American Amnesia Interviews Howard Zinn
aA: We’re confronted today with alarming statistics from various groups connected with education, that essentially say we’re forgetting our past – that even the “titan” moments in history are slipping from the collective memory. What do you make of these stats?
hZ: We’re forgetting the past because neither our educational system nor our media inform us about the past. For instance, the history of the Vietnam War has been very much forgotten. I believe this amnesia is useful to those conducting our present foreign policy. It would be embarrassing if the story of the Vietnam War were told at a time when we are engaged in a war which has some of the same characteristics: government deception, the killing of civilians through bombing, scaring the American people (world communism in that case, terrorism in this one).
As for the history beyond Vietnam, that would certainly be damaging to present policy. Because if young people knew the long history of U.S. expansion, through violence and deception, they would not easily believe that we are in Iraq to promote democracy. They would know how many false claims were made in the past to justify aggressive acts. They would learn of the expansion across the continent, destroying Indian villages, committing massacres. They would learn of the deceptions surrounding the Spanish-American War, of the bloody war in the Philippines leading to the deaths of perhaps 600,000 Filipinos. They would learn of the many interventions in the Caribbean. And they would see that these interventions did not bring democracy, and they were connected to U.S. commercial interests.
aA:Do you see historical amnesia – that is, forgetting both recent and distant history (how many people even remember Kosovo, or even Afghanistan?) – as an ailment of the younger generation, or as a continuation of the “way we’ve always been”?
hZ: It’s not an ailment of the younger generation but of that part of the older generation that controls the media and the educational system. I find that young people are hungry for information, but their sources are too often the major television channels, which are controlled by a tiny group of wealthy corporations, with ties and interests close to the government.
aA: How do you feel about how the citation of historical events is portrayed in the media today – often as reflecting opinions of “conspiracy theorists,” on the margins of society? It seems as if the value of history in public discourse has been crippled somewhat.
hZ: When critics of U.S. policy point to crass motivations behind our policy: like corporate profit, and political advantage, this is often labeled “conspiracy theory.” There are indeed some untenable, improvable conspiracy theories floating around, but there are in fact real “conspiracies” — That is, groups of people who have certain plans which they don’t reveal to the public. For instance, the plans for the control of the oil in the Middle East are not made public, and instead they talk of overthrowing tyranny, instituting democracy, bringing freedom, etc.
aA: I’ve heard you speak unequivocally about the need to end wars, but one reader wanted to know if war could ever be classified as justifiable? He referred to Bertrand Russell, who opposed WWI & the Vietnam War but supported WWII. Do criteria exist for classifying one war as “just” and another as “unjust”?
hZ: It is possible to lay down criteria for “just” and “unjust” wars. The Catholic Church did it a long time ago. Michael Walzer did this in his book. But I think we are in a new situation, where the one criterion that is always there when principles of just war are laid out is “proportionality.” And the new technology of war, which inevitably kills enormous numbers of innocent people, means that war is always disproportionate to the ends it seeks. Also, the ends are not easily predictable. So you have a situation today where the means are inevitably horrible, and the ends, however desirable, are uncertain. In such a situation there can be no just war.
aA: You recently stated in The Progressive that while we’ve liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein, it hasn’t been liberated from us – echoing our 1898 liberation of Cuba from Spain. You’ve said that Iraq has contributed to a loss of legitimacy of the Bush administration. How ought our foreign policy in the Middle East to be changed, in your opinion?
hZ: The most basic change needed in U.S. policy is to withdraw our military forces from the region, and to put pressure on Israel, by threatening withdrawal of needed economic support, to get out of the occupied territories, evacuate the settlements, and come to a no-aggression pact with a Palestinian state.
aA: You frequently write that most useful type of punishment is education…that the public be enlightened about the misdeeds of those who have done wrong. David Kay has just stepped down from his position as inspector in Iraq, stating that there were none to be found. Bush rejected Kay’s statements, and expressed his confidence that they’ll be found eventually. Do you think that the lack of WMDs in Iraq is a problem incapable of being defused by the Bush administration? The sense from the White House now is that it doesn’t matter because Saddam Hussein “obviously posed a threat, violated the UN, mass burials have been found, etc.”
hZ: No matter how the Bush administration tries, and now matter how the public continues to be misinformed by the media (for instance, a recent survey by the University of Maryland shows that viewers of Fox news are the most misinformed about Iraq), I believe the truth is seeping through, and nothing the Bush administration does will stop that.
The idea that Saddam posed a threat goes against common sense — a country of 25 million people devastated by two wars and ten years of sanctions a threat to the U.S. which is half a world away with 280 million people and ten thousand nuclear weapons? It’s absurd, though a steady dose of propaganda can make people believe it. At least for a while. Eventually that common sense understanding will make its way through, as it did in Vietnam, where at first people believed that a communist Vietnam would be a threat to the United States.
As far as mass burial — yes, the victims of Saddam Hussein were in the tens of thousands. Those victims were the result of policies followed when the U.S. was backing Saddam Hussein, and sending him materials, even materials for biological weapons. The 500,000 children dead as a result of sanctions must be considered. If countries were to be invaded because of past crimes, the U.S. would be a logical target for invasion.
aA: You have frequently referenced your experience as a bombardier in WWII dropping napalm on German soldiers in France, and how you didn’t begin to question this (or the dropping of the atomic bomb) until after the war. What led you to reconsider your actions?
hZ: Reading John Hersey’s book on Hiroshima, seeing for the first time, really seeing and understanding, the human consequences of bombing, which I had done, like all other people in the Air Force, without thinking – just “following orders” and convinced we were the “good guys.” And then thinking back over my own bombing runs, especially my last mission over the French town of Royan, dropping napalm on a small city, and learning of the deliberate British-U.S. policy of bombing civilian populations in Germany. And beginning to realize that war, whatever immediate results there are (getting rid of Hitler, etc.) does not solve fundamental problems. Fifty million dead in World War Two, and is that the end of war and fascism? No, that continues for another fifty years.
aA: Since 9/11, America has become reacquainted with terms like “National Security,” which is certainly not a new political device. How do you think this debate of “defending America” can be expanded, since it appears that the left is “soft” while the only right is “tough.”
hZ: The word ‘defense’ needs to be looked at carefully. Is it defense to go halfway around the world to attack a country fifty times as weak as we are? And is our national security enhanced by military power or by taking care of the needs of our people?
aA: Is it within the structure of current American government to learn from mistakes?
hZ: No it won’t learn. It has too many interests that drive it to the same mistakes over and over again. Only citizens can learn and pressure the government to change its policies.
aA: Bill Maher recently stated the following on Larry King “If in 100 years from now, the Middle East is democratic and free, George Bush will be remembered as a hero.” There are also those (Niall Ferguson) that herald the value of imperialism by looking at India (that it is because of the empire that Indians can be educated enough to dissent and break the shackles, etc.) What do you make of these approaches?
hZ: Maher is clever but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If the Middle East is democratic and free, it will not be as a result of anything George Bush has done. History will see George Bush as a ruthless militarist. Ask informed and humane Indians what they think of Ferguson. Ask Arundhati Roy. As the victims of imperialism if they are grateful for the wonderful things the imperial powers did for them.
aA: A majority of intelligent, college graduates that I know either feel disenfranchised, or worse, apathetic towards the American system of electing officials. Many readers posed questions along this vein: Firstly – what changes do you think should be made to revamp the current voting system? Online voting?
hZ: We can reform the voting system by having proportional representation for congress, by doing away with the electoral college, by eliminating private financing of elections. But in the end, people with power and money will have disproportionate influence on elections. We would need a redistribution of wealth in the country, and a corresponding redistribution of power over the media, so that two wealthy parties no longer monopolize the political process.
aA: Do you think democracy took a blow as a result of the 2000 elections, and what can be done to begin rebuilding political involvement in the States?
hZ: Yes, democracy took a blow. Elections have never been free or democratic, but his was the most flagrant instance of a distorted election process. To rebuild political involvement we would have to give people genuine choices, with an opposition party, whether the democratic party or a third party, which could inspire people to get involved in the political process.
aA: You once said that the people who run the country have more of a sense of history than the masses of people. And because they have that sense, they keep that history of struggle and victory over the powerful out of the history books. Has this, and will this, in your opinion, always be the case?
hZ: Yes, that has been the case. It becomes less the case when more teachers and writers of history break out of conventional presentations. And history will always be distorted so long as politicians and textbook publishers, driven by political and profit motives, control the educational system.
aA: Is nationalism a healthy thing? How do you respond to those who feel your writings are too “radical” or “anti-American”? Put in another way – you don’t make efforts to write a “middle-of-the-road” type with “safe” history but one that shakes up the traditional approach to American history.
hZ: Nationalism is the great evil of modern times. My writings are certainly radical, but not anti-American unless you think criticism of government policy is anti-American, unless you define America as the government. But if America is the people, and the ideals that the country is supposed to stand for, then I am certainly more pro-American than George Bush.
aA: You’ve said that we’re at a critical point in history concerning our role in the world & the upcoming elections. Are you optimistic?
hZ: Guardedly, yes, depending on whether the good people of the U.S. and the world will continue and grow in their defiance of war.
Published at American Amnesia • February 8, 2004