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What the left thinks: Howard Zinn, Part II

Tuesday, Sep 19, 2006

This is the second part of my radio dialogue with an icon of the Left, Howard Zinn, professor emeritus of Boston University, author of “A People’s History of the United States.” The intention of this ongoing series of what major leftists think is to enable people to see clearly what they believe. Then people can much better make up their minds about which side of the culture war they wish to identify with.

After Professor Zinn argued in Part I that America has not been a force for good in the world, I proceeded with the following questions:

DP: I believe that we [Americans] fought in Korea in order to enable at least half of that benighted peninsula to live in relative freedom and prosperity; the half that we did not liberate is living in the nightmare, almost Nazi-like, condition of the North Korean government. Why don’t you see that as a great good that Americans did?

HZ: I think that your description of the North Korean government is accurate. It’s sort of a monstrous government. But when we went to war in Korea the result of that war was the deaths of several million people. And I question whether the deaths . . . were worth the result. . . .

DP: If America had never intervened, do we both agree that Kim Il-sung, the psychopathic dictator of North Korea, would have ruled over the entire Korean peninsula?

HZ: I think that’s probably true.

DP: Do you believe that that would be a net moral or immoral result for the Korean people and the world?

HZ: That would have been an immoral result, but the result of the war itself was also immoral — I’m talking about the killing of several million people. And what I’m suggesting is that the answer to . . . tyrannies like that is not war, which in our time always involves the massive killing of innocent people. . . . I think we have to find ways other than war to get rid of dictatorships and tyrannies.

DP: I would love that. But this is where we often consider people on the Left, at best, to be naive. . . . Let’s talk about that naivete. You believe that there would have been another way to get rid of the Korean communists — whom we both agree are monstrous — as opposed to the Korean War. . . . This is the naivete of the Left, that ugly things can be gotten rid of in sweet ways.

HZ: Not sweet ways. I wouldn’t say that. And I wouldn’t say either in totally peaceful ways . . . by struggle and resistance but not by war. We have historical examples of what I’m talking about. The Soviet Union, Stalinism, was not overthrown by war. . . . Stalinism was really replaced, in time, by the Russian people themselves. . . . What I’m suggesting is that there are a number of places in the world where we have had tyrannies that have been overthrown without war. . . .

DP: Yes, there are. No one would deny that. And there are historical examples of where war is the only way to achieve a moral end.

HZ: Well, I’m not sure that’s the only way.

DP: Was there another way to have gotten rid of Hitler?

HZ: In the case of WWII, I don’t know what it would have taken to get rid of Hitler. We certainly had to resist him, we certainly had to get rid of him. . . . What bothers me most today is that people use WWII as an example for what we should do today. It’s a very different situation.

DP: No, we use it as an example of where war is the moral choice. Are you prepared to say that war is ever the best moral choice?

HZ: No.

DP: Never. Not even against Hitler?

HZ: Well, I’m not sure about WWII.

DP: Wow . . .

HZ: War has reached the point where when you wage war . . . there’s always a war against innocent people. . . . Let’s be very specific about today. Take the situation in Iraq. War is not a way to bring democracy to Iraq. We are not succeeding at it . . . we’re killing large numbers of people.

DP: Why are we not succeeding?

HZ: Because there is so much resistance in Iraq to the presence of a foreign invader.

DP: No, there’s so much resistance in Iraq to the presence of democracy. That’s where you and I have a different read on the resistance. . . . You feel that they are resisting the United States, and I feel that they are resisting democracy by blowing up their fellow citizens and hoping for moral chaos and civil war.

HZ: Well there certainly is civil war in Iraq. And we have brought it to Iraq.

We have brought it by the occupation of our troops. . . . Iraq is in chaos. Iraq is in violence. And the United States military presence has done nothing to stop that. It’s only aggravated it and provoked it. And the best thing we can do for Iraq right now is to get out of the place, and save the lives of our young people.

DP: What would happen if we did get out? Do you think that there would be fewer people dead or more?

HZ: I would hope that there would be fewer people dead.

DP: I believe if we left, the bloodbath would make what is happening now look like a very sad episode but not a bloodbath.

HZ: . . . The point is that war is the worst possible solution.

DP: That’s where we differ. It isn’t the worst possible. There are worse things than war. More people have died in North Korea . . . than died in the war that you thought we shouldn’t have waged. . . . So it isn’t the worst possible. It wasn’t the worst possible versus the Japanese. It wasn’t the worst possible versus the Nazis. Is it the worst possible in Afghanistan? Are we wrong there too?

HZ: It is the worst. In Afghanistan it was not a good idea to wage war on Afghanistan. Because the fact is that Bush did not know where Osama bin Laden was except that he was in the country. So what does he do? He bombs the country, kills 3,000 at least ordinary Afghans. That’s as many as died in the Twin Towers. And today after these years of bombing Afghanistan, driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. What have we accomplished in Afghanistan? The Taliban is back.

DP: No, it’s not back.

HZ: The Taliban now controls much of the country.

DP: But it doesn’t control Kabul. It doesn’t control the major cities. And women are now free to step out of their homes. Doesn’t that matter to you? HZ: It matters a lot to me. But I don’t think that liberation of women matters a lot to the Bush administration. . . .

DP: Whatever your view [about the war in Iraq] . . . would you say that by and large the people that we are fighting, the so-called insurgents, the people who blow up marketplaces and try to create civil war, are bad or evil people? Or would you not make a moral judgment?

HZ: I would certainly make a moral judgment about people who blow up things, who kill innocent people. And I would make a moral judgment on ourselves because we are killing innocent people in Iraq.

DP: So do you feel that, by and large, the Zarqawi-world and the Bush-world are moral equivalents?

HZ: I do. I would put Bush on trial along with Saddam Hussein, because I think both of them are responsible for the deaths of many, many people in Iraq, and so, yes, I think that. Killing innocent people is immoral when Iraqis do it, and when we do it, it is the same thing.

DP: Although we don’t target them, but I won’t get into that debate. I am just fleshing out your views.

HZ: Actually we should get into that. You know, as a former Air Force volunteer I can tell you, it is not necessary to target civilians. You just inevitably kill them. And the result is the same as if you targeted them.

DP: But we have a different punishment for premeditated murder and for accidental murder.

HZ: Yeah, but when you accidentally kill 100 times as many people as the other side kills in a premeditated way . . .

DP: But we haven’t done that . . .

HZ: But we have.

DP: Not in Iraq we certainly haven’t.

HZ: No, in Vietnam . . .

DP: Don’t go to Vietnam every time I ask an Iraq question.


DP: Next, Israel and its enemies. Would you say that Israel and Hezbollah are also moral equivalents?

HZ: Well, first of all, I certainly oppose Hezbollah’s firing rockets into Israel, and I think Israel reacted with absolutely unjustified immoral indiscriminate force. I mean, you look at the casualties on both sides, and the casualties among civilians in Lebanon is 10 times the casualties . . .

DP: Well, the casualties in Germany were 10 times those of the casualties in Britain. So are Britain and Hitler morally equivalent? You are making the assessment of morality on the basis of numbers killed.

HZ: No. I think regardless of the numbers, when you kill innocent people there is immorality. So there is immorality on both sides, but I think there is a case in the case of Israel where you have to get back to fundamental causes.

The fundamental cause of the violence on both sides is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and so long as that occupation continues . . .

DP: But they got out of Gaza. And according to President Clinton, the Palestinians were offered a Palestinian state with 97 percent of their land and 3 percent more from Israel.

HZ: Well that’s according to President Clinton. But not according to a lot of people who have been studying the Middle East . . .

DP: A lot of people on the Left, but not a lot of people studying it.

DP: Professor Zinn, I thank you so much for your time.

HZ: Thanks.

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