rn: Howard Zinn “Just Cause, not a Just War”


Jan Slakov

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From: "Sheila Zurbrigg" <•••@••.•••>
Date: Sat, 10 Nov 2001 22:26:24 -0400
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Subject: Howard Zinn

Published in the December 2001 issue of The Progressive 
A Just Cause, Not a Just War 
by Howard Zinn

I believe two moral judgments can be made about the present "war": The
September 11 attack constitutes a crime against humanity and cannot be
justified, and the bombing of Afghanistan is also a crime, which cannot be
And yet, voices across the political spectrum, including many on the left,
have described this as a "just war." One longtime advocate of peace, Richard
Falk, wrote in The Nation that this is "the first truly just war since World
War II." Robert Kuttner, another consistent supporter of social justice,
declared in The American Prospect that only people on the extreme left could
believe this is not a just war.
I have puzzled over this. How can a war be truly just when it involves the
daily killing of civilians, when it causes hundreds of thousands of men,
women, and children to leave their homes to escape the bombs, when it may
not find those who planned the September 11 attacks, and when it will
multiply the ranks of people who are angry enough at this country to become
terrorists themselves?
This war amounts to a gross violation of human rights, and it will produce
the exact opposite of what is wanted: It will not end terrorism; it will
proliferate terrorism.
I believe that the progressive supporters of the war have confused a "just
cause" with a "just war." There are unjust causes, such as the attempt of
the United States to establish its power in Vietnam, or to dominate Panama
or Grenada, or to subvert the government of Nicaragua. And a cause may be
just--getting North Korea to withdraw from South Korea, getting Saddam
Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait, or ending terrorism--but it does not follow
that going to war on behalf of that cause, with the inevitable mayhem that
follows, is just. 
The stories of the effects of our bombing are beginning to come through, in
bits and pieces. Just eighteen days into the bombing, The New York Times
reported: "American forces have mistakenly hit a residential area in Kabul."
Twice, U.S. planes bombed Red Cross warehouses, and a Red Cross spokesman
said: "Now we've got 55,000 people without that food or blankets, with
nothing at all." 
An Afghan elementary school-teacher told a Washington Post reporter at the
Pakistan border: "When the bombs fell near my house and my babies started
crying, I had no choice but to run away."
A New York Times report: "The Pentagon acknowledged that a Navy F/A-18
dropped a 1,000-pound bomb on Sunday near what officials called a center for
the elderly. . . . The United Nations said the building was a military
hospital. . . . Several hours later, a Navy F-14 dropped two 500-pound bombs
on a residential area northwest of Kabul." A U.N. official told a New York
Times reporter that an American bombing raid on the city of Herat had used
cluster bombs, which spread deadly "bomblets" over an area of twenty
football fields. This, the Times reporter wrote,"was the latest of a growing
number of accounts of American bombs going astray and causing civilian
An A.P. reporter was brought to Karam, a small mountain village hit by
American bombs, and saw houses reduced to rubble. "In the hospital in
Jalalabad, twenty-five miles to the east, doctors treated what they said
were twenty-three victims of bombing at Karam, one a child barely two months
old, swathed in bloody bandages," according to the account. "Another child,
neighbors said, was in the hospital because the bombing raid had killed her
entire family. At least eighteen fresh graves were scattered around the
The city of Kandahar, attacked for seventeen straight days, was reported to
be a ghost town, with more than half of its 500,000 people fleeing the
bombs. The city's electrical grid had been knocked out. The city was
deprived of water, since the electrical pumps could not operate. A
sixty-year-old farmer told the A.P. reporter, "We left in fear of our lives.
Every day and every night, we hear the roaring and roaring of planes, we see
the smoke, the fire. . . . I curse them both--the Taliban and America." 
A New York Times report from Pakistan two weeks into the bombing campaign
told of wounded civilians coming across the border. "Every half-hour or so
throughout the day, someone was brought across on a stretcher. . . . Most
were bomb victims, missing limbs or punctured by shrapnel. . . . A young
boy, his head and one leg wrapped in bloodied bandages, clung to his
father's back as the old man trudged back to Afghanistan."
That was only a few weeks into the bombing, and the result had already been
to frighten hundreds of thousands of Afghans into abandoning their homes and
taking to the dangerous, mine-strewn roads. The "war against terrorism" has
become a war against innocent men, women, and children, who are in no way
responsible for the terrorist attack on New York. 
And yet there are those who say this is a "just war." 
Terrorism and war have something in common. They both involve the killing of
innocent people to achieve what the killers believe is a good end. I can see
an immediate objection to this equation: They (the terrorists) deliberately
kill innocent people; we (the war makers) aim at "military targets," and
civilians are killed by accident, as "collateral damage."
Is it really an accident when civilians die under our bombs? Even if you
grant that the intention is not to kill civilians, if they nevertheless
become victims, again and again and again, can that be called an accident?
If the deaths of civilians are inevitable in bombing, it may not be
deliberate, but it is not an accident, and the bombers cannot be considered
innocent. They are committing murder as surely as are the terrorists. 
The absurdity of claiming innocence in such cases becomes apparent when the
death tolls from "collateral damage" reach figures far greater than the
lists of the dead from even the most awful act of terrorism. Thus, the
"collateral damage" in the Gulf War caused more people to die--hundreds of
thousands, if you include the victims of our sanctions policy--than the very
deliberate terrorist attack of September 11. The total of those who have
died in Israel from Palestinian terrorist bombs is somewhere under 1,000.
The number of dead from "collateral damage" in the bombing of Beirut during
Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was roughly 6,000. 
We must not match the death lists--it is an ugly exercise--as if one
atrocity is worse than another. No killing of innocents, whether deliberate
or "accidental," can be justified. My argument is that when children die at
the hands of terrorists, or--whether intended or not--as a result of bombs
dropped from airplanes, terrorism and war become equally unpardonable. 
Let's talk about "military targets." The phrase is so loose that President
Truman, after the nuclear bomb obliterated the population of Hiroshima,
could say: "The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on
Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack
to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians." 
What we are hearing now from our political leaders is, "We are targeting
military objectives. We are trying to avoid killing civilians. But that will
happen, and we regret it." Shall the American people take moral comfort from
the thought that we are bombing only "military targets"? 
The reality is that the term "military" covers all sorts of targets that
include civilian populations. When our bombers deliberately destroy, as they
did in the war against Iraq, the electrical infrastructure, thus making
water purification and sewage treatment plants inoperable and leading to
epidemic waterborne diseases, the deaths of children and other civilians
cannot be called accidental. 
Recall that in the midst of the Gulf War, the U.S. military bombed an air
raid shelter, killing 400 to 500 men, women, and children who were huddled
to escape bombs. The claim was that it was a military target, housing a
communications center, but reporters going through the ruins immediately
afterward said there was no sign of anything like that.
I suggest that the history of bombing--and no one has bombed more than this
nation--is a history of endless atrocities, all calmly explained by
deceptive and deadly language like "accident," "military targets," and
"collateral damage." 
Indeed, in both World War II and in Vietnam, the historical record shows
that there was a deliberate decision to target civilians in order to destroy
the morale of the enemy--hence the firebombing of Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo,
the B-52s over Hanoi, the jet bombers over peaceful villages in the Vietnam
countryside. When some argue that we can engage in "limited military action"
without "an excessive use of force," they are ignoring the history of
bombing. The momentum of war rides roughshod over limits.
The moral equation in Afghanistan is clear. Civilian casualties are certain.
The outcome is uncertain. No one knows what this bombing will
accomplish--whether it will lead to the capture of Osama Bin Laden
(perhaps), or the end of the Taliban (possibly), or a democratic Afghanistan
(very unlikely), or an end to terrorism (almost certainly not).
And meanwhile, we are terrorizing the population (not the terrorists, they
are not easily terrorized). Hundreds of thousands are packing their
belongings and their children onto carts and leaving their homes to make
dangerous journeys to places they think might be more safe. 
Not one human life should be expended in this reckless violence called a
"war against terrorism." 
We might examine the idea of pacifism in the light of what is going on right
now. I have never used the word "pacifist" to describe myself, because it
suggests something absolute, and I am suspicious of absolutes. I want to
leave openings for unpredictable possibilities. There might be situations
(and even such strong pacifists as Gandhi and Martin Luther King believed
this) when a small, focused act of violence against a monstrous, immediate
evil would be justified.
In war, however, the proportion of means to ends is very, very different.
War, by its nature, is unfocused, indiscriminate, and especially in our time
when the technology is so murderous, inevitably involves the deaths of large
numbers of people and the suffering of even more. Even in the "small wars"
(Iran vs. Iraq, the Nigerian war, the Afghan war), a million people die.
Even in a "tiny" war like the one we waged in Panama, a thousand or more die. 
Scott Simon of NPR wrote a commentary in The Wall Street Journal on October
11 entitled, "Even Pacifists Must Support This War." He tried to use the
pacifist acceptance of self-defense, which approves a focused resistance to
an immediate attacker, to justify this war, which he claims is
"self-defense." But the term "self-defense" does not apply when you drop
bombs all over a country and kill lots of people other than your attacker.
And it doesn't apply when there is no likelihood that it will achieve its
desired end. 
Pacifism, which I define as a rejection of war, rests on a very powerful
logic. In war, the means--indiscriminate killing--are immediate and certain;
the ends, however desirable, are distant and uncertain.
Pacifism does not mean "appeasement." That word is often hurled at those who
condemn the present war on Afghanistan, and it is accompanied by references
to Churchill, Chamberlain, Munich. World War II analogies are conveniently
summoned forth when there is a need to justify a war, however irrelevant to
a particular situation. At the suggestion that we withdraw from Vietnam, or
not make war on Iraq, the word "appeasement" was bandied about. The glow of
the "good war" has repeatedly been used to obscure the nature of all the bad
wars we have fought since 1945. 
Let's examine that analogy. Czechoslovakia was handed to the voracious
Hitler to "appease" him. Germany was an aggressive nation expanding its
power, and to help it in its expansion was not wise. But today we do not
face an expansionist power that demands to be appeased. We ourselves are the
expansionist power--troops in Saudi Arabia, bombings of Iraq, military bases
all over the world, naval vessels on every sea--and that, along with
Israel's expansion into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has aroused anger.
It was wrong to give up Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler. It is not wrong to
withdraw our military from the Middle East, or for Israel to withdraw from
the occupied territories, because there is no right to be there. That is not
appeasement. That is justice. 
Opposing the bombing of Afghanistan does not constitute "giving in to
terrorism" or "appeasement." It asks that other means be found than war to
solve the problems that confront us. King and Gandhi both believed in
action--nonviolent direct action, which is more powerful and certainly more
morally defensible than war. 
To reject war is not to "turn the other cheek," as pacifism has been
caricatured. It is, in the present instance, to act in ways that do not
imitate the terrorists.
The United States could have treated the September 11 attack as a horrific
criminal act that calls for apprehending the culprits, using every device of
intelligence and investigation possible. It could have gone to the United
Nations to enlist the aid of other countries in the pursuit and apprehension
of the terrorists.
There was also the avenue of negotiations. (And let's not hear: "What?
Negotiate with those monsters?" The United States negotiated with--indeed,
brought into power and kept in power--some of the most monstrous governments
in the world.) Before Bush ordered in the bombers, the Taliban offered to
put bin Laden on trial. This was ignored. After ten days of air attacks,
when the Taliban called for a halt to the bombing and said they would be
willing to talk about handing bin Laden to a third country for trial, the
headline the next day in The New York Times read: "President Rejects Offer
by Taliban for Negotiations," and Bush was quoted as saying: "When I said no
negotiations, I meant no negotiations."
That is the behavior of someone hellbent on war. There were similar
rejections of negotiating possibilities at the start of the Korean War, the
war in Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the bombing of Yugoslavia. The result was
an immense loss of life and incalculable human suffering.
International police work and negotiations were--still are--alternatives to
war. But let's not deceive ourselves; even if we succeeded in apprehending
bin Laden or, as is unlikely, destroying the entire Al Qaeda network, that
would not end the threat of terrorism, which has potential recruits far
beyond Al Qaeda.
To get at the roots of terrorism is complicated. Dropping bombs is simple.
It is an old response to what everyone acknowledges is a very new situation.
At the core of unspeakable and unjustifiable acts of terrorism are justified
grievances felt by millions of people who would not themselves engage in
terrorism but from whose ranks terrorists spring.
Those grievances are of two kinds: the existence of profound misery--
hunger, illness--in much of the world, contrasted to the wealth and luxury
of the West, especially the United States; and the presence of American
military power everywhere in the world, propping up oppressive regimes and
repeatedly intervening with force to maintain U.S. hegemony.
This suggests actions that not only deal with the long-term problem of
terrorism but are in themselves just.
Instead of using two planes a day to drop food on Afghanistan and 100 planes
to drop bombs (which have been making it difficult for the trucks of the
international agencies to bring in food), use 102 planes to bring food.
Take the money allocated for our huge military machine and use it to combat
starvation and disease around the world. One-third of our military budget
would annually provide clean water and sanitation facilities for the billion
people in the world who have none.
Withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia, because their presence near the holy
shrines of Mecca and Medina angers not just bin Laden (we need not care
about angering him) but huge numbers of Arabs who are not terrorists. 
Stop the cruel sanctions on Iraq, which are killing more than a thousand
children every week without doing anything to weaken Saddam Hussein's
tyrannical hold over the country. 
Insist that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories, something that
many Israelis also think is right, and which will make Israel more secure
than it is now. 
In short, let us pull back from being a military superpower, and become a
humanitarian superpower. 
Let us be a more modest nation. We will then be more secure. The modest
nations of the world don't face the threat of terrorism. 
Such a fundamental change in foreign policy is hardly to be expected. It
would threaten too many interests: the power of political leaders, the
ambitions of the military, the corporations that profit from the nation's
enormous military commitments. 
Change will come, as at other times in our history, only when American
citizens-- becoming better informed, having second thoughts after the first
instinctive support for official policy--demand it. That change in citizen
opinion, especially if it coincides with a pragmatic decision by the
government that its violence isn't working, could bring about a retreat from
the military solution. 
It might also be a first step in the rethinking of our nation's role in the
world. Such a rethinking contains the promise, for Americans, of genuine
security, and for people elsewhere, the beginning of hope. 
Copyright 2001, The Progressive, Madison, WI

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