Howard Zinn on “War and Social Justice”
And I have to look at my watch, not that it matters, not that I care, but, you know, I feel conscience-stricken over keeping you here just to hear the truth.
Here are some of the elements of the mindset that stand in the way, in the way for Obama, in the way for the Democratic Party, in the way for many Americans, in the way for us. One of the elements in our mindset is the idea, somehow, that the United States is exceptional. In the world of social science, in, you know, that discipline called social science, there’s actually a phrase for it. It’s called American exceptionalism. And what it means is the idea that the United States is unique in the world, you know, that we are different, that we—not just different, we’re better. Right? We are better than other people. You know, our society is better than other societies. This is a very dangerous thing to think. When you become so arrogant that you think you are better and different than other countries in the world, then that gives you a carte blanche to do nasty things. You can do nasty things, because you’re better. You’re justified in doing those things, because, yeah, you’re—we’re different. So we have to divest ourselves of the idea that, you know, we are somehow better and, you know, we are the “City on the Hill,” which is what the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, said. “We are the”—Reagan also said that. Well, Reagan said lots of things, you know that. But we are—you know, we’re—you know, everybody looks to—no, we’re an empire, like other empires.
There was a British empire. There was a Russian empire. There was a German empire and a Japanese empire and a French and a Belgian empire, the Dutch empire and the Spanish empire. And now there’s the American empire. And our empire—and when we look at those empires, we say, “Oh, imperialism! But our empire, no.” There was one sort of scholar who wrote in the New York Times, he said, “We are an empire lite.” Lite? Tell that to the people of Iraq. Tell that to the people in Afghanistan. You know, we are an empire lite? No, we are heavy.
And yes—well, all you have to do is look at our history, and you’ll see, no, our history does not show a beneficent country doing good all over the world. Our history shows expansion. Our history shows expansion. It shows us—well, yeah, it shows us moving into—doubling our territory with the Louisiana Purchase, which I remember on our school maps looked very benign. “Oh, there’s that, all that empty land, and now we have it.” It wasn’t empty! There were people living there. There were Indian tribes. Hundreds of Indian tribes were living there, you see? And if it’s going to be ours, we’ve got to get rid of them. And we did. No. And then, you know, we instigated a war with Mexico in 1848, 1846 to 1848, and at the end of the war we take almost half of Mexico, you know. And why? Well, we wanted that land. That’s very simple. We want things. There’s a drive of nations that have the power and the capacity to bully other nations, a tendency to expand into those—the areas that those other nations have. We see it all over the world. And the United States has done that again and again. And, you know, then we expanded into the Caribbean. Then we expanded out into the Pacific with Hawaii and the Philippines, and yeah. And, of course, you know, in the twentieth century, expanding our influence in Europe and Asia and now in the Middle East, everywhere. An expansionist country, an imperialist power.
For what? To do good things for these other people? Or is it because we coveted—when I say “we,” I don’t mean to include you and me. But I’ve gotten—you know, they’ve gotten us so used to identifying with the government. You know, like we say “we,” like the janitor at General Motors says “we.” No. No, the CEO of General Motors and the janitor are not “we.”
So, no, we’re not—we’re not—exceptionalism is one part of the mindset we have to get rid of. We have to see ourselves honestly for what we are. We’re an empire like other empires. We’re as aggressive and brutal and violent as the Belgians were in the Congo, as the British were in India, and all these other empires. Yeah, we’re just like them. We have to face it. And when you face that, you sober up a little, and then you don’t think you can just go all over the world and say, “Ah, we’re doing this for liberty and democracy,” because then, if you know your history, you know how many times that was said. “Oh, we’re going into the Philippines to bring civilization and Christianity to the Filipinos.” “We’re going to bring civilization to the Mexicans,” etc., etc. No. You’ll understand that. Yeah, that’s one element in this mindset.
And then, of course, when you say this, when you say these things, when you go back into that history, when you try to give an honest recounting of what we have been—not “we,” really—what the government, the government, has done, our government has done. The people haven’t done it. People—we’re just people. The government does these things, and then they try to include us, involve us in their criminal conspiracy. You know, we didn’t do this. But they’re dragooning us into this.
But when you start criticizing, when you start making an honest assessment of what we have done in the world, they say you’re being unpatriotic. Well, you have to—that’s another part of the mindset you have to get rid of, because if you don’t, then you think you have to wear a flag in your lapel or you think you have to always have American flags around you, and you have to show, by your love for all this meaningless paraphernalia, that you are patriotic. Well, that’s, you know—oh, there, too, an honest presidential candidate would not be afraid to say, “You know, patriotism is not a matter of wearing a flag in your lapel, not a matter of this or not—patriotism is not supporting the government. Patriotism is supporting the principles that the government is supposed to stand for.” You know, so we need to redefine these things which we have come—which have been thrown at us and which we’ve imbibed without thinking, not thinking, “Oh, what really is patriotism?” If we start really thinking about what it is, then we will reject these cries that you’re not patriotic, and we’ll say, “Patriotism is not supporting the government.” When the government does bad things, the most patriotic thing you can do is to criticize the government, because that’s the Declaration of Independence. That’s our basic democratic charter. The Declaration of Independence says governments are set up by the people to—they’re artificial creations. They’re set up to ensure certain rights, the equal right to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. So when governments become destructive of those ends, the Declaration said, “it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish” the government. That’s our basic democratic charter. People have forgotten what it is. It’s OK to alter or abolish the government when the government violates its trust. And then you are being patriotic. I mean, the government violates its trust, the government is being unpatriotic.
Yeah, so we have to think about these words and phrases that are thrown at us without giving us a time to think. And, you know, we have to redefine these words, like “national security.” What is national security? Lawyers say, “Well, this is for national security.” Well, that takes care of it. No, it doesn’t take care of it. This national security means different things to different people. Ah, there’s some people—for some people, national security means having military bases all over the world. For other people, national security means having healthcare, having jobs. You know, that’s security. And so, yeah, we need to sort of redefine these things.
We need to redefine “terrorism.” Otherwise, the government can throw these words at us: “Oh, we’re fighting against terrorism.” Oh, well, then I guess we have to do this. Wait a while, what do you mean by “terrorism”? Well, we sort of have an idea what terrorism means. Terrorism means that you kill innocent people for some belief that you have. Yeah, you know, sure, blowing up on 9/11, yeah, that was terrorist. But if that’s the definition of “terrorism,” killing innocent people for some belief you have, then war is terrorism.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn, the legendary historian, author of A People’s History of the United States and much more, he was speaking at Binghamton University. If you’d like a copy of today’s broadcast, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. We’ll come back to the conclusion of his address in a minute.
HOWARD ZINN: So, yeah, and I began to realize certain things, that war corrupts everybody, corrupts everybody who engages in it. You start off, they’re the bad guys. You make an interesting psychological jump. The jump is this: since they’re the bad guys, you must be the good guys. No, they may very well be the bad guys. They may be fascists and dictators and bad, really bad guys. That doesn’t mean you’re good, you know? And when I began to look at it that way, I realized that wars are fought by evils on both sides. You know, one is a little more evil than the other. But even though you start in a war with sort of good intentions—we’re going to defeat fascism, we’re going to do this—you end up being corrupted, you end up being violent, you end up killing a lot of innocent people, because you’ve decided from the beginning that you’re right, and then you don’t have to ask questions anymore. That’s an interesting psychological thing that you—trick that you play. Well, you start out—you make a decision at the very beginning. The decision is: they’re wrong, I’m right. Once you have made that decision, you don’t have to think anymore. Then anything you do goes. Anything you do is OK, because you made the decision early on that they’re bad, you’re good. Then you can kill several hundred thousand people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then you can kill 100,000 people in Dresden. It doesn’t matter. You’re not thinking about it. Yeah, war corrupts everybody who engages in it.So what else can I say about war? Lots of things. But I took out my watch presumably because I care. And I don’t.