Tomdispatch Interview: Howard Zinn, The Outer Limits of Empire

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[Note to Tomdispatch readers: You have to be careful these days about predicting the obvious. In my last piece, Iraq in America, I wrote, “don’t hold your breath about either the Pentagon’s or the administration’s nation-building skills in the U.S. (But count on ‘reconstruction’ contracts going to Halliburton.)” Well, as readers were quick to inform me, I was already behind the times. The first contract — to repair Katrina storm damage at Gulf Coast naval facilities — had already been issued to our Vice President’s former company. In fact, as National Guards and other troops finally poured into New Orleans, the Iraq-in-America parallels only grew. There was the FEMA attempt to prevent the taking of news photos of dead bodies — think of those bodies coming home to Dover Air Force Base from Iraq — and the Army Times piece that referred to “the insurgency” in New Orleans, not to speak of GIs in that city and Iraq who noted eerie resonances between the two situations, or the Louisiana National Guardsman who referred to potential snipers in New Orleans as “terrorists.” And let’s not forget all those “private security contractors that specialize in supporting military operations in war-torn countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan” now heading for the Big Easy to protect businesses and private residences. Talk about the war coming home…

Then I suggested that the administration’s initial moves in the Katrina crisis — easing pollution standards for gas blends and bolstering the Pentagon’s new Northcom command — did little more than forward their usual agenda. No sooner had I written that than David Rogers and John J. Fialka of the Wall Street Journal reported (“Hurricane Reorders Capitol Hill,” September 8) on Republicans in Congress weighing in with plans to ease yet more pollution standards, pursue further tax cuts “to ease the price squeeze,” and (doh!) allow “exploration for oil and gas along the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.” Talk about bulldogs in a storm!

In any case, with an urge not to let this site grow either predictable or obvious, and armed with two cheap tape recorders and a reasonable amount of nerve, I’m launching a new feature: the Tomdispatch interview. I often have the feeling that between brief quotes in the newspapers and the normal 12-second comments by “newsmakers” on TV, we seldom hear voices speaking directly to us for long. I also like the idea of watching people think aloud about matters that concern us all. And then, for me, there’s just the pleasure of talking to a Howard Zinn. Tom]

The Outer Limits of Empire: A Tomdispatch Interview with Howard Zinn

He’s tall and thin, with a shock of white hair. A bombardier in the great war against fascism and an antiwar veteran of America’s wars ever since, he’s best known as the author of the pathbreaking A People’s History of the United States, and as an expert on the unexpected voices of resistance that have so regularly made themselves heard throughout our history. At 83 (though he looks a decade younger), he is also a veteran of a rugged century and yet there’s nothing backward looking about him. His voice is quiet and he clearly takes himself with a grain of salt, chuckling wryly on occasion at his own comments. From time to time, when a thought pleases him and his well-used face lights up or breaks out in a bona fide grin, he looks positively boyish.

We sit down on the back porch of the small coffee shop, alone, on a vacation morning. He has a croissant and coffee in front of him. I suggest that perhaps we should start after breakfast, but he assures me that there’s no particular contradiction between eating and talking and so, as a novice interviewer, I awkwardly turn on my two tape recorders — one of which, on pause, will still miss several minutes of our conversation (our equivalent, we joke, of Nixon’s infamous 18-minute gap). In preparation, he pushes aside his half-eaten breakfast, never to touch it again, and we begin.

Tomdispatch: You and Anthony Arnove just came out with a new book, Voices of a People’s History of the United States, featuring American voices of resistance from our earliest moments to late last night. Now, we have a striking new voice of resistance, Cindy Sheehan. I was wondering what you made of her?

Howard Zinn: Often a protest movement that’s already underway — and the present antiwar movement was underway even before the Iraq War began — gets a special impetus, a special spark, from one person’s act of defiance. I think of Rosa Parks and that one act of hers and what it meant.

TD: Can you think of other Cindy Sheehan-like figures in the past who made movements coalesce?

Zinn: In the antiwar movement of the Vietnam years, there wasn’t one person, but when I think back to the abolitionist movement, Frederick Douglass was a special figure in that way. When he came north, out of slavery, and spoke for the first time to a group of antislavery people, the beginnings of a movement existed. [William Lloyd] Garrison had already started [his antislavery newspaper] the Liberator, but Frederick Douglass was able to represent slavery itself in a way that Garrison and the other abolitionists could not. His dramatic appearance, his eloquence, provided a special spark for the abolitionist movement.

TD: I guess Cindy Sheehan also represents something that can’t be represented by anyone else, almost, in fact, can’t be represented — the American dead in the war and, of course, her own dead son.

Zinn: It’s interesting. There have been mothers other than Cindy Sheehan who have spoken out, but she decided on an act that had a special resonance, which was simply to find where Bush was going [he chuckles to himself at the thought] and have a confrontation between the two poles of this war, between its maker and the opposition. She just parked herself near Bush and became the center of national attention, of gravity, around which people gathered, hundreds and hundreds of people.

TD: The Bush administration has had such a long-term strategy of never venturing anywhere that the President might be challenged, but now, unless he’s literally on a military base, I suspect he’s no longer safe from that, and even then

Zinn: Did you read about the Mayor of Salt Lake City speaking out before 2,000 people to protest a presidential speech there? This is just what began to happen in the Vietnam War. After a while, [President Lyndon] Johnson and [Vice President Hubert] Humphrey couldn’t go anywhere except military bases. And the thing about Cindy Sheehan is that she’s not a moderate voice either. I mean, she’s saying we must withdraw from Iraq so boldly and clearly that even an antiwar person like [New York Times columnist] Frank Rich refers to her position as “apocalyptic” and kind of outside the pale. And that’s terrible, because on the issue of withdrawal she represents, I think, the unspoken desires of a huge number of people and is willing to say what the politicians and the journalists have not yet dared to say. There are very few newspapers in the country — maybe the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and one other — that have simply called for withdrawal without talking about timetables and conditions.

The Logic of Withdrawal in Two Wars

TD: As the person who, in 1967, wrote Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, how do you compare the logic of withdrawal discussions in this moment with that one?

Zinn: There was a point early in the Vietnam War when no major figure and no critic of the war was simply calling for immediate withdrawal. Everybody was hedging in some way. We must negotiate. We must compromise. We must stop the bombing north of this or that parallel. I think we’re at a comparable point now, two years after the beginning of the Iraq War. When my book came out in the Spring of ’67, it was just two years after the escalation in early ’65 when Johnson sent in the first major infusions of American troops. What’s comparable, I think, are the arguments then and now. Even the language is similar. We mustn’t cut and run. We mustn’t give them a victory. We mustn’t lose prestige in the world.

TD: …credibility was the word then.

Zinn: Yes, exactly, credibility. There will be chaos and civil war if we leave…

TD: …and a bloodbath.

Zinn: Yes, and a bloodbath — because the one way you can justify an ongoing catastrophe is to posit a greater catastrophe if you don’t continue with the present one. We’ve seen that psychology operating again and again. We saw it, for instance, with Hiroshima. I mean, we have to kill hundreds of thousands of people to avert a greater catastrophe, the death of a million people in the invasion of Japan.

It’s interesting that when we finally did leave Vietnam, none of those dire warnings really came true. It’s not that things were good after we left. The Chinese were expelled, and there were the boat people and the reeducation camps, but none of that compared to the ongoing slaughter taking place when the American troops were there. So while no one can predict what will happen — I think this is important to say — when the United States withdraws its troops from Iraq, the point is that we’re choosing between the certainty of an ongoing disaster, the chaos and violence that are taking place in Iraq today, and an eventuality we can’t predict which may be bad. But what may be bad is uncertain; what’s bad with our occupation right now is certain. It seems to me that, choosing between the two, you have to take a chance on what might happen if you end the occupation. At the same time, of course, you do whatever you can to mitigate the worst possibilities of your leaving.

Resistance in the Military

TD: I want to return for a moment to Cindy Sheehan. By the last years of the Vietnam War, the American military was almost incapable of fighting and, though there were military families against the war, the main resistance to the war was by then coming from draft-age soldiers themselves. Now we have an all-volunteer army; we know that morale is sinking and that there are specific cases of resistance — refusals to return to Iraq, for instance — within the military, but most of the resistance this time seems to be coming from the families of the soldiers. I wonder whether there’s any historical precedent for that?

Zinn: I don’t know of any previous war where something like this happened in the United States anyway. The closest you might get would be in the Confederacy in the Civil War, when the wives of soldiers rioted because their husbands were dying and the plantation owners were profiting from the sale of cotton, refusing to grow grains for civilians to eat. David Williams in Valdosta, Georgia, is coming out this fall with A People’s History of the Civil War in which he describes that phenomenon.

In the case of the Soviet Union, though, there may be a closer parallel. Russian mothers protested the continuing war in Afghanistan, their Vietnam. I don’t know how strong a part that played in the Soviet decision to withdraw, but certainly there was something dramatic about that.

We had gold star mothers against the war in the Vietnam era, but nothing like this and I think you’ve pointed to the reason. The GIs in Iraq are not in the same position the draftees were in — although I have to temper that by noting that a lot of the resistance in the Vietnam War came from people who had enlisted in the Army. And, in a certain sense, there are also draftees in this war, people who didn’t sign up to fight, or National Guards and Reserves who didn’t expect to go to war. You might say that they had been drafted.

Still, because it’s a largely all-volunteer army, the protesting has been left to the parents in an unprecedented way. Their children just aren’t in a position to protest as easily, and yet I think there’s going to be more and more GI protest as the war goes on. That’s inevitable. I imagine — there’s no way of proving this — that there’s already a lot more subterranean protest and disaffection in the military than has been reported, maybe much more than can be reported because it’s probably not visible.

When I try to think what would really compel the Bush administration to get out of Iraq, the one thing is a rebellion in the military. David Cortright [author of Soldiers In Revolt: GI Resistance During The Vietnam War] believes that what happened to the military in Vietnam was the crucial factor in finally bringing the United States out of Vietnam.

TD: And what about military resistance at the top rather than the bottom? As far back as Korea, there was a feeling among officers of being in the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time and that was replicated in Vietnam. It’s clear that the top people in the field in Iraq have known for a long time that they’re involved in a catastrophe. They were the ones recently who began talking about draw-downs and withdrawals without permission from the Bush administration.

Zinn: It’s a very important development, because when cracks occur in what had previously seemed to be the solidity of the top, it becomes that much more difficult to carry on. One example I think of — it’s not a war situation — is McCarthyism. When [red-baiting Senator Joseph] McCarthy began to go after important figures in the Eisenhower administration, when he went after General [George] Marshall and his forays came closer and closer to the top, more and more people moved away from him, and that was critical to his demise. Disaffection in the top ranks of the military has been evident for some time now. [Retired Centcom commander] General [Anthony] Zinni, for instance, has been speaking out from the beginning. For a while I was worried about the similarity between our names [he laughs], but I feel better about it now that he’s come out speaking the way he has.

TD: And retired generals like him are always speaking for others inside the military.

Zinn: That’s right. They’re in a position to say what others can’t say. I mean there’s been military resistance in many of our wars, but until Vietnam it never reached the point where it actually changed policy. There were mutinies against Washington in the revolutionary army. In the Mexican War, even huge numbers of desertions didn’t stop the war. I can’t think of any military resistance in World War I. Of course, the United States was only in for a brief time, a year and a half really. Certainly, World War II was a different situation. That’s what makes Vietnam such a historical phenomenon. It was the first time you had a movement in the military that was an important factor in changing government policy. And it’s interesting that we’ve had short wars ever since, except for this one, and those wars were deliberately designed to be short so that there wouldn’t be time for an antiwar movement to develop. In this case, they miscalculated. Now, I don’t think it’s a question of if, just when. When and how. I don’t think there’s any question that the United States is going to have to get out of Iraq. The only questions are: How long will it take? How many more people will die? And how will it be done?

The Outer Limits of Empire

TD: Let me turn to another issue you certainly wrote about in the 60s, war crimes. But “war crimes” was the last charge to arrive in the mainstream in those years and the first to depart. We’ve certainly experienced many crimes in the last few years, from Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo to Afghanistan. I wonder why, as a concept, it sticks so poorly with Americans?

Zinn: It does seem like a hard concept — war crimes, war criminals — to catch on here. There’s a willingness to say the leadership is wrong, but it’s a great jump from there to saying that the leadership is vicious. Unfortunately, in American culture, there’s still a kind of monarchical idea that the President, the people up there, are very special people and while they may make mistakes, they couldn’t be criminals. Even after the public had turned against the Vietnam War, there was no widespread talk about Johnson, [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara, and the rest of them being war criminals. And I think it has to do with an American culture of deference to the President and his men — beyond which people refuse to think.

TD: How does an American culture of exceptionalism play into this?

Zinn: I would guess that a very large number of Americans against the war in Vietnam still believed in the essential goodness of this country. They thought of Vietnam as an aberration. Only a minority in the antiwar movement saw it as part of a continuous policy of imperialism and expansion. I think that’s true today as well. It’s very hard for Americans to let go of the idea that we’re an especially good nation. It’s comforting to know that, even though we do wrong things from time to time, these are just individual aberrations. I think it takes a great deal of political consciousness to extend the criticism of a particular policy or a particular war to a general negative appraisal of the country and its history. It strikes too close to something Americans seem to need to hold onto.

Of course, there’s an element that’s right in this as well — in that there are principles for which the United States presumably stands that are good. It’s just that people confuse the principles with the policies — and so long as they can keep those principles in their heads (justice for all, equality, and so on), they are very reluctant to accept the fact that they have been crassly, consistently violated. This is the only way I can account for the stopping short when it comes to looking at the President and the people around him as war criminals.

TD: Stepping back from the catastrophe in Iraq, what do you make of the Bush administration’s version of the American imperial project?

Zinn: I like to think that the American empire has reached its outer limits with the Middle East. I don’t believe it has a future in Latin America. I think it’s worn out whatever power it had there and we’re seeing the rise of governments that will not play ball with the United States. This may be one of the reasons why the war in Iraq is so important to this administration. Beyond Iraq there’s no place to go. So, let’s put it this way, I see withdrawal from Iraq whenever it takes place — and think of this as partly wish and partly belief [he chuckles at himself] — as the first step in the retrenchment of the American empire. After all we aren’t the first country in history to be forced to do this.

I’d like to say that this will be because of American domestic opposition, but I suspect mostly it will be because the rest of the world won’t accept further American forays into places where we don’t belong. In the future, I believe 9/11 may be seen as representing the beginning of the dissolution of the American empire; that is, the very event that immediately crystallized popular support for war, in the long run — and I don’t know how long that will be — may be seen as the beginning of the weakening and crumbling of the American empire.

TD: There would be an irony in that.

Zinn: Yes, certainly.

War’s End

TD: I wanted to turn to the issue of war. You’ve written about the possible end of war not being a purely utopian project. Do you really believe war could end or is it in our genes?

Zinn: Although lots of things are unclear to me, one thing is very clear. It’s not in our genes. Whenever I read accounts, even by people who have been in war, that suggest there’s something in the masculine psyche that requires this kind of violence and militarism I don’t believe it. I say this on the basis of historical experience; that is, if you compare the instances in which people, mostly men, have committed violent acts and gone to war to those in which people have not gone to war, have rejected war, it seems people don’t naturally want war.

They may want a lot of things associated with war — the comradeship, the thrill that comes from holding a weapon. I think this is what confuses people. Thrills, comradeship, all of that can come in many different ways; it comes from war, though, only when people are manipulated into it. To me the strongest argument against an inherent drive to war is the extent to which governments have to resort to get people to go to war, the huge amounts of propaganda and deception of which we had an example very recently. And don’t forget coercion. So I discard that idea of a natural inclination to war.

TD: You went to war yourself

Zinn: I was 20 years old. I was a bombardier in the 8th Air Force on a B-17 crew that flew some of the last missions of the war out of England. I went in as a young, radical, antifascist, believing in this war and believing in the idea of a just war against fascism. At war’s end I was beginning to have doubts about whether the mayhem we had engaged in was justified: the bombing of cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombings I had engaged in. And then I was beginning to suspect the motives of the Allied leaders. Did they really care that much about fascism? Did they care about the Jews? Was it a war for empire? In the Air Force I encountered a young Trotskyite on another air crew who said to me, “You know, this is an imperialist war.” I was sort of shocked. I said, “Well, you’re flying missions! Why are you here?” He replied, “I’m here to talk to people like you.” [He laughs.] I mean, he didn’t convert me, but he shook me up a little.

After the war, as the years went by, I couldn’t help contemplating the promises that had been made about what the war would accomplish. You know, General Marshall sent me — and 16 million others — a letter congratulating us for winning the war and telling us how the world would now be a different place. Fifty million people were dead and the world was not really that different. I mean, Hitler and Mussolini were gone, as was the Japanese military machine, but fascism and militarism, and racism were still all over the world, and wars were still continuing. So I came to the conclusion that war, whatever quick fix it might give you — Oh, we’ve defeated this phenomenon, fascism; we’ve gotten rid of Hitler (like we’ve gotten rid of Saddam Hussein, you see) — whatever spurt of enthusiasm, the after-effects were like those of a drug; first a high and then you settle back into something horrible. So I began to think that any wars, even wars against evil, simply don’t accomplish much of anything. In the long run, they simply don’t solve the problem. In the interim, an enormous number of people die.

I also came to the conclusion that, given the technology of modern warfare, war is inevitably a war against children, against civilians. When you look at the ratio of civilian to military dead, it changes from 50-50 in World War II to 80-20 in Vietnam, maybe as high as 90-10 today. Do you know this Italian war surgeon, Gino Strada? He wrote Green Parrots: A War Surgeon’s Diary. He was doing war surgery in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places. Ninety percent of the people he operated on were civilians. When you face that fact, war is now always a war against civilians, and so against children. No political goal can justify it, and so the great challenge before the human race in our time is to solve the problems of tyranny and aggression, and do it without war. [He laughs quietly.] A very complex and difficult job, but something that has to be faced — and that’s what accounts for my becoming involved in antiwar movements ever since the end of World War II.

Copyright 2005 Tomdispatch