Bomb After Bomb
By Howard Zinn
serves as the introduction to
Bomb After Bomb: a Violent Cartography, a
collection of drawings illustrating the history of
bombing by elin o'Hara slavick. o'Hara slavick is a
professor of art at the University of North
Carolina. More of her visionary work can be viewed
website. AC / JSC
12/17/07 "Counterpunch" -- - Perhaps
it is fitting that elin o'Hara slavick's extraordinary evocation
of bombings by the United States government be preceded by some
words from a bombardier who flew bombing missions for the U.S.
Air Corps in the second World War. At least one of her drawings
is based on a bombing I participated in near the very end of the
war--the destruction of the French seaside resort of Royan, on
the Atlantic coast.
As I look at her drawings, I become painfully aware of how
ignorant I was, when I dropped those bombs on France and on
cities in Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, of the effects of
those bombings on human beings. Not because she shows us bloody
corpses, amputated limbs, skin shredded by napalm. She does not
do that. But her drawings, in ways that I cannot comprehend,
compel me to envision such scenes.
I am stunned by the thought that we, the "civilized" nations,
have bombed cities and country sides and islands for a hundred
years. Yet, here in the United States, which is responsible for
most of that, the public, as was true of me, does not
understand--I mean really understand--what bombs do to people.
That failure of imagination, I believe, is critical to explaining
why we still have wars, why we accept bombing as a common
accompaniment to our foreign policies, without horror or
We in this country, unlike people in Europe or Japan or Africa
or the Middle East, or the Caribbean, have not had the
experience of being bombed. That is why, when the Twin Towers in
New York exploded on September 11, there was such shock and
disbelief. This turned quickly, under the impact of government
propaganda, into a callous approval of bombing Afghanistan, and
a failure to see that the corpses of Afghans were the
counterparts of those in Manhattan.
We might think that at least those individuals in the U.S. Air
Force who dropped bombs on civilian populations were aware of
what terror they were inflicting, but as one of those I can
testify that this is not so. Bombing from five miles high, I and
my fellow crew members could not see what was happening on the
ground. We could not hear screams or see blood, could not see
torn bodies, crushed limbs. Is it any wonder we see fliers going
out on mission after mission, apparently unmoved by thoughts of
what they have wrought.
It was not until after the war, when I read John Hersey's
interviews with Japanese survivors of Hiroshima, who described
what they had endured, that I became aware, in excruciating
detail, of what my bombs had done. I then looked further. I
learned of the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945, in which
perhaps a hundred thousand people died. I learned about the
bombing of Dresden, and the creation of a firestorm which cost
the lives of 80,000 to 100,000 residents of that city. I learned
of the bombing of Hamburg and Frankfurt and other cities in
We know now that perhaps 600,000 civilians--men, women, and
children-died in the bombings of Europe. And an equal number
died in the bombings of Japan. What could possibly justify such
carnage? Winning the war against Fascism? Yes, we "won". But
what did we win? Was it a new world? Had we done away with
Fascism in the world, with racism, with militarism, with hunger
and disease? Despite the noble words of the United Nations
charter about ending "the scourge of war" - had we done away
As horrifying as the loss of life was, the acceptance of
justifications for the killing of innocent people continued
after World War II. The United States bombed Korea, with at
least a million civilian deaths, and then Vietnam, Cambodia,
Laos, with another million or two million lives taken.
"Communism" was the justification. But what did those millions
of victims know of "communism" or "capitalism" or any of the
abstractions which cover up mass murder?
We have had enough experience, with the Nuremberg trials of the
Nazi leaders, with the bombings carried out by the Allies, with
the torture stories coming out of Iraq, to know that ordinary
people with ordinary consciences will allow their instincts for
decency to be overcome by the compulsion to obey authority. It
is time therefore, to educate the coming generation in
disobedience to authority, to help them understand that
institutions like governments and corporations are cold to
anything but self-interest, that the interests of powerful
entities run counter to the interests of most people.
This clash of interest between governments and citizens is
camouflaged by phrases that pretend that everyone in the nation
has a common interest, and so wars are waged and bombs dropped
for "national security", "national defense", "and national
Patriotism is defined as obedience to government, obscuring the
difference between the government and the people. Thus, soldiers
are led to believe that "we are fighting for our country" when
in fact they are fighting for the government - an artificial
entity different from the people of the country - and indeed are
following policies dangerous to its own people.
My own reflections on my experiences as a bombardier, and my
research on the wars of the United States have led me to certain
conclusions about war and the dropping of bombs that accompany
One: The means of waging war (demolition bombs, cluster bombs,
white phosphorus, nuclear weapons, napalm) have become so
horrendous in their effects on human beings that no political
end-- however laudable, the existence of no enemy -- however
vicious, can justify war.
Two: The horrors of the means are certain, the achievement of
the ends always uncertain.
Three: When you bomb a country ruled by a tyrant, you kill the
victims of the tyrant.
Four: War poisons the soul of everyone who engages in it, so
that the most ordinary of people become capable of terrible
Five:Since the ratio of civilian deaths to military deaths in
war has risen sharply with each subsequent war of the past
century (10% civilian deaths in World War I,50% in World War II,
70% in Vietnam, 80-90% in Afghanistan and Iraq) and since a
significant percentage of these civilians are children, then war
is inevitably a war against children.
Six: We cannot claim that there is a moral distinction between a
government which bombs and kills innocent people and a terrorist
organization which does the same. The argument is made that
deaths in the first case are accidental, while in the second
case they are deliberate. However, it does not matter that the
pilot dropping the bombs does not "intend" to kill innocent
people -- that he does so is inevitable, for it is the nature of
bombing to be indiscriminate. Even if the bombing equipment is
so sophisticated that the pilot can target a house, a vehicle,
there is never certainty about who is in the house or who is in
Seven: War, and the bombing that accompanies war, are the
ultimate terrorism, for governments can command means of
destruction on a far greater scale than any terrorist group.
These considerations lead me to conclude that if we care about
human life, about justice, about the equal right of all children
to exist, we must, in defiance of whatever we are told by those
in authority, pledge ourselves to oppose all wars.
If the drawings of elin o'Hara slavick and the words that
accompany them cause us to think about war, perhaps in ways we
never did before, they will have made a powerful contribution
towards a peaceful world.
Howard Zinn's most recent book is A Power Government's Cannot
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