Veterans Day


By Howard Zinn • November 13, 2002

Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day, because it was November 11, 1918, at 11 AM — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, that the first World War came to an end.

It would be good to remember a few things about that war as this country is about to embark on still another war. First, that you don’t “win” wars. We “won” World War I, but sowed the seeds of another world war. War is a quick fix, like crack. An exultant high — we won! — and soon you’re down again, and you need another fix, another war.

In World War I the German Kaiser was presented as the epitome of evil — a threat to the world, who must be eliminated for our safety. In truth, he was bad, but his danger to us was enormously exaggerated, as with Saddam Hussein. So the Allies defeated Germany, got rid of the Kaiser, and ten million men died on the battlefields.

We can get rid of Saddam Hussein. Iraq is a fifth-rate military power, with no Air Force to speak of, its army a remnant of what it was ten years ago, the country still in ruins, its infrastructure devastated by two wars, its people weakened by ten years of sanctions depriving people of food and hospitals of medicine, and causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. And the U.S. with its invincible Air Force, will win.

In the course of that, tens of thousands of Iraqis will die, many of them innocent civilians, others poor, miserable conscripts in the Iraqi army. We will be killing the victims of Saddam Hussein. Because of its high tech weaponry and overwhelming military superiority, America will lose few soldiers. But it will lose its soul.

World War I, presented to the public as a war for democracy, for freedom, was in fact a war fought by imperial powers (France, England, Russia) against an imperial rival, Germany. It led, not to the freedom of colonial peoples, but to a change in who dominated the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe.

Now, the war in Iraq is presented as a moral crusade to end the menace of “weapons of mass destruction,” the evidence for which is far from clear. The assumption that Saddam would use them and invite annihilation (since most weapons of mass destruction in the world are held by the United States) makes no sense.

As in the first World War, there are imperial motives at work, and the defeat of Saddam will lead to a change in who controls the precious oil reserves of Iraq. Deals will be cut with Russia, France and England to divide the booty. The talks are going on right now.

The first World war was sold to the American public as “the war to end all wars.” But twenty-one years later came World War II, in which fifty million people were killed. The United Nations was formed, as its Charter says, “to end the scourge of war which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.”

But no, it’s been war after war for the United States: Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Yugoslavia. All accompanied by claims that we were at war for some good cause, all resulting in the loss of human life, all demanding acceptance of the government’s reasons for war, most of which turned out to be lies. We should have learned from Vietnam that true patriotism does not mean marching off to war just because the government tells you to. Those 58,000 names on the Washington memorial should make that clear.

As a veteran of World War II, as a student of the history of our wars, and contemplating still another war, I suggest we keep certain things in mind. First, that we must be extremely skeptical of whatever government officials tell us about the reasons for going to war. Second, that what is certain about war is that large numbers of innocent people will die, including many children, and what is uncertain about war is that any good will come of it.

Finally, that when you go to war, you assume that the lives of people in another country are not as valuable as the lives of your own countrymen. If we really believe, as our most fundamental moral principles demand we believe, that the children in other countries have as much right to live as our children, then we must refuse the call to war. It is time, by public demand, by general outcry, to end “the scourge of war.”

The best thing we can do for Veterans Day is to pledge: “No more war veterans.”