Interviewed by Bill Moyers • PBS’ NOW With Bill Moyers • January 10, 2003
We’ve been talking to people on this program who take different positions about the impending war with Iraq. Tonight’s guest is opposed and argues his case in this new book, TERRORISM AND WAR.
The author is the historian and teacher Howard Zinn, who has lived a politically engaged life since he came home from the Air Force after World War II.
He grew up on the tough streets of Brooklyn where he worked as a teenager in the shipyards, earned his doctorate in history from Columbia university, and while teaching college became an activist in the civil rights movement and the opposition to the Vietnam War.
Among his many books is this one – A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, written from the point of view of men and women left out of the official records of the American epic. Since its publication in 1980 it’s become a touchstone of dissident thought in America.
Howard Zinn was in town the other day, and I talked to him about the United States, terrorism, and Iraq.
BILL MOYERS: As of now, do you think war with Iraq is imminent?
HOWARD ZINN: It feels imminent. It feels immanent simply because the Bush administration seems absolutely determined to have a war no matter what– no matter what the opposition is, no matter what the international community thinks. No matter how reluctant people in this country are. And I do believe there’s a lot of reluctance in this country about war.
BILL MOYERS: What are the real reasons, in your opinion, for why we’re going to war? I mean we know the stated reasons, weapons of mass destruction, all of that. Why do you think they are so eager to go to war?
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, I mean there’s no doubt– as you say there are stated reasons. None of those stated reasons make sense, you know? Saddam Hussein is a tyrant– well– we’ve tolerated tyrants– lots of them. We’ve put tyrants in power. You know, weapons of mass destruction, well we just had an example. Korea has more weapons of mass destruction than Saddam Hussein but we’re not making war on Korea. So, if– I think oil is one of the important factors. But I think that there are others. And one of them has to do with something psychological. That macho feeling that people in power have about the United States being the number one superpower and determined to show it.
BILL MOYERS: Is there any evidence they could present or any argument they could make that would give you second thoughts about your opposition to the war?
HOWARD ZINN: (LAUGHS) I can’t think of any. And I think there’s a fundamental reason why I can’t think of any. If we go to war, we will kill thousands, tens of thousands, we don’t know how many people. A hundred thousand? We will kill huge numbers of people. And who will we kill? We will kill the victims of Saddam Hussein. If we go to war against Iraq, we are killing the victims of the tyrant. That to me creates a moral equation which is intolerable.
BILL MOYERS: A moral equation?
HOWARD ZINN: I mean– I mean that one of the moral principals about war and about just war you know, is the issue of proportionality. And that is what harm do you do in the course of a war– in the furtherance of some end. Even presuming the end is good. The end, however moral it appears to be, is always uncertain. So, when you’re faced with a certain terrible means, and uncertain end, to me it is very clear you mustn’t go to war.
BILL MOYERS: This is the kind of war that the terrorists are fighting right now. I mean when they drove those airplane bombs into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they were striking innocent people for their own purposes.
HOWARD ZINN: Exactly. Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that’s what we’re about to do in Iraq?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, that’s right. I mean– there’s– it’s a– war is a form of terrorism. I know there are people who don’t like to equate– what was done– you know on September 11th, 2001, they don’t like to equate that with a war that the United States engaged in. Sure, they’re different. But they’re not different in the– in the fundamental principal that drives the terrorists and that is, they’re saying, we’re going to kill a lot of people but it will be worth it. We’re trying to do something. We’re trying to accomplish something. They– the terrorists are not killing people just for the sake of killing people, they have some end in mind. To show that the American empire is vulnerable or to make some point about American policy in the Middle East. But they have an end in mind. We are doing the same thing. I mean, as I say, the details are different, but we are willing to kill a lot of people for some political end that we have declared.
BILL MOYERS: And in this case, it’s ridding the world of a regime that President Bush says is part of the Axis of Evil.
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, well, you know– (LAUGHS) there are so many evil countries in the world. So, I don’t really believe him when he says we simply want to rid the world of an axis of evil. And also, there’s something else. There are too many places in the world that require attention because human beings are suffering. If we care about human beings, and presumably the reason we are going to depose Saddam Hussein is, oh, we care about the human beings in Iraq whom he has tyrannized. And of course, we should care about them. But, we have– drawn a line around this little country in the Middle East and said, “This is where all evil reposes.” And we are shunning our eyes to the deaths of millions and millions of people. Which is not a potential, which is not a potential like Iraq having a nuclear weapon. But which is a present, ongoing reality. And what is the United States doing about AIDS in Africa? It is giving a pittance to help the people in Africa while it is concentrating on this war in Iraq.
BILL MOYERS: If you were convinced that Saddam Hussein has or is about to get nuclear weapons, would you change your mind?
HOWARD ZINN: I wouldn’t change my mind about waging war. No. I’m not surprised at the thought that Saddam Hussein may be concealing his weaponry and so on. What is– ironic to me is that– we think that Saddam Hussein, who may possibly have a nuclear weapon, is such a threat as to require an immediate war. When– and here, what I’m going to say really comes from the CIA. And I don’t usually say things that come from the CIA.
BILL MOYERS: I don’t see you hanging around the cafeteria at the CIA.
HOWARD ZINN: No, no, they don’t confide in me, you see. But the– the CIA has said that the most likely use of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq would come if we waged war. And of course that makes sense. He is totally surrounded by enemies. He’s totally overwhelmed by American military power. The one time he is likely to use his weapons is if he is attacked and he is desperate. Now, that makes common sense.
BILL MOYERS: What would be your alternative to war? What would you do about– a despot like that who has brutalized his own people.
HOWARD ZINN: Yes. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Invaded his neighbors. Threatened Israel. What would you do about it?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, the United Nations, I think, had it right when the United Nations charter was adopted right after World War Two. And according to the United Nations charter– countries may not make war on other countries preventatively. You can make war on other countries, you know, if other countries are an immediate, immanent threat. If they are doing something.
BILL MOYERS: You could say that the terrorists declared war on the United States in 1979 when the Iranian extremists seized the American embassy and held hostages for over a year. Then, there was the attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed over– almost 300 American Marines. There were the bombings of the American embassy in Nairobi and Tanzania. There were Saddam Hussein’s effort to kill former President Bush in 1994 when he went to Kuwait. You could say that the terrorists have been carrying on a war against the United States for a long time now. And that they have been encouraged by our ineffectual responses to them, to believe that we’re paper tigers. And that George W. Bush is at least saying to them, “We’re no longer a paper tiger.”
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah. Well, you know, we didn’t always respond ineffectually. And we didn’t always respond– (LAUGHS) non-violently. President Clinton responded to the bombings of the embassies with bombings. With– you know, bombing the Sudan. Right? Bombing Afghanistan. He responded with bombings and-
BILL MOYERS: And hitting a pharmaceutical company instead of a terrorist nest.
HOWARD ZINN: Exactly. And the point is that– are terrorists going to be deterred– are terrorists going to be scared if we react violently? No. They love it. That’s what they dote on. They dote on violence. They dote on having more reasons to commit more terrorism. We solved the problem of the hostages in Iran by negotiations. You know? And– there are many situations where we engage in violence and in wars that could be solved by negotiations. There were people who said, you know, Curtis LaMay, Joint Chiefs of Staff. Let’s nuke the Soviet Union before they do it to us. You know? Well, it would have been a horrible scenario. It would have been tens of millions or 100 million people dead–
BILL MOYERS: So you’re saying that we could-
HOWARD ZINN: We waited– And under the surface of that tyranny, people developed an opposition to the regime, and the moment came when things changed.
BILL MOYERS: Do you take terrorism seriously? The threat of terrorism seriously?
HOWARD ZINN: I do take the threat of terrorism seriously. You cannot eliminate that threat or diminish that threat by bombing a country. By singling out Afghanistan and killing large numbers of people. That doesn’t do anything with terrorism.
BILL MOYERS: But Afghanistan is no longer a nest for terrorism?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, I’m not sure of that. You don’t know who and where there’s a nest of terrorism. The thing about nests for terrorism is they’re not easily located.
BILL MOYERS: But with all due respect-
HOWARD ZINN: Yes?
BILL MOYERS: If you were George W. Bush, you would– think after 9/11 that attacking the place from which the terrorists may well have come was self-defense.
HOWARD ZINN: Oh, I think he can persuade himself– you know, I think the people in Washington-
BILL MOYERS: We were attacked. So, the President– you know, you’re a student of the Constitution-it talks about the common defense there.
HOWARD ZINN: Oh, sure. The– we were attacked, but then the question is, who attacked us? If we could locate the people who attacked us and get them, grab them, find them. Okay, that’s self-defense. But if we are attacked and we don’t know who attacked us, and we just select a country from which we think the attackers may have sprung, and then just bomb that country, that is not defense. That is indiscriminate violence.
BILL MOYERS: But there was no doubt about where Bin Laden was.
HOWARD ZINN: Yes, but it’s like– you know, there’s no doubt that this murderer is hiding out in South Boston. So, let’s bomb South Boston. You know? Because he probably has even friends in South Boston who are hiding him out. Let’s bomb South Boston. We may kill 1000 people in South Boston, and by the way, we may not find the murderer. Will we call that defense? No. I don’t think so.
BILL MOYERS: Did you think when you were dropping bombs in Europe that you were defending the United States?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, actually-
BILL MOYERS: Or civilization?
HOWARD ZINN: Civilization. I probably did. I probably did. But that was a case of real defense.
BILL MOYERS: You dropped lethal weapons on military and civilian targets below you. What was going through your mind when you do something like that?
HOWARD ZINN: Remember this. When you’re bombing, you bomb from 30,000 feet. And six miles up, you don’t see any people. You don’t hear screams. You don’t see blood. You don’t– you know– see limbs being torn from people. You just see a target. And you’re aiming for that target and you’ve done this again and again. You’ve dropped bombs on targets where you never saw human beings– this is the nature of modern warfare. And this is why huge numbers of people can be killed– and– they don’t register as human beings to you. Kill at a distance. I’m sure the men who dropped the bombs on Hiroshima did not see what was going on down below. They were just bombing a target. So, yes, I looked through the bombsight and I was just aiming for this target which had been identified for me by the intelligence people before we went off.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me what happened over Royan?
HOWARD ZINN: Oh. That’s this little town on the Atlantic coast of France. And that experience, I think, has something to do with that attitude towards war, even so-called good wars that I developed after World War Two. A little town on the Atlantic coast of France and we thought, I– with my bomb group in East Anglia in England thought we were not going to fly any missions anymore. The war was about to be over. It was a few weeks from the end. Everybody knew that. And then suddenly we were aroused in the middle of the night, told we’re going to bomb this little town. Why? Well, they said there’s several thousand German soldiers there. They’re not doing anything. Talk about pre-emptive.
BILL MOYERS: They’d been left behind– by this time the Allies had rolled across France.
HOWARD ZINN: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: And these had been left behind in a pocket.
HOWARD ZINN: Exactly. The Allies roll across France into– into Germany. We’re surprised that here were these German soldiers. They’re just waiting there on the edge of the sea, waiting for the war to end and we are going to bomb them. And so we sent– and I didn’t know the number of bombers. It’s interesting, when you’re in a military operation, you don’t see the larger picture. I knew our 12 bombers from our base were going over. I didn’t know that 1200 bombers were going over this tiny town.
BILL MOYERS: 1200?
HOWARD ZINN: 1200 bombers. Yes, 1200 heavy bombers, 1200 B-17s went over this town of several thousand French people with the several thousand German soldiers around it. And we dropped what they called a– it was what they told us in the briefing room, you’re going to drop jellied gasoline instead of your usual demolition bombs. Napalm. It was the first use of napalm in the European theater. And– we did this. I– I didn’t even think about it twice. I mean to this day, I know– I can understand how atrocities are done by ordinary people. You know. What Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” I understand how– because I– I didn’t even think about it. I was just trained to drop bombs. There is the enemy, you make a decision at the beginning of the war, they’re the bad guys, you’re the good guys, and therefore everything goes. And so we just did this. And so, we destroyed the town of Royan. Killed Frenchmen, killed women, children, killed the German soldiers. Victory. And it was only afterwards– it was only after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that I thought about that. And then I thought about Dresden. And then I thought about the other– killing civilians in the war. Unnecessary even from the point of view of winning the war. And I thought war brutalizes everybody involved in it.
BILL MOYERS: Is your conclusion that we should not fight wars then because there will be civilian casualties?
HOWARD ZINN: Yes. (LAUGHS) Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Does this make you a pacifist?
HOWARD ZINN: No. I– I– I avoid the word pacifists. And the reason I avoid it– is that it suggests passivity. That is people think of pacifists as somebody who are going to sit by and do nothing while, you know, maybe mediate, while terrible things go on in the world. No. I mean– I think– I keep coming back to the fact that political tyrannies like Iraq have to be juxtaposed against other problems in the world which are very, very serious. I don’t believe in passivity. I believe we should do something about these problems. But we should not do war. Because war makes things worse than they were before. War has consequences which you cannot predict.
BILL MOYERS: How would you have us fight terrorism?
HOWARD ZINN: What I’m suggesting is change our posture from that, from a military superpower to a humanitarian superpower. We are enormously wealthy. Let’s use that wealth to send medicine to Africa. Let’s use that wealth to help change social and economic conditions around the world.
BILL MOYERS: So, here we are a few days away from that decision and possible war. What do you think is going to happen?
HOWARD ZINN: I don’t know. I’m a historian. Historians don’t know what’s going to happen. They guess like everybody else. I think– we’ll probably go to war. I’m not sure. I hold out– always hold out a hope that– the President will look around and think there’s not enough enthusiasm in the country for the war. And maybe when they see the casualties, even a small number of casualties– maybe my– and then this is the way he’ll think about it. Maybe my political fortunes will decline instead of rise. Maybe I’ll be blamed instead of praised. I’d like to think that that’s a possibility. But I think it’s only a possibility. But you act on the basis– not of probabilities, but of possibilities. If you act against war, even if you think that probably we’ll go to war, because you know that in the past, there have been times when something only seemed possible and yet it came to pass.
Published at PBS’ NOW With Bill Moyers • January 10, 2003