Howard Zinn Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Radical History: Conversation with Howard Zinn, Author, 'A People's History of the United States'; 4/20/01 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Experiencing War

Your involvement in the anti-war movement was informed, in part, by your experience as a soldier. I want to talk about one specific incident that you write about. In one of the last bombing missions of the war, you were a bombardier on a plane that was responsible for one of the first uses of napalm, on an innocent French village called Rohan. Tell us about that experience and what you learned from it, and how it affected your activism in the anti-war movement and your view of war in general.

You have to understand that I enlisted in the Air Force. I volunteered. I was an enthusiastic bombardier. To me it was very simple: it was a war against fascism. They were the bad guys, we were the good guys. One of the things I learned from that experience was that when you start off with them being the bad guys and you being the good guys, once you've made that one decision, you don't have to think anymore, if you're in the military. From that point on, anything goes. From that point on, you're capable of anything, even atrocities. Because you've made a decision a long time ago that you're on the right side. You don't keep questioning, questioning, questioning. You're not Yossarian, who questions.

The protagonist of Catch-22.

That's right. And so what happened with me, I was an enthusiastic bombardier, as I say. The war was over, presumably -- a few weeks from the end. Everybody knew the war was about to end in Europe. We had been flying bombing missions out of England over the Continent. We didn't think we were flying missions anymore. No reason to fly. We were all through France, into Germany. The Russians and Americans had met on the Elbe. It was just a matter of a few weeks. And then we were awakened in the wee hours of the morning and told we were going on a mission. The so-called intelligence people, who brief us before we go into a plane, tell us we are going to bomb this tiny town on the Atlantic coast of France called Rohan, near Bordeaux, and we are doing it because there are several thousand German soldiers there. They are not doing anything. They are not bothering anyone. They are waiting for the war to end. They've just been bypassed. And we are going to bomb them.

What's interesting to me later, in thinking about it, is that it didn't occur to me to stand up in the briefing room and say, "What are we doing? Why are we doing this? The war is almost over, there is no need." It didn't occur to me. To this day, I understand how atrocities are committed. How the military mind works. You are taught to just mechanically go through the procedures that you have been taught, you see.

So, we went over Rohan, and they told us in the briefing that we were going to drop a different kind of bomb this time. Instead of the usual demolition bombs, we are going to drop, carry in our bomb bay, thirty 100-pound canisters of what they called jellied gasoline, which was napalm. It was the first use of napalm in the European war. We went over. We destroyed the German troops and also destroyed the French town of Rohan. "Friendly fire." That's what bombing does.

To this day, when I hear the leaders of the country say, "Well, this is precision bombing and we are being very careful, and we are only bombing military ..." -- nonsense. No matter how sophisticated the bombing technology, there is no way you can avoid killing non-military people when you drop bombs. It wasn't until after the war that I looked back on that. In fact, it wasn't until after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that I looked back on that. Because after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which at first I had welcomed like everybody at that time did -- "Oh yes, the war is going to be over," -- and then I read John Hershey's book Hiroshima, and for the first time the human consequences of dropping the bomb were brought home to me in a way I hadn't thought of. When you are dropping bombs from 30,000 feet you don't hear screams. You don't see blood.

I suddenly saw what the bomb in Hiroshima did. I began to rethink the whole question of a "good war." I came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a good war. They may start off with good intentions, at least on the part of the people who fight in them. Generally not on the part of the people who make the decision; I doubt they have good intentions. But there may be good intentions on the part of the GIs who believe, yes, we are doing this for a good cause. But those good intentions are quickly corrupted. The good guys become the bad guys. So I became convinced that war is not a solution, fundamentally, for any serious problem. It may seem like a solution, like a quick fix, a drug. You get rid of this dictator, that dictator, as we did Hitler, Mussolini. But you don't solve fundamental problems. In the meantime, you've killed tens of millions of people.

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