As I write this, the sounds of the World War II Memorial celebration in Washington, D.C., are still in my head. I was invited by the Smithsonian Institution to be on one of the panels, and the person who called to invite me said that the theme would be “War Stories.” I told him that I would come, but not to tell “war stories,” rather to talk about World War II and its meaning for us today. Fine, he said.
I made my way into a scene that looked like a movie set for a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza—huge tents pitched here and there, hawkers with souvenirs, thousands of visitors, many of them clearly World War II veterans, some in old uniforms, sporting military caps, wearing their medals. In the tent designated for my panel, I joined my fellow panelist, an African American woman who had served with the WACS (Women’s Army Corps) in World War II, and who would speak about her personal experiences in a racially segregated army.
I was introduced as a veteran of the Army Air Corps, a bombardier who had flown combat missions over Europe in the last months of the war. I wasn’t sure how this audience would react to what I had to say about the war, in that atmosphere of celebration, in the honoring of the dead, in the glow of a great victory accompanied by countless acts of military heroism.
This, roughly, is what I said: “I’m here to honor the two guys who were my closest buddies in the Air Corps—Joe Perry and Ed Plotkin—both of whom were killed in the last weeks of the war. And to honor all the others who died in that war. But I’m not here to honor war itself. I’m not here to honor the men in Washington who send the young to war. I’m certainly not here to honor those in authority who are now waging an immoral war in Iraq.”
I went on: “World War II is not simply and purely a ‘good war.’ It was accompanied by too many atrocities on our side—too many bombings of civilian populations. There were too many betrayals of the principles for which the war was supposed to have been fought.
“Yes, World War II had a strong moral aspect to it—the defeat of fascism. But I deeply resent the way the so-called good war has been used to cast its glow over all the immoral wars we have fought in the past fifty years: in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan. I certainly don’t want our government to use the triumphal excitement surrounding World War II to cover up the horrors now taking place in Iraq.
“I don’t want to honor military heroism—that conceals too much death and suffering. I want to honor those who all these years have opposed the horror of war.”
The audience applauded. But I wasn’t sure what that meant. I knew I was going against the grain of orthodoxy, the romanticization of the war in movies and television and now in the war memorial celebrations in the nation’s capital.
There was a question-and-answer period. The first person to walk up front was a veteran of World War II, wearing parts of his old uniform. He spoke into the microphone: “I was wounded in World War II and have a Purple Heart to show for it. If President Bush were here right now I would throw that medal in his face.”
There was a moment of what I think was shock at the force of his statement. Then applause. I wondered if I was seeing a phenomenon that recurs often in society—when one voice speaks out against the conventional wisdom, and is recognized as speaking truth, people are drawn out of their previous silence.
I was encouraged by the thought that it is possible to challenge the standard glorification of the Second World War, and more important, to refuse to allow it to give war a good name. I did not want this celebration to make it easy for the American public to accept whatever monstrous adventure is cooked up by the establishment in Washington.
More and more, I am finding that I am not the only veteran of World War II who refuses to be corralled into justifying the wars of today, drawing on the emotional and moral capital of World War II. There are other veterans who do not want to overlook the moral complexity of World War II: the imperial intentions of the Allies even as they declared it a war against fascism, and for democracy; the deliberate bombing of civilian populations to destroy the morale of the enemy.
Paul Fussell was an infantry lieutenant who was badly wounded while a platoon leader in France in World War II.
“For the past fifty years the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty,” he wrote in Wartime.
It was easier, after the end of World War II, to point to its stupidities and cruelties in fiction rather than in a direct onslaught on what was so universally acclaimed as “the good war.” Thus, Joseph Heller in Catch-22 captured the idiocy of military life, the crass profiteering, the pointless bombings. And Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse-Five, brought to a large readership the awful story of the bombing of Dresden.
My own delayed criticism of the war—I had volunteered and was an enthusiastic bombardier—began with reflecting about my participation in the bombing of Royan. This was a small town on the Atlantic coast of France, where several thousand German soldiers had been overrun and were waiting for the war to end. Twelve hundred heavy bombers flew over the vicinity of Royan and dropped napalm, killing German soldiers and French civilians, destroying what was once a beautiful little resort town.
Recently, a man wrote to me who had heard me speak on the radio about that bombing mission and said he was also on that mission. After the war, he became a fireman, then a carpenter, and is now a strong opponent of war. He told me of a friend of his who was also on that mission, and who has been arrested many times in anti-war actions. I was encouraged to hear that.
World War II veterans get in touch with me from time to time. One is Edward Wood Jr. of Denver, who upon hearing I was going to be at the Washington Memorial, wrote to me: He said, “If I were there, I would say: As a combat veteran of World War II, severely wounded in France in 1944, never the man I might have been because of that wound, I so wish that this memorial to World War II might have been made of more than stone or marble. I mourn my generation’s failures since its victory in World War II . . . our legacy of incessant warfare in smaller nations far from our borders.”
Another airman, Ken Norwood, was shot down on his tenth mission over Europe, and spent a year as a prisoner of war in Germany. He has written a memoir (unpublished, so far) which he says is “intentionally an anti-war war story.” Packed first into a box car, and then forced to march for two weeks through Bavaria in the spring of 1945, Norwood saw the mangled corpses of the victims of Allied bombs, the working class neighborhoods destroyed. All his experiences, he says, “add to the harsh testimony about the futility and obscenity of war.”
The glorification of the “good war” persists on our television and movie screens, in the press, in the pretentious speeches by politicians. The more ugly the stories that come out of Iraq—the bombing of civilians, the mutilation of children, the invasion of homes, and now the torture of prisoners—the more urgent it is for our government to try to crowd out all those images with the triumphant stories of D-Day and World War II.
Those who fought in that war are perhaps better able than anyone to insist that whatever moral standing can be attached to that war must not be used to turn our eyes away from Bush’s atrocities in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Published in The Progressive • August 8, 2004
Image: Bas relief at the World War II Memorial • National Park Service
A collection of twenty-six short writings chosen by the author. He reflects on the wars against Iraq, the war in Kosovo, the Vietnam War, World War II, and on the meaning of war generally in a world of nations that can’t seem to stop destroying each other. Read more at Seven Stories Press.
HOWARD ZINN: I didn’t learn much about myself during that time, that is, while I was at war. You don’t learn much while you’re in the military except doing your job. Watch video clip.
Video and transcript of speech given about “three wars in American history that are sacrosanct—the three wars that you cannot say anything bad about: The Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II.” Read and view.
Marisa Tomei reads Cindy Sheehan’s Speech given on August 5, 2005, prior to her encampment on President Bush’s vacation house lawn. Watch at The People Speak on Video.com.
A collection of articles (including one by Zinn) that breaks the curricular silence on the U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and the Middle East, with hands-on lessons that shows ways to prompt students to think critically about big issues. Read more at Rethinking Schools.