“This is an example of the banality of evil.”
Editor's Note: Today we remember our legendary columnist Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States and champion of pacifism, civil rights, and the voices of the marginalized. On this fifth anniversary of his death in January 27, 2010, we present a classic essay on nonviolence adapted from his speech on May 2, 2009, at The Progressive’s 100th anniversary conference.
I want to talk about three holy wars. They aren’t religious wars, but they’re the three wars in American history that are sacrosanct, that you can’t say anything bad about: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II.
Let’s look carefully at these three idealized, three romanticized wars.
It’s important to at least be willing to raise the possibility that you could criticize something that everybody has accepted as uncriticizable.
We’re supposed to be thinking people. We’re supposed to be able to question everything.
There are things that happen in the world that are bad, and you want to do something about them. You have a just cause. But our culture is so war prone that we immediately jump from “This is a good cause” to “This deserves a war.”
You need to be very, very comfortable in making that jump.
You might say it was a good cause to get Spain out of Cuba in 1898. Spain was oppressing Cuba. But did that necessarily mean we needed to go to war against Spain? We have to see what it produced. We got Spain out of oppressing Cuba and got ourselves into oppressing Cuba.
You might say that stopping North Korea from invading South Korea was a good idea. The North Koreans shouldn’t have done that. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t right. Does that mean we should have gone to war to stop it? Especially when you consider that two or three million Koreans died in that war? And what did the war accomplish? It started off with a dictatorship in South Korea and a dictatorship in North Korea. And it ended up, after two to three million dead, with a dictatorship in South Korea and a dictatorship in North Korea.
The American Revolution—independence from England—was a just cause. Why should the colonists here be oppressed by England? But therefore, did we have to go to the Revolutionary War?
I’d be very careful about rushing from one thing to another, from just cause to just war.
How many people died in the Revolutionary War?
Nobody ever knows exactly how many people die in wars, but it’s likely that 25,000 to 50,000 people died in this one. So let’s take the lower figure—25,000 people died out of a population of three million. That would be equivalent today to two and a half million people dying to get England off our backs.
You might consider that worth it, or you might not.
Canada is independent of England, isn’t it? Not a bad society. Canadians have good health care. They have a lot of things we don’t have. They didn’t fight a bloody revolutionary war. Why do we assume that we had to fight a bloody revolutionary war to get rid of England?
In the year before those famous shots were fired, farmers in Western Massachusetts had driven the British government out without firing a single shot. They had assembled by the thousands and thousands around courthouses and colonial offices and they had just taken over and they said goodbye to the British officials. It was a nonviolent revolution that took place. But then came Lexington and Concord, and the revolution became violent, and it was run not by the farmers but by the Founding Fathers. The farmers were rather poor; the Founding Fathers were rather rich.
Who actually gained from that victory over England? It’s very important to ask about any policy, and especially about war: Who gained what? And it’s very important to notice differences among the various parts of the population. That’s one thing we’re not accustomed to in this country because we don’t think in class terms. We think, “Oh, we all have the same interests.” For instance, we think that we all had the same interests in independence from England. We did not have all the same interests.
Do you think the Indians cared about independence from England? No, in fact, the Indians were unhappy that we won independence from England, because England had set a line—in the Proclamation of 1763—that said you couldn’t go westward into Indian territory. They didn’t do it because they loved the Indians but because they didn’t want trouble. When Britain was defeated in the Revolutionary War, that line was eliminated, and now the way was open for the colonists to move westward across the continent, which they did for the next 100 years, committing massacres and making sure that they destroyed Indian civilization.
Did blacks benefit from the American Revolution?
Slavery was there before. Slavery was there after. Not only that, we wrote slavery into the Constitution. We legitimized it.
What about class divisions?
Did ordinary white farmers have the same interest in the revolution as a John Hancock or Robert Morris or Madison or Jefferson or the slaveholders or the bondholders? Not really.
It was not all the common people getting together to fight against England. The founders had a very hard time assembling an army. They took poor guys and promised them land. They browbeat people and, oh yes, they inspired people with the Declaration of Independence. It’s always important, if you want people to go to war, to give them a fine document and have good words: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, when they wrote the Constitution, they were more concerned with the pursuit of property than the pursuit of happiness. You should take notice of these little things.
We were a class society from the beginning. America started off as a society of rich and poor, people with enormous grants of land and people with no land. And there were bread riots in Boston, and flour riots and rebellions all over the colonies, of poor against rich, of tenants breaking into jails to release people who were in prison for nonpayment of debt. There was class conflict. We try to pretend in this country that we’re all one happy family. We’re not.
Do you know that there were mutinies in the American Revolutionary Army by the privates against the officers? The officers were getting fine clothes and good food and high pay and the privates had no shoes and bad clothes and they weren’t getting paid. They mutinied. Thousands of them. So many in the Pennsylvania line that George Washington got worried, so he made compromises with them. But later when there was a smaller mutiny in the New Jersey line, not with thousands but with hundreds, Washington said execute the leaders, and they were executed by fellow mutineers on the order of their officers.
The American Revolution was not a simple affair of all of us against all of them.
When considering war you need to weigh the human cost against what you gain from war. When you think about the human cost, generally it’s an abstraction: 25,000 people died in the Revolutionary War; 600,000 people died in the Civil War; fifty million people died in World War II. But you have to look at that cost not as an abstraction, not as a statistic. You have to look at it as every human being who died, every human being who lost a limb, every human being who came out blind, and every human being who came out mentally damaged. You have to put all of that together when you’re assessing that side of the ledger: the cost of the war. Before you ask, “Was it worth it? Was it a just war?” you’ve got to get that side of the ledger right.
Now, the Civil War was an ugly, brutal war. The 600,000 people died is equivalent to five million today. Plus, there was amputation after amputation after amputation done in the field without anesthesia. The real human costs were enormous. Who gained?
In the Civil War, we learn about the North versus South, the Blue versus the Gray. But who in the North? Who in the South? What class divisions were there?
Poor white people were conscripted into a war that didn’t have much meaning for them. They were being drafted when the rich could get out of the war by paying $300. So there were draft riots in New York and other cities. There was class conflict in the North. There were some people in the North who got rich during the war. J. P. Morgan made a fortune. That’s what wars do: They make some people very rich. And it’s the poor who go to fight in the wars.
There was class conflict in the Confederacy, too. Most whites were not slaveowners. Maybe one out of six whites was a slaveowner. Poor white soldiers in the South were dying at a much higher rate than the soldiers of the North. As the mayhem went on, as the bloodshed magnified, their families back home were starving because the plantation owners were growing cotton instead of food. And so the wives and the daughters and the girlfriends and the sisters, they began to riot in Georgia and Alabama in protest against the fact that their sons and husbands were dying while the plantation owners were getting rich.
I mustn’t ignore the positive side of the Civil War. Yes, emancipation. Freeing the slaves. That’s no small matter. You can say maybe the 600,000 dead were worth it if you really freed four million black people and brought them into freedom. But they weren’t exactly brought into freedom. They were brought into semi-slavery. They were betrayed by the politicians and the financiers of the North. They were left without resources. They were left at the mercy of the same plantation owners who owned them as slaves and now they were serfs. They couldn’t move from one place to another. They were hemmed in by all sorts of restrictions, and many of them were put in jail on false charges. And vagrancy statutes were passed so that employers could pick up blacks off the street and force them to work in a kind of slave labor.
So to say that maybe it was OK that 600,000 people died because we ended slavery is not so simple.
Is it possible that slavery could have ended another way, without 600,000 people dead? That’s something we don’t think of. Just like we don’t think of, “Could we have won independence from England without a bloody war?” Remember, there were other countries in the Western Hemisphere that ended slavery without a bloody civil war.
I volunteered to be in World War II and flew bombing missions over Europe. I did it because it was the Good War, it was the right war, it was a just war. After I got out of the war, I began to go back over things and learn about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When Truman dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, I had just finished my missions in Europe, and was going to go to the Pacific for more missions. So when the war ended soon after Hiroshima, I thought, “Wow, that’s great!” I welcomed it. Did I really know what happened when that bomb was dropped on Hiroshima? Did I have any idea what that meant to those hundreds of thousands of people—men, women, and children? No, I did not. When I began to think about it, then I began to think about the people under my bombs. I never saw them. I was flying 30,000 feet above them.
I began to learn something about the reality of Dresden. And I began to learn that three months before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we sent planes over to firebomb Tokyo, and 100,000 people were killed in one night. Later, when I visited Japan and I visited Hiroshima, I met with survivors of Hiroshima—people without legs and without arms and blind and so on—I began to see what that war meant.
Well, you say, we defeated fascism. Did we, really? Fifty million people dead, and yes, you got rid of Hitler and the Japanese military machine and Mussolini. But did you get rid of fascism in the world? Did you get rid of militarism? Did you get rid of racism? Did you get rid of war? We’ve had war after war after war. What did those fifty million die for?
We’ve got to rethink this question of war and come to the conclusion that war cannot be accepted, no matter what. No matter what the reasons given, or the excuse: liberty, democracy; this, that. War is by definition the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for ends that are uncertain. Think about means and ends, and apply it to war. The means are horrible, certainly. The ends, uncertain. That alone should make you hesitate.
People always ask me, “Yeah, but what else were we to do about this, or that? Independence from England, slavery, Hitler?”
I agree, you had to do something about all these things. But you don’t have to do war.
Once a historical event has taken place—Hitler invades Czechoslovakia and Poland, for instance—it becomes very hard to imagine that you could have achieved a result some other way. When something is happening in history, it takes on a certain air of inevitability: This is the only way it could have happened. No.
We are smart in so many ways. Surely, we should be able to understand that in between war and passivity, there are a thousand possibilities.