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What a Great Power Can Do

An interview with historian Howard Zinn

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Terrorism and War - Interviews with Howard Zinn, edited by Anthony Arnove - (Seven Stories Press: New York), $9.95/paperback
  • Terrorism and War
    Interviews with Howard Zinn, edited by Anthony Arnove
    (Seven Stories Press: New York), $9.95/paperback

Pre-eminent American historian Howard Zinn is best known for his classic A People's History of the United States, a provocative interpretation of our nation's turbulent and dynamic history from the point of view of groups normally excluded from history texts. Widely taught in high schools and colleges across America, A People's History is currently being co-produced by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris Moore as an HBO series.

An anti-war activist, Zinn is no stranger to combat, having served as an Air Force bombardier in World War II. He is professor emeritus at Boston University and, most recently, author of Terrorism and War, a series of conversations on the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the historical context of terrorism, its causes and military responses.

The Independent spoke to Zinn by telephone from his home in Boston.

Indy: Is there such a thing or can there be a war on terrorism?

Zinn: No, I don't think there can be a war on terrorism. You can make war on an identifiable enemy, something you can locate. You can make war on Japan or Germany, but you cannot make war on terrorism; it has no locale, it has no identifiable place. It can spring up from hundreds of places.

President Bush said in his State of the Union speech that there are tens of thousands of terrorists at loose in the world ... how can you make war on something as elusive as that?

But if you are in the habit of making war, as our country is, you react to a terrorist act by picking out someplace on Earth and making war on it for lack of [doing] something more intelligent.

It's an excuse for not doing anything about the real grievances held by millions of people around the world. Out of those millions, [it's inevitable that] a small number will turn to terrorism. Terrorism will never be stopped.

Indy: Which developments at home and abroad since 9-11 should cause us the most concern?

Zinn: Abroad, we are behaving brutally, in a way that a humane society doesn't behave. The war [on terrorism] is an excuse for two things -- to take the wealth of the country and turn it into military hardware and to clamp down on human rights.

[At the same time we're spending billions on the war], I read the inside pages of the newspaper and find a story about 50,000 elderly people in Boston losing their health-care benefits because there's not enough money. Instead of using our wealth to ease the suffering of our own people and suffering people across the world, we are using it to expand our military might.

Meanwhile, we are treating noncitizens who, according to the Constitution, have rights, as if they have no constitutional rights -- picking up people in the middle of the night, detaining them, holding them without charges. The attorney general has been behaving like the Gestapo in Germany during World War II. It's no wonder that anyone from the Islamic world [living in the United States] has to worry about what's going to happen to them next.

Worse, if you don't support the president or the actions of his administration, you are labeled a traitor. In other words, we are moving closer to totalitarianism.

Indy: This week, while the news indicated that we were inching closer to a military attack on Iraq, amid national anxiety about the economic downturn, the president successfully raised $110 million, a record amount, for Republican candidates in midterm elections. Is this where his attention should be focused?

Zinn: When I spoke of the motive [for waging war], I left out the third: political advantage at home. It's an interesting thing. As the president is preparing for war with Iraq, he is also preparing for re-election.

There has always been a connection between American war and political benefit to the president who makes the war. We saw how important political motives were in the case of Kennedy and Johnson from the tapes that were released recently -- Kennedy was making a decision in 1963 about whether to withdraw troops from Vietnam, based on the upcoming election. Then listening to the Johnson tapes, we hear that he was worried about expanding, worried about the number of people getting killed in Vietnam, but saying, "Well, if I pull out they'll impeach me."

President Bush the elder was failing politically before he made war on Iraq. The younger President Bush has learned from that.

Indy: What do you think about the seeming absence of an organized anti-war movement in the U.S.?

Zinn: There's no national anti-war movement, but there are movements locally all across the country -- vigils, teach-ins, gatherings all over the country. Every day my e-mail correspondence tells me about things happening in various parts of the country, about people speaking out against the war. Today I heard about families, survivors of those killed in the Twin Towers attack, who are organizing a series of meetings with the American Friends Service Committee, Quakers, trying to bring a message of peace to the country.

I'm hopeful that anti-war groups are going to become unified, strong enough to change policy.

Indy: Is it possible, as the world's pre-eminent economic and military power, to avoid conflict in the world today with massive social upheaval in the Third World, in Central Asia, in Africa? What should our role be?

Zinn: First of all, our role should not be the world's pre-eminent military power. If that's the case, we are going to arouse more and more anger around the world.

What we should do with our economic power, our tremendous economic power, is not build up an enormous military machine, not spend $400 billion a year on military buildup. While we spend these billions, we have neglected people in Africa with AIDS. We have neglected the poor in Latin America. We have neglected a little country called Haiti and have impoverished them further with our sanctions against them.

But we are motivated to spend these billions, to continue a military expansion, by this very fanatical drive for expansion in the world -- I call it the imperial imperative, that which has driven, in modern times, many countries to continue expanding their power.

War on Afghanistan gave the U.S. government the ability to expand its power in Central Asia where we haven't had military bases before. Another critical motivating force is the drive to increase corporate profits, our determination to control the price and supply of oil. The drive for profit has driven American policy domestically and abroad.

But human needs are left behind when profit drives our motives.

Indy: How should we commemorate 9-11 as a nation? As individuals?

Zinn: We should commemorate 9-11 by not only grieving for the victims of the terrorist attack but grieving for people all over the world who have been victims of terrorism. Grieving for the people of Afghanistan who were attacked, crushed and displaced by our bombs.

We should be using [this historic event] not to narrow but to enlarge our vision of what a great power can do. We should use it as a moment to stop and think: What have we been doing in the world to bring about such animosity?

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