Howard Zinn on "War and Social
a lecture at Binghamton University,
New York, November 2008
Why is all the political rhetoric limited?
Why is the set of solutions given to social and economic issues
so cramped and so short of what is needed, so short of what the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights demands? And, yes, Obama,
who obviously is more attuned to the needs of people than his
opponent, you know, Obama, who is more far-sighted, more thoughtful,
more imaginative, why has he been limited in what he is saying?
Why hasn't he come out for what is called a single-payer system
Why-you see, you all know what the single-payer
system is. It's a sort of awkward term for it, maybe. It doesn't
explain what it means. But a single-payer health system means-well,
it will be sort of run like Social Security. It'll be a government
system. It won't depend on intermediaries, on middle people, on
insurance companies. You won't have to fill out forms and pay-you
know, and figure out whether you have a preexisting medical condition.
You won't have to go through that rigamarole, that rigamarole
which has kept 40 million people out of having health insurance.
No, something happens, you just go to a doctor, you go to a hospital,
you're taken care of, period. The government will pay for it.
Yeah, the government will pay for it. That's what governments
Governments, you know-they do that for
the military. Did you know that? That's what the military has.
The military has free insurance. I was once in the military. I
got pneumonia, which is easier to get in the military. I got pneumonia.
I didn't have to fool around with deciding what health plan I'm
in and what-you know. No, I was totally taken care of. I didn't
have to think about money. Just-you know, there are a million
members of the armed forces who have that. But when you ask that
the government do this for everybody else, they cry, "That's
socialism!" Well, if that's socialism, it must mean socialism
is good. You know.
No, I was really gratified when Obama
called for "Let's tax the rich more, and let's tax the poor
and middle class less." And they said, "That's socialism."
And I thought, "Whoa! I'm happy to hear that. Finally, socialism
is getting a good name." You know, socialism has been given
bad names, you know, Stalin and all those socialists, so-called
socialists. They weren't really socialist, but, you know, they
called themselves socialist. But they weren't really, you see.
And so, socialism got a bad name. It used to have a really good
name. Here in the United States, the beginning of the twentieth
century, before there was a Soviet Union to spoil it, you see,
socialism had a good name. Millions of people in the United States
read socialist newspapers. They elected socialist members of Congress
and socialist members of state legislatures. You know, there were
like fourteen socialist chapters in Oklahoma. Really. I mean,
you know, socialism-who stood for socialism? Eugene Debs, Helen
Keller, Emma Goldman, Clarence Darrow, Jack London, Upton Sinclair.
Yeah, socialism had a good name. It needs to be restored.
And so-but Obama, with all of his, well,
good will, intelligence, all those qualities that he has, and
so on-and, you know, you feel that he has a certain instinct for
people in trouble. But still, you know, he wouldn't come out for
a single-payer health system, that is, for what I would call health
security, to go along with Social Security, you see, wouldn't
come out for that; wouldn't come out for the government creating
jobs for millions of people, because that's what really is needed
now. You see, when people are-the newspapers this morning report
highest unemployment in decades, right? The government needs to
create jobs. Private enterprise is not going to create jobs. Private
enterprise fails, the so-called free market system fails, fails
again and again. When the Depression hit in the 1930s, Roosevelt
and the New Deal created jobs for millions of people. And, oh,
there were people on the-you know, out there on the fringe who
yelled "Socialism!" Didn't matter. People needed it.
If people need something badly, and somebody does something for
them, you can throw all the names you want at them, it won't matter,
you see? But that was needed in this campaign. Yes.
Instead of Obama and McCain joining together-I
know some of you may be annoyed that I'm being critical of Obama,
but that's my job. You know, I like him. I'm for him. I want him
to do well. I'm happy he won. I'm delighted he won. But I'm a
citizen. I have to speak my mind. OK? Yeah. And, you know-but
when I saw Obama and McCain sort of both together supporting the
$700 billion bailout, I thought, "Uh-oh. No, no. Please don't
do that. Please, Obama, step aside from that. Do what-I'm sure
something in your instincts must tell you that there's something
wrong with giving $700 billion to the same financial institutions
which ruined us, which got us into this mess, something wrong
with that, you see." And it's not even politically viable.
That is, you can't even say, "Oh, I'm doing it because people
will then vote for me." No. It was very obvious when the
$700 billion bailout was announced that the majority of people
in the country were opposed to it. Instinctively, they said, "Something
is wrong with this. Why give it to them? We need it."
That's when the government-you know, Obama
should have been saying, "No, let's take that $700 billion,
let's give it to people who can't pay their mortgages. Let's create
jobs, you know." You know, instead of pouring $700 billion
into the top and hoping that it will trickle down to the bottom,
no, go right to the bottom, where people need it and get-so, yes,
that was a disappointment. So, yeah, I'm trying to indicate what
we'll have to do now and to fulfill what Obama himself has promised:
change, real change. You can't have-you can say "change,"
but if you keep doing the old policies, it's not change, right?
So what stands in the way of Obama and
the Democratic Party, and what stands in the way of them really
going all out for a social and economic program that will fulfill
the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Well,
I can think of two things that stand in the way. Maybe there are
more, but I can only think of two things at a time. And, well,
one of them is simply the great, powerful economic interests that
don't want real economic change. Really, they don't. The powerful-I
mean, you take in healthcare, there are powerful interests involved
in the present healthcare system. People are making lots of money
from the healthcare system as it is, making so much money, and
that's why the costs of the healthcare system in the United States
are double what the healthcare costs are-the percentage, you know,
of money devoted to healthcare-percentage is double, administrative
costs in the United States, compared to countries that have the
single-payer system, because there are people there who are siphoning
off this money, who are making money. You know, they're health
plans. They're insurance companies. They're health executives
and CEOs, so that there are-yeah, there are interests, economic
interests that are in the way of real economic change.
And Obama so far has not challenged those
economic interests. Roosevelt did challenge those economic interests,
boldly, right frontally. He called them economic royalists. He
wasn't worried that people would say, "Oh, you're appealing
to class conflict," you know, the kind of thing they pull
out all the time, as if there isn't, hasn't always been class
conflict, just something new, you know. Class conflict. "You're
creating class conflict. We've never had class conflict. We've
always all been one happy family." You know, no. And so,
yeah, there are these interests standing in the way, and, you
know, unfortunately, the Democratic Party is tied to many of those
interests. Democratic Party is, you know, tied to a lot of corporate
interests. I mean, look at the people on Obama's-the people who
are on Obama's economics team, and they're Goldman Sachs people,
and they're former-you know, people like that, you know? That's
not-they don't represent change. They represent the old-style
Democratic stay-put leadership that's not good.
So, the other factor that stands in the
way of a real bold economic and social program is the war. The
war, the thing that has, you know, a $600 billion military budget.
Now, how can you call for the government to take over the healthcare
system? How can you call for the government to give jobs to millions
of people? How can you do all that? How can you offer free education,
free higher education, which is what we should have really? We
should have free higher education. Or how can you-you know. No,
you know, how can you double teachers' salaries? How can you do
all these things, which will do away with poverty in the United
States? It all costs money.
And so, where's that money going to come
from? Well, it can come from two sources. One is the tax structure.
And here, Obama [has] been moving in the right direction. When
he talked about not giving the rich tax breaks and giving tax
breaks to the poor-in the right direction, but not far enough,
because the top one percent of-the richest one percent of the
country has gained several trillions of dollars in the last twenty,
thirty years as a result of the tax system, which has favored
them. And, you know, you have a tax system where 200 of the richest
corporations pay no taxes. You know that? You can't do that. You
don't have their accountants. You don't have their legal teams,
and so on and so forth. You don't have their loopholes.
The war, $600 billion, we need that. We
need that money. But in order to say that, in order to say, "Well,
one, we're going to increase taxes on the super rich," much
more than Obama has proposed-and believe me, it won't make those
people poor. They'll still be rich. They just won't be super rich.
I don't care if there's some rich people around. But, you know,
no, we don't need super rich, not when that money is needed to
take care of little kids in pre-school, and there's no money for
pre-school. No, we need a radical change in the tax structure,
which will immediately free huge amounts of money to do the things
that need to be done, and then we have to get the money from the
military budget. Well, how do you get money from the military
budget? Don't we need $600 billion for a military budget? Don't
we have to fight two wars? No. We don't have to fight any wars.
And this is where Obama and the Democratic
Party have been hesitant, you know, to talk about. But we're not
hesitant to talk about it. The citizens should not be hesitant
to talk about it. If the citizens are hesitant to talk about it,
they would just reinforce the Democratic leadership and Obama
in their hesitations. No, we have to speak what we believe is
the truth. I think the truth is we should not be at war. We should
not be at war at all. I mean, these wars are absurd. They're horrible
also. They're horrible, and they're absurd. You know, from a human,
human point of view, they're horrible. You know, the deaths and
the mangled limbs and the blindness and the three million people
in Iraq losing their homes, having to leave their homes, three
million people-imagine?-having to look elsewhere to live because
of our occupation, because of our war for democracy, our war for
liberty, our war for whatever it is we're supposed to be fighting
No, we don't need-we need a president
who will say-yeah, I'm giving advice to Obama. I know he's listening.
But, you know, if enough people speak up, he will listen, right?
If enough people speak up, he will listen. You know, there's much
more of a chance of him listening, right, than those other people.
They're not listening. They wouldn't listen. Obama could possibly
listen, if we, all of us-and the thing to say is, we have to change
our whole attitude as a nation towards war, militarism, violence.
We have to declare that we are not going to engage in aggressive
wars. We are going to renounce the Bush Doctrine of preventive
war. "Oh, we have to go to"-you know, "We have
to go to war on this little pitiful country, because this little
pitiful country might someday"-do what? Attack us? I mean,
Iraq might attack us? "Well, they're developing a nuclear
weapon"-one, which they may have in five or ten years. That's
what all the experts said, even the experts on the government
side. You know, they may develop one nuclear weapon in five-wow!
The United States has 10,000 nuclear weapons. Nobody says, "How
about us?" you see. But, you know, well, you know all about
that. Weapons of mass destruct, etc., etc. No reason for us to
wage aggressive wars. We have to renounce war as an instrument
of foreign policy.
A hundred different countries, we have
military bases. That doesn't look like a peace-loving country.
And besides-I mean, first of all, of course, it's very expensive.
We save a lot of money. Do we really need those-what do we need
those bases for? I can't figure out what we need those bases for.
And, you know, so we have to-yeah, we have to give that up, and
we have to declare ourselves a peaceful nation. We will no longer
be a military superpower. "Oh, that's terrible!" There
are people who think we must be a military superpower. We don't
have to be a military superpower. We don't have to be a military
power at all, you see? We can be a humanitarian superpower. We
can-yeah. We'll still be powerful. We'll still be rich. But we
can use that power and that wealth to help people all over the
world. I mean, instead of sending helicopters to bomb people,
send helicopters when they face a hurricane or an earthquake and
they desperately need helicopters. You know, you know. So, yeah,
there's a lot of money available once you seriously fundamentally
change the foreign policy of the United States.
Now, Obama has been hesitant to do that.
And it has something to do with a certain mindset, because it
doesn't have anything to do really with politics, that is, with
more votes. I don't think-do you think most Americans know that
we have bases in a hundred countries? I'll bet you if you took
a poll and asked among the American people, "How many countries
do you think we have bases in?" "No, I don't know exactly
what the answer is. What I would guess, you know, there'd be like
five, ten." But I think most people would be surprised. In
other words, there isn't a public demanding that we have bases
in a hundred countries, so there's no political advantage to that.
Well, of course, there's economic advantage to corporations that
supply those bases and build those bases and make profit from
those bases, you know.
But in order to-and I do believe that
the American people would welcome a president who said, "We
are not going to wage aggressive war anymore." The American
people are not war-minded people. They become war-minded when
a president gets up there and creates an atmosphere of hysteria
and fear, you know, and says, "Well, we must go to war."
Then people, without thinking about it, without thinking, you
know, "Why are we bombing Afghanistan?" "Because,
oh, Osama bin Laden is there." "Uh, where?" Well,
they don't really know, so we'll bomb the country. You know, if
we bomb the country, maybe we'll get him. You see? Sure, in the
process, thousands of Afghans will die, right? But-so, people
didn't have time to stop and think, think. But the American people
are not war-minded people. They would welcome, I believe, a turn
away from war. So there's no real political advantage to that.
But it has to do with a mindset, a certain
mindset that-well, that a lot of Americans have and that Obama,
obviously, and the Democratic leadership, Pelosi and Harry Reid
and the others, that they all still have. And when you talk about
a mindset that they have, which stands in the way of the declaring
against war, you're reminded that during the campaign-I don't
know if you remember this-that at one point Obama said-and, you
know, there were many times in the campaign where he said really
good things, if he had only followed up on them, you see, and
if he only follows up on them now. But at one point in the campaign,
he said, "It's not just a matter of getting out of Iraq.
It's a matter of changing the mindset that got us into Iraq."
You see? That was a very important statement. Unfortunately, he
has not followed through by changing his mindset, you see? He
knows somewhere in-well, then he expressed it, that we have to
change our mindset, but he hasn't done it. Why? I don't know.
Is it because there are too many people around him and too many
forces around him, and etc., etc., that? But, no, that mindset
is still there. So I want to talk about what that mindset is,
what the elements of that mindset are.
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.
We have to stop thinking that solutions
to problems are military solutions, that you can solve problems
with violence. You can't really. You don't really solve problems
with violence. We have to change our definitions of "heroism."
Heroism in American culture, so far, really-when people think
of heroism, they think of military heroes. They think of the people
whose statues are all over the country, you know, and they think
of medals and battles. And yeah, these are military heroes. And
that's why Obama goes along with that definition of military-of
"hero," by referring to John McCain, you know, as a
military hero, always feeling that he must do that. I never felt
he must do that. John McCain, to my mind-and I know that this
is a tough thing to accept and may make some of the people angry-John
McCain was tortured and bore up under torture and was a victim
of torture and imprisonment, and, you know, it takes fortitude
to that. He's not a military hero. Before he was imprisoned, he
dropped bombs on innocent people. You know, he-yeah, he did what
the other members of the Air Force did. They dropped bombs on
peasant villages and killed a lot of innocent people. I don't
consider that heroism. So, we have to redefine. To me, the great
heroes are the people who have spoken out against war. Those are
the heroes, you know.
And so, well, I think-yeah, I think we
have to change, change our mindset. We have to understand certain
things that we haven't maybe thought about enough. I think one
of the things we haven't thought about enough-because this is
basic, and this is crucial-we haven't realized, or at least not
expressed it consciously, that the government's interests are
not the same as our interests. Really. And so, when they talk
about the national interest, they're creating what Kurt Vonnegut
used to call a "granfalloon." A granfalloon was, so,
a meaningless abstraction and when you put together that don't
belong together, you see a "national security"-no-and
"national interest." No, there's no one national interest.
There's the interest of the president of the United States, and
then there's the interest of the young person he sends to war.
They're different interests, you see? There is the interest of
Exxon and Halliburton, and there's the interest of the worker,
the nurse's aide, the teacher, the factory worker. Those are different
interests. Once you recognize that you and the government have
different interests, that's a very important step forward in your
thinking, because if you think you have a common interest with
the government, well, then it means that if the government says
you must do this and you must do that, and it's a good idea to
go to war here, well, the government is looking out for my interest.
No, the government is not looking out for your interest. The government
has its own interests, and they're not the interests of the people.
Not just true in the United States, it's true everywhere in the
world. Governments generally do not represent the interests of
their people. See? That's why governments keep getting overthrown,
because people at a certain point realize, "Hey! No, the
government is not serving my interest."
That's also why governments lie. Why do
governments lie? You must know that governments lie-not just our
government; governments, in general, lie. Why do they lie? They
have to lie, because their interests are different than the interests
of ordinary people. If they told the truth, they would be out
of office. So you have to recognize, you know, that the difference,
difference in interest.
And the-well, I have to say something
about war, a little more than I have said, and what I say about
them, because I've been emphasizing the importance of renouncing
war and not being a war-making nation, and because it will not
be enough to get us out of Iraq. One of these days, we'll get
out of Iraq. We have to get out of Iraq. We don't belong there.
And we're going to have to get out of there. Sooner or later,
we're going to have to get out of there. But we don't want to
have to-we don't want to get out of Iraq and then have to get
out of somewhere else. We don't have to get out of Iraq but keep
troops in Afghanistan, as unfortunately, you know, Obama said,
troops in Afghanistan. No, no more-not just Iraq. We have to get
into a mindset about renouncing war, period, and which is a big
And my ideas about war, my thoughts about
war, the sort of the conclusions that I've come to about war,
they really come from two sources. One, from my study of history.
Of course, not everybody who studies history comes to the same
conclusions. But, you know, you have to listen to various people
who study history and decide what makes more sense, right? I've
looked at various histories. I've concluded that my history makes
more sense. And I've always been an objective student of these
things, yes. But my-yeah, my ideas about war come from two sources.
One of them is studying history, the history of wars, the history
of governments, the history of empires. That history helps a lot
in straightening out your thinking.
And the other is my own experience in
war. You know, I was in World War II. I was a Air Force bombardier.
I dropped bombs on various cities in Europe. That doesn't make
me an expert. Lots of people were in wars, and they all come out
with different opinions. Well, so all I can do is give you my
opinion based on my thinking after having been in a war. I was
an enthusiastic enlistee in the Air Force. I wanted to be in the
war, war against fascism, the "good war," right? But
at the end of the war, as I looked around and surveyed the world
and thought about what I had done and thought about-and learned
about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and learned about Dresden and learned
about Hamburg and learned things I didn't even realize while I
was bombing, because when you're involved in a military operation,
you don't think. You just-you're an automaton, really. You may
be a well-educated and technically competent automaton, but that's
what you-you aren't really-you're not questioning, not questioning
why. "Why are they sending me to bomb this little town? When
the war is almost over, there's no reason for dropping bombs on
several thousand people." No, you don't think.
Well, I began to think after the war and
began to think that-and I was thinking now about the good war,
the best war, and I was thinking, "Oh." And then I began
to see, no, this good war is not simply good. This best of wars,
no. And if that's true of this war, imagine what is true of all
the other obviously ugly wars about which you can't even use the
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. But I-you know, people will present you with humanitarian
awards. Oh, this is for a good cause. The thing about war is the
outcome is unpredictable. The immediate thing you do is predictable.
The immediate thing you do is horrible, because war is horrible.
And if somebody promises you that, "Well, this is horrible,
like we have to bomb these hundreds of thousands of people in
Japan. This is horrible, but it's leading to a good thing,"
truth is, you never know what this is leading to. You never know
the outcome. You never know what the future is. You know that
the present is evil, and you're asked to commit this evil for
some possible future good. Doesn't make sense, especially since
if you look at the history of wars, you find out that those so-called
future goods don't materialize. You know, the future good of World
War II was, "Oh, now we're rid of fascism. Now we're going
to have a good world, a peaceful world. Now the UN Charter, the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 50 million people died
in World War II, but now it's going to be OK." Well, you've
lived these years since World War II. Has it been OK? Can you
say that those 50 million lives were-yeah, it had to be done because-because
of what? No, the wars-violence in general is a quick fix. It may
give you a feeling that you've accomplished something, but it's
unpredictable in its ends. And because it's corrupting, the ends
are usually bad.
So, OK, I won't say anything more about
war. And, you know, of course, it wastes people. It wastes wealth.
It's an enormous, enormous waste.
And so, what is there to do? We need to
educate ourselves and other people. We need to educate ourselves
in history. History is very important. That's why I went into
a little history, because, you know, if you don't know history,
it's as if you were born yesterday. If you were born yesterday,
then any leader can tell you anything, you have no way of checking
up on it. History is very important. I don't mean formal history,
what you learn in a classroom. No, history, if you're learning,
go to the library. Go-yeah, go to the library and read, read,
learn, learn history. Yeah, so we have an educational job to do
We have an educational job to do about
our relationship to government, you know, and to realize that
disobedience is essential to democracy, you see. And it's important
to understand democracy is not the three branches of government.
It's not what they told us in junior high school. "Oh, this
is democracy. We have three branches of government, kiddos, the
legislative, the executive, judicial. We have checks and balances
that balance one another out. If somebody does something bad,
it will be checked by"-wow! What a neat system! Nothing can
go wrong. Well, now, those structures are not democracy. Democracy
is the people. Democracy is social movements. That's what democracy
is. And what history tells us is that when injustices have been
remedied, they have not been remedied by the three branches of
government. They've been remedied by great social movements, which
then push and force and pressure and threaten the three branches
of government until they finally do something. Really, that's
And no, we mustn't be pessimistic. We
mustn't be cynical. We mustn't think we're powerless. We're not
powerless. That's where history comes in. If you look at history,
you see people felt powerless and felt powerless and felt powerless,
until they organized, and they got together, and they persisted,
and they didn't give up, and they built social movements. Whether
it was the anti-slavery movement or the black movement of the
1960s or the antiwar movement in Vietnam or the women's movement,
they started small and apparently helpless; they became powerful
enough to have an effect on the nation and on national policy.
We're not powerless. We just have to be persistent and patient,
not patient in the passive sense, but patient in the active sense
of having a kind of faith that if all of us do little things-well,
if all of us do little things, at some point there will be a critical
mass created. Those little things will add up. That's what has
happened historically. People were disconsolate, and people thought
they couldn't end, but they kept doing, doing, doing, and then
something important happened.
And I'll leave you with just one more
thought, that if you do that, if you join some group, if you join
whatever the group is, a group that's working on, you know, gender
equality or racism or immigrant rights or the environment or the
war, whatever group you join or whatever little action you take,
you know, it will make you feel better. It will make you feel
better. And I'm not saying we should do all these things just
to make ourselves feel better, but it's good to know that life
becomes more interesting and rewarding when you become involved
with other people in some great social cause. Thank you.
Howard Zinn page