Book Review from the November 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
Just War. by Howard Zinn. Charta, €10.00.
Howard Zinn, who died in 2010, was a radical American activist and writer, author of A People’s History of the United States. This volume contains the text of a talk he gave in Rome in 2005, together with some striking photos by Moises Saman. Its strength lies in a combination of personal remarks and more general reflections.
Appalled by what he knew of fascism, Zinn volunteered for the US Army Air Force in 1943, and flew in bombing missions over continental Europe. But once the war was over he gradually came to question what he had been doing. Accounts of Hiroshima showed what the effects of the atomic bomb had been, and Zinn realised that when he helped to drop napalm on the French town of Royan, he was participating in the killing of children. The Second World War might seem to be the extreme case of a humanitarian war, but however just a war against fascism appeared to be, he and others ‘had become unthinking killers of innocent people’.
The defeat of Hitler and Mussolini did not lead to the end of militarism, as there were now two superpowers with thousands of nuclear weapons. And war, Zinn argues, is but ‘the extreme form of terrorism’. The US attacks in recent years on Iraq and Afghanistan are motivated by a desire to control resources such as oil. So soldiers do not ‘give their lives for their country’: their lives are taken from them, not given, and this is in the service of the government and the rest of the ruling class. Governments use a combination of coercion and propaganda to get workers to fight for them.
Zinn quotes Albert Einstein: ‘Wars will stop when men refuse to fight’. More accurately, wars will stop when people no longer support the social system that gives rise to them and replace it with one where wars are a thing of the past. In this book at least, Zinn has little to say about how this might happen, though he does refer to a world ‘in which national borders are erased and we are truly one human family’.
So, a slim volume but an instructive one.