The late Howard Zinn was a WWII vet who made his post-war career as an historian, author and political activist. Zinn stated that he never intended to write books that went against the mainstream thought of American history, but he wasn’t able to keep to himself the uglier, but often- ignored realities of US history that he uncovered during his masters work. While many people call him “unpatriotic,” Zinn claims that his critiques of American society were done with the intent of bettering the nation he loved. While I don’t agree with all of the political conclusions to which he arrived, I do appreciate his bold naming of our nation’s addiction to war.
Zinn’s most popular book, and therefore most hated by those who want to ignore the ugly side of US history, is A People’s History of the United States. Honestly, that book put me in a negative funk, a foul pessimism from which I wasn’t able to recover until reading Rob Bell’s book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians. Bell took a similarly honest approach to US imperialism, while offering a Christ-centered hope that Zinn wasn’t able to offer.
But Zinn’s perspective does offer some hope in his challenge for the US to spend less money on national defense and more money on social programs. While I don’t agree Zinn’s belief that socialism would cure all ills, he does make some good points. And his position as a veteran, historian and voice for our nation’s powerless does put him in a unique position to call our nation to higher standard in relationship to military oppression and fiscal priorities.
With that said, check out Zinn’s quote from the intro to a book I just started, The Power of Nonviolence: Writings by Advocates of Peace from 2002.
“The images on television were heartbreaking. People on fire leaping to their deaths from a hundred stories up. People in panic and fear racing from the scene in clouds of dust and smoke. We thought that there must be thousands of human beings buried alive but soon dead under a mountain of debris. We imagined the terror among the passengers of the hijacked planes as they contemplated the crash, the fire, and the end.
Those scenes horrified and sickened me.
Then our political leaders came on television, and I was horrified and sickened again. They spoke of retaliation, of vengeance, of punishment.
‘We are at war,’ they said. And I thought, they have learned nothing, absolutely nothing, from the history of the twentieth century, from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war, a hundred years of terrorism and counter-terrorism, of violence met with violence in an unending cycle of stupidity.
We can all feel a terrible anger at whoever, in their insane idea that this would help their cause, killed thousands of innocent people. But what do we do with that anger? Do we react with panic, strike out violently and blindly just to show how tough we are? ‘We shall make no distinction,’ the President proclaimed, ‘between terrorists and countries that harbor terrorist.’ We bombed Afghanistan, and inevitably killed innocent people, because it is in the nature of bombing to be indiscriminate, to make ‘no distinction.’ Did we commit terrorist acts in order to ‘send a message’ to terrorists?
We have resonded that way before. It is the old way of thinking, the old way of acting, and it has never worked. Reagan bombed Libya, Bush made war on Iraq, and Clinton bombed Afghanistan and also a pharmaceutical plan in the Sudan, to ‘send a message’ to terrorists. And then comes this horror in New York and Washington. Isn’t it clear by now that sending a message to terrorists through violence doesn’t work, it only leads to more terrorism?
Haven’t we learned anything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Car bombs planted by Palestinians bring tanks and air attacks by the Israeli government. That has been going on for years. It doesn’t work, and innocent people die on both sides.
Yes, it is an old way of thinking, and we need new ways. We need to think about the resentment felt all over the world by people who have been the victims of American military action. In Vietnam, where we carried out terrorizing bombing attacks, using napalm and cluster bombs, on peasant villages. In Latin America, where we supported dictators and death squads in Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and other countries. In Iraq, where a million people have died as a result of our economic sanctions. And perhaps most important for understanding the current situation, in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, where three million Palestinians live under a cruel military occupation, while the United States government supplies Israel with high-tech weapons.
We need to imagine that the awful scenes of death and suffering in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania we witnessed on our television screens have been going on in other parts of the world for generations, and only now can we begin to know what people have gone through, often as a result of our policies. We need to understand how some of those people will go beyond quiet anger to acts of terrorism.
We need new ways of thinking. A $300 billion military budget has not given us security. American military bases all over the world, our warships on every ocean, have not given us security. Land mines and a ‘missile defense shield’ will not give us security. We need to rethink our position in the world. We need to stop sending weapons to countries that oppress other people or their own people. We need to be resolute in our decision that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children. War is terrorism, magnified a hundred times.
Our security can only come by using our national wealth, not for guns, plans, bombs, but for the health and welfare of our people – for free medical care for everyone, education and housing, guaranteed decent wages, and a clean environment for all. We cannot be secure by limiting our liberties, as some of our political leaders are demanding, but only be expanding them.
We should take our example not from military and political leaders shouting ‘retaliate’ and ‘war’ but from the doctors and nurses and medical students and fireman and policemen who have been saving lives in the midst of mayhem, whose first thoughts are not vengeance but compassion, not violence but healing.”
Great thoughts, but not original with Zinn. It reminds me a lot of a great quote from President Eisenhower, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children…. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. ... Is there no other way the world may live?"
Thankfully, God became flesh in the person of Jesus to model, teach, die and resurrect to show us a better way.