his kind. I hate them virulently. They
have stalked down the corridors of endless power all through
history.... What man of sanity would say on hearing of the
atrocities committed by the Japanese against British and
Anzac prisoners of war, "We shall wipe them out, everyone of
them, men, women, and children. There shall not be a
Japanese left on the face of the earth"? Such simple-minded
cravings for revenge leave me with a horrified but reluctant
awe for such single-minded and merciless ferocity.
Burton's statement appeared in the "Arts and Leisure" section of
The New York Times, he was banned from future BBC productions.
The supervisor of drama productions for BBC said, "As far as I
am concerned, he will never work for us again.. Burton acted in
an unprofessional way."
that however moral is the cause that initiates a war (in the
minds of the public, in the mouths of the politicians), it is in
the nature of war to corrupt that morality until the rule
becomes "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," and soon it is
not a matter of equivalence, but indiscriminate revenge.
policy of saturation bombing became even more brutal when B29s,
with carried twice the bombload as the planes we flew in Europe,
attacked Japanese cities with incendiaries, turning them into
raid on Tokyo, after midnight on March 10, 1945, 300 B29s left
the city in flames, fanned by a strong northwest wind. The fires
could be seen by pilots 150 miles out in the Pacific Ocean. A
million people were left homeless. It is estimated that 100,000
people died that night. Many of them attempting to escape leaped
into the Sumida River and drowned. A Japanese novelist who was
twelve years old at the time, described the scene years later:
"The fire was like a living thing. It ran, just like a creature
time the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945)
and another on Nagasaki (three days later), the moral line had
been crossed psychologically by the massive bombings in Europe
and by the fire bombings of Tokyo and other cities.
on Hiroshima left perhaps 140,000 dead; the one on Nagasaki,
70,000 dead. Another 130,000 died in the next five years.
Hundreds of thousands of others were left radiated and maimed.
These numbers are based on the most detailed report that exists
on the effects of the bombings; it was compiled by thirty-four
Japanese specialists and was published in 1981.
deception and self-deception that accompanied these atrocities
was remarkable. Truman told the public, "The world will note
that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military
base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid,
insofar as possible, the killing of civilians."
possibility that American prisoners of war would be killed in
these bombings did not have any effect on the plans. On July 31,
nine days before Nagasaki was bombed, the headquarters of the
U.S. Army Strategic Air Forces on Guam (the take-off airfield
for the atomic bombings) sent a message to the War Department:
Reports prisoner of war sources not verified by photo give
location of Allied prisoner-of-war camp, one mile north of
center of city of Nagasaki. Does this influence the choice
of this target for initial Centerboard operation? Request
came, "Targets previously assigned for Centerboard remain
terrible momentum of war continued even after the bombings of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The end of the war was a few days away,
yet B29s continued their missions. On August 14, five days after
the Nagasaki bombing and the day before the actual acceptance of
surrender terms, 449 B29s went out from the Marianas for a
daylight strike and 372 more went out that night. Altogether,
more than 1,000 planes were sent to bomb Japanese cities. There
were no American losses. The last plane had not yet returned
when Truman announced the Japanese had surrendered.
writer Oda Makoto describes that August 14 in Osaka, where he
lived. He was a boy. He went out into the streets and found in
the midst of the corpses American leaflets written in Japanese,
which had been dropped with the bombs: Your government has
surrendered; the war is over."
American public, already conditioned to massive bombing,
accepted the atomic bombings with equanimity, indeed with joy. I
remember my own reaction. When the war ended in Europe, my crew
flew our plane back to the United States. We were given a
thirty-day furlough and then had to report for duty to be sent
to Japan to continue bombing. My wife and I decided to spend
that time in the countryside. Waiting for the bus to take us, I
picked up the morning newspaper, August 7, 1945. The headline
was "Atomic Bomb Dropped on Hiroshima." My immediate reaction
was elation: "The war will end. I won't have to go to the
I had no
idea what the explosion of the atomic bomb had done to the men,
women, and children of Hiroshima. It was abstract and distant,
as were the deaths of the people from the bombs I had dropped in
Europe from a height of six miles; I was unable to see anything
below, there was no visible blood, and there were no audible
screams. And I knew nothing of the imminence of a Japanese
surrender. It was only later when I read John Hersey's
Hiroshima, when I read the testimony of Japanese survivors, and
when I studied the history of the decision to drop the bomb that
I was outraged by what had been done.
that once an initial judgment has been made that a war is just,
there is a tendency to stop thinking, to assume then that
everything done on behalf of victory is morally acceptable. I
had myself participated in the bombing of cities, without even
considering whether there was any relationship between what I
was doing and the elimination of fascism in the world. Thus a
war that apparently begins with a "good" cause--stopping
aggression, helping victims, or punishing brutality--ends with
its own aggression, creates more victims than before, and brings
out more brutality than before, on both sides. The Holocaust, a
plan made and executed in the ferocious atmosphere of war, and
the saturation bombings, also created in the frenzy of war, are
evidence of this.
cause in World War II was the defeat of fascism. And, in fact,
it ended with that defeat: the corpse of Mussolini hanging in
the public square in Milan; Hitler burned to death in his
underground bunker; Tojo, captured and sentenced to death by an
international tribunal. But forty million people were dead, and
the elements of fascism--militarism, racism, imperialism,
dictatorship, ferocious nationalism, and war--were still at
large in the postwar world.
those forty million were my closest Air Force friends, Joe Perry
and Ed Plotkin. We had suffered through basic training and rode
horses and flew Piper Cubs in Burlington, Vermont, and played
basketball at Santa Ana before going our own ways to different
combat zones. Both were killed in the final weeks of the war.
For years afterward, they appeared in my dreams. In my waking
hours, the question grew: What did they really die for?
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.
machines of the Axis powers were destroyed, but the Soviet Union
and the United States were building military machines greater
than the world had ever seen, piling up frightful numbers of
nuclear weapons, soon equivalent to a million Hiroshima-type
bombs. They were preparing for a war to keep the peace, they
said (this had also been said before World War I) but those
preparations were such that if war took place (by accident? by
miscalculation?) it would make the Holocaust look puny.
aggression was over but wars continued, which the superpowers
either initiated or fed with military aid or observed without
attempting to halt them. Two million people died in Korea; two
to five million in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; one million in
Indonesia; perhaps two million in the Nigerian civil war; one
million in the Iran-Iraq War; and many more in Latin America,
Africa, and the Middle East. It is estimated that, in the forty
years after 1945, there were 150 wars, with twenty million
victorious and morally righteous superpowers stood by in the
postwar world while millions--more than had died in Hitler's
Holocaust--starved to death. They made gestures, but allowed
national ambitions and interpower rivalries to stand in the way
of saving the hungry. A United Nations official reported, with
great bitterness that
pursuit of political objectives in the Nigerian Civil War, a
number of great and small nations, including Britain and the
United States, worked to prevent supplies of food and
medicine from reaching the starving children of rebel
in the obvious rightness of a crusade to rid the world of
fascism, most people supported or participated in that crusade,
to the point of risking their lives. But there were skeptics,
especially among the nonwhite peoples of the world--blacks in
the United States and the colonized millions of the British
Empire (Gandhi withheld his support).
extraordinary black writer Zora Neale Hurston wrote her memoir,
Dust Tracks on a Road, at the start of World War II. Just before
it was to come out, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and her
publisher, Lippincott, removed a section of the book in which
she wrote bitterly about the "democracies" of the West and their
hypocrisy. She said:
around me, bitter tears are being shed over the fate of
Holland, Belgium, France and England. I must confess to
being a little dry around the eyes. I hear people shaking
with shudders at the thought of Germany collecting taxes in
Holland. I have not heard a word against Holland collecting
one twelfth of poor people's wages in Asia. Hitler's crime
is that he is actually doing a thing like that to his own
see it, the doctrines of democracy deal with the aspirations
of men's souls, but the application deals with things. One
hand in somebody else's pocket and one on your gun, and you
are highly civilized.... Desire enough for your own use
only, and you are a heathen. Civilized people have things to
show to their neighbors.
editor at Lippincott wrote on her manuscript, "Suggest
eliminating international opinions as irrelevant to
autobiography." Only when the book was reissued in 1984 did the
censored passages appear.
in a letter she wrote to a journalist friend in 1946, showed her
indignation at the hypocrisy that accompanied the war:
amazed at the complacency of Negro press and public. Truman
is a monster. I can think of him as nothing else but the
Butcher of Asia. Of his grin of triumph on giving the order
to drop the Atom bombs on Japan. Of his maintaining troops
in China who are shooting the starving Chinese for stealing
a handful of food.
white writers were resistant to the fanaticism of war. After it
was over, Joseph Heller wrote his biting, brilliant satire
Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five. In the
1957 film Bridge on the River Kwai, the Japanese military is
obsessed with building a bridge, and the British are obsessed
with destroying it. At the end it is blown up and a British
lieutenant, barely surviving, looks around at the river strewn
with corpses and mutters: "Madness. Madness."
were pacifists in the United States who went to prison rather
than participate in World War II. There were 350,000 draft
evaders in the United States. Six thousand men went to prison as
conscientious objectors; one out of every six inmates in U.S.
federal prisons was a conscientious objector to the war.
general mood in the United States was support. Liberals,
conservatives, and Communists agreed that it was a just war.
Only a few voices were raised publicly in Europe and the United
States to question the motives of the participants, the means by
which the war was being conducted, and the ends that would be
achieved. Very few tried to stand back from the battle and take
a long view. One was the French worker-philosopher Simone Weil.
Early in 1945 she wrote in a new magazine called Politics:
Whether the mask is labeled Fascism, Democracy, or
Dictatorship or the Proletariat, our great adversary remains
the Apparatus--the bureaucracy, the police, the military....
No matter what the circumstances, the worst betrayal will
always be to subordinate ourselves to this Apparatus, and to
trample underfoot, in its service, all human values in
ourselves and in others.
editor of Politics was an extraordinary American intellectual
named Dwight MacDonald, who with his wife, Nancy, produced the
magazine as an outlet for unorthodox points of view. After the
bombing of Hiroshima, MacDonald refused to join in the general
jubilation. He wrote with a fury:
CONCEPTS "WAR" AND "PROGRESS" ARE NOW OBSOLETE...THE
FUTILITY OF MODERN WARFARE SHOULD NOW BE CLEAR. Must we not
now conclude, with Simone Weil, that the technical aspect of
war today is the evil, regardless of political factors? Can
one imagine that the atomic bomb could ever be used "in a
was the alternative to war, with Germany on the march in Europe,
Japan on its rampage through Asia, and Italy looking for empire?
This is the toughest possible question. Once the history of an
epoch has run its course, it is very difficult to imagine an
alternate set of events, to imagine that some act or acts might
set in motion a whole new train of circumstances, leading in a
have been possible to trade time and territory for human life?
Was there an alternative preferable to using the most modern
weapons of destruction for mass annihilation? Can we try to
imagine instead of a six-year war a ten-year or twenty-year
period of resistance; of guerrilla warfare, strikes, and
non-cooperation; of underground movements, sabotage, and
paralysis of vital communication and transportation; and of
clandestine propaganda for the organization of a larger and
the midst of war, some nations occupied by the Nazis were able
to resist: the Danes, the Norweigians, and the Bulgarians
refused to give up their Jews. Gene Sharp, on the basis of his
study of resistance movements in World War II, writes:
the second World War--in such occupied countries as the
Netherlands, Norway and Denmark--patriots resisted their
Nazi overlords and internal puppets by such weapons as
underground newspapers, labor slowdowns, general strikes,
refusal of collaboration, special boycotts of German troops
and quislings, and non-cooperation with fascist controls and
efforts to restructure their societies' institutions.
warfare is more selective, its violence more limited and more
discriminate, than conventional war. It is less centralized and
more democratic by nature, requiring the commitment, the
initiative, and the cooperation of ordinary people who do not
need to be conscripted, but who are motivated by their desire
for freedom and justice.
is full of instances of successful resistance (although we are
not informed very much about this) without violence and against
tyranny, by people using strikes, boycotts, propaganda, and a
dozen different ingenious forms of struggle. Gene Sharp, in his
book The Politics of Non-violent Action, records hundreds of
instances and dozens of methods of action.
end of World War II, we have seen dictatorships overthrown by
mass movements that mobilized so much popular opposition that
the tyrant finally had to flee in Iran, in Nicaragua, in the
Philippines, and in Haiti. Granted, the Nazi machine was
formidable, efficient, and ruthless. But there are limits to
conquest. A point is reached where the conqueror has swallowed
too much territory, has to control too many people. Great
empires have fallen when it was thought they would last forever.
seen, in the Eighties, mass movements of protest arise in the
tightly controlled Communist countries of Eastern Europe,
forcing dramatic changes in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland,
Bulgaria, Rumania, and East Germany. The Spanish people, having
lost a million lives in their civil war, waited out Franco. He
died, as all men do, and the dictatorship was over. For
Portugal, the resistance in its outlying African Empire weakened
control; corruption grew and the long dictatorship of Salazar
was overthrown--without a bloodbath.
a fable written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht that goes
roughly like this: A man living alone answers a knock at the
door. When he opens it, he sees in the doorway the powerful
body, the cruel face, of The Tyrant. The Tyrant asks, "Will you
submit?" The man does not reply. He steps aside. The Tyrant
enters and establishes himself in the man's house. The man
serves him for years. Then The Tyrant becomes sick from food
poisoning. He dies. The man wraps the body, opens the door, gets
rids of the body, comes back to his house, closes the door
behind him, and says, firmly, "No."
is not the only form of power. Sometimes it is the least
effective. Always it is the most vicious, for the perpetrator as
well as for the victim. And it is corrupting.
Immediately after the war, Albert Camus, the great French writer
who fought in the underground against the Nazis, wrote in
Combat, the daily newspaper of the French Resistance. In his
essay called "Neither Victims Nor Executioners," he considered
the tens of millions of dead caused by the war and asked that
the world reconsider fanaticism and violence:
ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to
reflect on murder and to make a choice.... Over the expanse
of five continents throughout the coming years an endless
struggle is going to be pursued between violence and
friendly persuasion, a struggle in which, granted, the
former has a thousand times the chances of success than has
the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his
hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face
of circumstances is a coward. And henceforth, the only
honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable
gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions.
alternative scenarios we can imagine to replace World War II and
its mountain of corpses, it really doesn't matter any more. That
was is over. The practical effect of declaring World War II just
is not for that war, but for the wars that follow. And that
effect has been a dangerous one, because the glow of rightness
that accompanied that war has been transferred, by false analogy
and emotional carryover, to other wars. To put it another way,
perhaps the worst consequence of World War II is that it kept
alive the idea that war could be just.
at World War II in perspective, looking at the world it created
and the terror that grips our century, should we not bury for
all time the idea of just war?
the participants in that "good war" had second thoughts. Former
GI Tommy Bridges, who after the war became a policeman in
Michigan, expressed his feelings to Studs Terkel:
a useless war, as every war is.... How gaddamn foolish it
is, the war. They's no war in the world that's worth
fighting for, I don't care where it is. They can't tell me
any different. Money, money is the thing that causes it all.
I wouldn't be a bit surprised that the people that start
wars and promote'em are the men that make the money, make
the ammunition, make the clothing and so forth. Just think
of the poor kids that are starvin' to death in Asia and so
forth that could be fed with how much you make one big shell
in the military ranks was Admiral Gene LaRocque, who also spoke
to Studs Terkel about the war:
been in thirteen battle engagements, had sunk a submarine,
and was the first man ashore in the landing at Roi. In that
four years, I thought, What a hell of a waste of a man's
life. I lost a lot of friends. I had the task of telling my
roommate's parents about our last days together. You lose
limbs, sight, part of your life--for what? Old men send
young men to war. Flag, banners, and patriotic sayings...
institutionalized militarism. This came out of World War
Two.... It gave us the National Security Council. It gave us
the CIA, that is able to spy on you and me this very moment.
For the first time in the history of man, a country has
divided up the world into military districts.... You could
argue World War Two had to be fought. Hitler had to be
stopped. Unfortunately, we translate it unchanged to the
it when they say, "He gave his life for his country." Nobody
gives their life for anything. We steal the lives of these
kids. We take it away from them. They don't die for the
honor and glory of their country. We kill them.
that we have started in this century with the notion of just
war, we don't have to keep it. Perhaps the change in our
thinking can be as dramatic, as clear, as that in the life of a
French general, whose obituary in 1986 was headed: "Gen. Jacques
Paris de Bollardiere, War Hero Who Became a Pacifist, Dead at
the age of 78."
served in the Free French Forces in Africa during World War II,
later parachuted into France and Holland to organize the
Resistance, and commanded an airborne unit in Indochina from
1946 to 1953. But in 1957, according to the obituary, he "caused
an uproar in the French army when he asked to be relieved of his
command in Algeria to protest the torture of Algerian rebels. In
1961 he began to speak out against militarism and nuclear
weapons. He created an organization called The Alternative
Movement for Non-Violence and in 1973 participated in a protest
expedition to France's South Pacific nuclear testing site.
remains to be seen how many people in our time will make that
journey from war to nonviolent action against war. It is the
great challenge or our time: How to achieve justice, with
struggle, but without war.
Reprinted (with permission of the author) from the book
Declarations of Independence, (...also found in
The Zinn Reader, and
Howard Zinn on War)
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