After The War
by Howard Zinn*
The war against Iraq, the assault on its people, the occupation of
its cities, will come to an end, sooner or later. The process has
already begun. The first signs of mutiny are appearing in Congress.
The first editorials calling for withdrawal from Iraq are beginning
to appear in the press. The anti-war movement has been growing,
slowly but persistently, all over the country.
Public opinion polls now show the country decisively against the war
and the Bush Administration. The harsh realities have become visible.
The troops will have to come home.
And while we work with increased determination to make this happen,
should we not think beyond this war? Should we begin to think, even
before this shameful war is over, about ending our addiction to
massive violence and instead using the enormous wealth of our country
for human needs? That is, should we begin to speak about ending
war-not just this war or that war, but war itself? Perhaps the time
has come to bring an end to war, and turn the human race onto a path
of health and healing.
A group of internationally known figures, celebrated both for their
talent and their dedication to human rights (Gino Strada, Paul
Farmer, Kurt Vonnegut, Nadine Gordimer, Eduardo Galeano, and
others), will soon launch a worldwide campaign to enlist tens of
millions of people in a movement for the renunciation of war, hoping
to reach the point where governments, facing popular resistance,
will find it difficult or impossible to wage war.
There is a persistent argument against such a possibility, which I
have heard from people on all parts of the political spectrum: We
will never do away with war because it comes out of human nature.
The most compelling counter to that claim is in history: We don't
find people spontaneously rushing to make war on others. What we
find, rather, is that governments must make the most strenuous
efforts to mobilize populations for war. They must entice soldiers
with promises of money, education, must hold out to young people
whose chances in life look very poor that here is an opportunity to
attain respect and status. And if those enticements don't work,
governments must use coercion: They must conscript young people,
force them into military service, threaten them with prison if they
do not comply.
Furthermore, the government must persuade young people and their
families that though the soldier may die, though he or she may lose
arms or legs, or become blind, that it is all for a noble cause, for
God, for country.
When you look at the endless series of wars of this century you do
not find a public demanding war, but rather resisting it, until
citizens are bombarded with exhortations that appeal, not to a
killer instinct, but to a desire to do good, to spread democracy or
liberty or overthrow a tyrant.
Woodrow Wilson found a citizenry so reluctant to enter the First
World War that he had to pummel the nation with propaganda and
imprison dissenters in order to get the country to join the butchery
going on in Europe.
In the Second World War, there was indeed a strong moral imperative,
which still resonates among most people in this country and which
maintains the reputation of World War II as "the good war." There was
a need to defeat the monstrosity of fascism. It was that belief that
drove me to enlist in the Air Force and fly bombing missions over
Only after the war did I begin to question the purity of the moral
crusade. Dropping bombs from five miles high, I had seen no human
beings, heard no screams, seen no children dismembered. But now I had
to think about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the firebombings of Tokyo
and Dresden, the deaths of 600,000 civilians in Japan, and a similar
number in Germany.
I came to a conclusion about the psychology of myself and other
warriors: Once we decided, at the start, that our side was the good
side and the other side was evil, once we had made that simple and
simplistic calculation, we did not have to think anymore. Then we
could commit unspeakable crimes and it was all right.
I began to think about the motives of the Western powers and
Stalinist Russia and wondered if they cared as much about fascism as
about retaining their own empires, their own power, and if that was
why they had military priorities higher than bombing the rail lines
leading to Auschwitz. Six million Jews were killed in the death
camps (allowed to be killed?). Only 60,000 were saved by the war-1
A gunner on another crew, a reader of history with whom I had become
friends, said to me one day: "You know this is an imperialist war.
The fascists are evil. But our side is not much better." I could not
accept his statement at the time, but it stuck with me.
War, I decided, creates, insidiously, a common morality for all
sides. It poisons everyone who is engaged in it, however different
they are in many ways, turns them into killers and torturers, as we
are seeing now. It pretends to be concerned with toppling tyrants,
and may in fact do so, but the people it kills are the victims of
the tyrants. It appears to cleanse the world of evil, but that does
not last, because its very nature spawns more evil. Wars, like
violence in general, I concluded, is a drug. It gives a quick high,
the thrill of victory, but that wears off and then comes despair.
I acknowledge the possibility of humanitarian intervention to prevent
atrocities, as in Rwanda. But war, defined as the indiscriminate
killing of large numbers of people, must be resisted.
Whatever can be said about World War II, understanding its
complexity, the situations that followed-Korea, Vietnam-were so far
from the kind of threat that Germany and Japan had posed to the
world that those wars could be justified only by drawing on the glow
of "the good war." A hysteria about communism led to McCarthyism at
home and military interventions in Asia and Latin America-overt and
covert-justified by a "Soviet threat" that was exaggerated just
enough to mobilize the people for war.
Vietnam, however, proved to be a sobering experience, in which the
American public, over a period of several years, began to see through
the lies that had been told to justify all that bloodshed. The United
States was forced to withdraw from Vietnam, and the world didn't come
to an end. One half of one tiny country in Southeast Asia was now
joined to its communist other half, and 58,000 American lives and
millions of Vietnamese lives had been expended to prevent that. A
majority of Americans had come to oppose that war, which had provoked
the largest anti-war movement in the nation's history.
The war in Vietnam ended with a public fed up with war. I believe
that the American people, once the fog of propaganda had dissipated,
had come back to a more natural state. Public opinion polls showed
that people in the United States were opposed to send troops
anywhere in the world, for any reason.
The Establishment was alarmed. The government set out deliberately to
overcome what it called "the Vietnam syndrome." Opposition to
military interventions abroad was a sickness, to be cured. And so
they would wean the American public away from its unhealthy
attitude, by tighter control of information, by avoiding a draft,
and by engaging in short, swift wars over weak opponents (Grenada,
Panama, Iraq), which didn't give the public time to develop an anti-
I would argue that the end of the Vietnam War enabled the people of
the United States to shake the "war syndrome," a disease not natural
to the human body. But they could be infected once again, and
September 11 gave the government that opportunity. Terrorism became
the justification for war, but war is itself terrorism, breeding rage
and hate, as we are seeing now.
The war in Iraq has revealed the hypocrisy of the "war on terrorism."
And the government of the United States, indeed governments
everywhere, are becoming exposed as untrustworthy: that is, not to be
entrusted with the safety of human beings, or the safety of the
planet, or the guarding of its air, its water, its natural wealth, or
the curing of poverty and disease, or coping with the alarming growth
of natural disasters that plague so many of the six billion people on
I don't believe that our government will be able to do once more what
it did after Vietnam-prepare the population for still another plunge
into violence and dishonor. It seems to me that when the war in Iraq
ends, and the war syndrome heals, that there will be a great
opportunity to make that healing permanent.
My hope is that the memory of death and disgrace will be so intense
that the people of the United States will be able to listen to a
message that the rest of the world, sobered by wars without end, can
also understand: that war itself is the enemy of the human race.
Governments will resist this message. But their power is dependent on
the obedience of the citizenry. When that is withdrawn, governments
are helpless. We have seen this again and again in history.
The abolition of war has become not only desirable but absolutely
necessary if the planet is to be saved. It is an idea whose time has
*Howard Zinn is the co-author, with Anthony Arnove, of "Voices of a
People's History of the United States."