Operation Enduring War
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, March 2002
We are winning the war on terror." I learn this from
George Bush's State of the Union Address. "Our progress,"
he said, "is a tribute to the might of the United States
military." My hometown newspaper, The Boston Globe, is congratulatory:
"On the war front, the Administration has much to take pride
But the President also tells us that "tens of thousands
of trained terrorists are still at large." That hardly suggests
we are "winning the war." Furthermore, he says, there
is a "grave and growing danger."
Bush singled out Iran, Iraq, and North Korea because they
may be building "weapons of mass destruction." And that's
not all: "Terror training camps still exist in at least a
dozen countries," he says.
The prospect is for a war without end. In no previous Administration
has any President ever talked about such a war. Indeed, Presidents
have been anxious to assure the nation that the sacrifices demanded
would be finite, and as each war went on, we were told, as in
Vietnam, there was "light at the end of the tunnel."
No light is visible in this war on terrorism, for, as the
President says, "These enemies view the entire world as a
battlefield, and we must pursue them wherever they are."
It seems necessary for the nation to remain frightened. The
enemy is everywhere. "The campaign may not be finished on
our watch," Bush says. He will pass on the job to the next
President, and perhaps the next and the next.
This is an elusive enemy, whose defeat will require an endless
war. And so long as the nation is in a state of war, it is possible
to demand of the American people certain sacrifices.
Immediately, we must sacrifice our freedoms (although the
war is presumably to protect freedom). "We choose freedom
and the dignity of every life," the President said. But we
cannot choose freedom now. For now, we must give up the freedoms
promised by our Bill of Rights.
Thus Congress has passed legislation to give the government
sweeping new powers to keep watch over us, enlarging its right
to spy with wiretaps and computer surveillance, and allowing officials
to conduct secret searches of homes and offices.
The Secretary of State can designate any organization as a
terrorist organization, and his decision is not subject to review.
The USA Patriot Act defines a "domestic terrorist" as
someone who violates the law and is engaged in activities that
"appear to be intended to . . . influence the policy of government
by intimidation or coercion." This could make many activist
organizations subject to designation as terrorist organizations.
As for noncitizens-and there are twenty million of them in the
United States-they can now be subject to indefinite detention
So we now have all sorts of enemies to fear-noncitizens and
dissidents at home, an infinite number of mysterious enemies abroad.
We will have to concentrate not only our resources but our attention
on that endless war. We will be looking everywhere in the world
for our enemies.
We will not be paying attention to the thousands who die in
this country not at the hands of terrorists but because of the
profit system, the "free market." When I spoke recently
on a radio show in Madison, Wisconsin, a caller asked: Why, grieving
as we all should for the thousands of victims of the September
11 action, were we not grieving also for the thousands of people
who die on the job, in industrial accidents?
We could extend that question: Why are we not grieving also
for the thousands of children who die every year in this country
for lack of food and medical care?
The answer seems clear: To do that would call attention not
to obscure foreign terrorists but to a system of corporate domination
in which profits come before the safety of workers. It would call
attention to a political system in which the government can fund
hundreds of billions for its military machine but cannot find
the money to give free health care, decent housing, minimum family
incomes- all those requisites for children to grow up healthy.
It is right to mourn the deaths of 3,000 people who died at
the hands of terrorists. But we should also know that every day,
according to the U.N. World Food Programme, 11,000 children die
of hunger around the world.
The bombs on Afghanistan and the talk of endless war deflect
our attention from the millions in Africa, Asia, the Middle East,
who die of hunger and disease, victims of a global market system
indifferent to human needs.
The World Health Organization, in a report last year entitled
"Determinants of Malnutrition," said: "A11 too
frequently, the poor in fertile developing countries stand by
watching with empty hands-and empty stomachs-while ample harvests
and bumper crops are exported for hard cash. Short-term profits
for a few, long-term losses for many. Hunger is a question of
maldistribution and inequality, not lack of food."
The economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has written:
"Global capitalism is much more concerned with expanding
the domain of market relations than with, say, establishing democracy,
expanding elementary education, or enhancing the social opportunities
of society's underdogs."
The hundreds of millions of people in the United States and
the rest of the world who are without medical care or food or
work are the collateral damage of what Pope John Paul once called
"savage, unbridled capitalism." That damage is kept
out of sight by the "war on terrorism." The war not
only provides huge profits to military contractors and power to
the politicians but blocks out the conditions of people's lives,
here and abroad.
What shall we do? We start with W the core problem: that there
is immense wealth available, enough to care for the urgent needs
of everyone on Earth, and that this wealth is being monopolized
by a small number of individuals, who squander it on luxuries
and war while millions die and more millions live in misery.
This is a problem understood by people everywhere, because
it has a simplicity absent in issues of war and nationalism. That
is, they know with supreme clarity-when their attention is not
concentrated by the government and the media on waging war-that
the world is run by the rich, and that money decides politics,
culture, and some of the most intimate human relations.
The evidence for this is piling up, and becoming hard to put
The collapse of the gargantuan Enron Corporation-with its
wholesale loss of jobs and the sudden disappearance of health
insurance and retirement pensions-points to an economic system
that is inherently corrupt.
The sudden impoverishment of Argentina, one of the richest
countries in Latin America, provides more evidence. We are seeing
the results of the free market" and "free trade"
and the demands for "privatization" in the rules of
the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Instead of
the public taking charge of basic services-water, heat, transportation-
private companies took over, and the results were disastrous (as
in Bolivia and other countries). In the case of Argentina, a French
company took over the water system and quadrupled the fees charged
While criticizing the war on terrorism and exposing its many
hypocrisies, we need to realize if we do only that, we, too, become
victims of the war. We, too-like so many Americans listening to
the President's frightening picture of enemies here, there, everywhere-will
have been diverted . from an idea that could unite Americans as
surely as fear of terrorists.
That idea is a startling one, but immediately recognizable
as true: Our most deadly enemies are not in caves and compounds
abroad but in the corporate boardrooms and governmental offices
where decisions are made that consign millions to death and misery-not
deliberately, but as the collateral damage of the lust for profit
It may be an idea whose time has come. We will need the spirit
of Seattle and Porto Alegre, a reinvigorated labor movement, a
mobilization of people across the rainbow, the beginning of global
solidarity, looking to a long-delayed sharing of the fruits of
Howard Zinn is a columnist for The Progressive.