Just Cause, Not a Just War
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, December 2001, p16
I believe two moral judgments can be made about the present
"war": The September 11 attack constitutes a crime against
humanity and cannot be justified, and the bombing of Afghanistan
is also a crime, which cannot be justified.
And yet, voices across the political spectrum, including many
on the left, have described this as a "just war." One
longtime advocate of peace, Richard Falk, wrote in The Nation
that this is "the first truly just war since World War II."
Robert Kuttner, another consistent supporter of social justice,
declared in The American Prospect that only people on the extreme
left could believe this is not a just war.
I have puzzled over this. How can a war be truly just when
it involves the daily killing of civilians, when it causes hundreds
of thousands of men, women, and children to leave their homes
to escape the bombs, when it may not find those who planned the
September 11 attacks, and when it will multiply the ranks of people
who are angry enough at this country to become terrorists themselves?
This war amounts to a gross violation of human rights, and
it will produce the exact opposite of what is wanted: It will
not end terrorism; it will proliferate terrorism.
I believe that the progressive supporters of the war have
confused a "just cause" with a "just war."
There are unjust causes, such as the attempt of the United States
to establish its power in Vietnam, or to dominate Panama or Grenada,
or to subvert the government of Nicaragua. And a cause may be
just-getting North Korea to withdraw from South Korea, getting
Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait, or ending terrorism-but
it does not follow that going to war on behalf of that cause,
with the inevitable mayhem that follows, is just.
The stories of the effects of our bombing are beginning to
come through, in bits and pieces. Just eighteen days into the
bombing, The New York Times reported: "American forces have
mistakenly hit a residential area in Kabul." Twice, U.S.
planes bombed Red Cross warehouses, and a Red Cross spokesman
said: "Now we've got 55,000 people without that food or blankets,
with nothing at all."
An Afghan elementary schoolteacher told a Washington Post
reporter at the Pakistan border: "When the bombs fell near
my house and my babies started crying, I had no choice but to
A New York Times report: "The Pentagon acknowledged that
a Navy F/A-18 dropped a 1,000-pound bomb on Sunday near what officials
called a center for the elderly.... The United Nations said the
building was a military hospital.... Several hours later, a Navy
F-14 dropped two 500 pound bombs on a residential area northwest
of Kabul." A U.N. official told a New York Times reporter
that an American bombing raid on the city of Herat had used cluster
bombs, which spread deadly "bomblets" over an area of
twenty football fields. This, the Times reporter wrote, "was
the latest of a growing number of accounts of American bombs going
astray and causing civilian casualties."
An A.P. reporter was brought to Karam, a small mountain village
hit by American bombs, and saw houses reduced to rubble. "In
the hospital in Jalalabad, twenty-five miles to the east, doctors
treated what they said were twenty-three victims of bombing at
Karam, one a child barely two months old, swathed in bloody bandages,"
according to the account. "Another child, neighbors said,
was in the hospital because the bombing raid had killed her entire
family. At least eighteen fresh graves were scattered around the
The city of Kandahar, attacked for seventeen straight days,
was reported to be a ghost town, with more than half of its 500,000
people fleeing the bombs. The city's electrical grid had been
knocked out. The city was deprived of water, since the electrical
pumps could not operate. A sixty-year-old farmer told the A.P.
reporter, "We left in fear of our lives. Every day and every
night, we hear the roaring and roaring of planes, we see the smoke,
the fire.... I curse them both-the Taliban and America."
A New York Times report from Pakistan two weeks into the bombing
campaign told of wounded civilians coming across the border. "Every
half-hour or so throughout the day, someone was brought across
on a stretcher.... Most were bomb victims, missing limbs or punctured
by shrapnel.... A young boy, his head and one leg wrapped in bloodied
bandages, clung to his father's back as the old man trudged back
That was only a few weeks into the bombing, and the result
had already been to frighten hundreds of thousands of Afghans
into abandoning their homes and taking to the dangerous, mine-strewn
roads. The "war against terrorism" has become a war
against innocent men, women, and children, who are in no way responsible
for the terrorist attack on New York.
And yet there are those who say this is a "just war."
Terrorism and war have something in common. They both involve
the killing of innocent people to achieve what the killers believe
is a good end. I can see an immediate objection to this equation:
They (the terrorists) deliberately kill innocent people; we (the
war makers) aim at "military targets," and civilians
are killed by accident, as "collateral damage."
Is it really an accident when civilians die under our bombs?
Even if you grant that the intention is not to kill civilians,
if they nevertheless become victims, again and again and again,
can that be called an accident? If the deaths of civilians are
inevitable in bombing, it may not be deliberate, but it is not
an accident, and the bombers cannot be considered innocent. They
are committing murder as surely as are the terrorists.
The absurdity of claiming innocence in such cases becomes
apparent when the death tolls from "collateral damage"
reach figures far greater than the lists of the dead from even
the most awful act of terrorism. Thus, the "collateral damage"
in the Gulf War caused more people to die- hundreds of thousands,
if you include the victims of our sanctions policy-than the very
deliberate terrorist attack of September 11. The total of those
who have died in Israel from Palestinian terrorist bombs is somewhere
under 1,000. The number of dead from "collateral damage"
in the bombing of Beirut during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in
1982 was roughly 6,000.
We must not match the death lists-it is an ugly exercise-as
if one atrocity is worse than another. No killing of innocents,
whether deliberate or "accidental," can be justified.
My argument is that when children die at the hands of terrorists,
or- whether intended or not-as a result of bombs dropped from
airplanes, terrorism and war become equally unpardonable.
Let's talk about "military targets." The phrase
is so loose that President Truman, after the nuclear bomb obliterated
the population of Hiroshima, could say: "The world will note
that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military
base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid,
insofar as possible, the killing of civilians."
What we are hearing now from our political leaders is, "We
are targeting military objectives. We are trying to avoid killing
civilians. But that will happen, and we regret it." Shall
the American people take moral comfort from the thought that we
are bombing only "military targets"?
The reality is that the term "military" covers all
sorts of targets that include civilian populations. When our bombers
deliberately destroy, as they did in the war against Iraq, the
electrical infrastructure, thus making water purification and
sewage treatment plants inoperable and leading to epidemic waterborne
diseases, the deaths of children and other civilians cannot be
Recall that in the midst of the Gulf War, the U.S. military
bombed an air raid shelter, killing 400 to 500 men, women, and
children who were huddled to escape bombs. The claim was that
it was a military target, housing a communications center, but
reporters going through the ruins immediately afterward said there
was no sign of anything like that.
I suggest that the history of bombing-and no one has bombed
more than this nation-is a history of endless atrocities, all
calmly explained by deceptive and deadly language like "accident,"
"military targets," and "collateral damage."
Indeed, in both World War II and in Vietnam, the historical
record shows that there was a deliberate decision to target civilians
in order to destroy the morale of the enemy- hence the firebombing
of Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, the B-52s over Hanoi, the jet bombers
over peaceful villages in the Vietnam countryside. When some argue
that we can engage in "limited military action" without
"an excessive use of force," they are ignoring the history
of bombing. The momentum of war rides roughshod over limits.
The moral equation in Afghanistan is clear. Civilian casualties
are certain. The outcome is uncertain. No one knows what this
bombing will accomplish-whether it will lead to the capture of
Osama Bin Laden (perhaps), or the end of the Taliban (possibly),
or a democratic Afghanistan (very unlikely), or an end to terrorism
(almost certainly not).
And meanwhile, we are terrorizing the population (not the
terrorists, they are not easily terrorized). Hundreds of thousands
are packing their belongings and their children onto carts and
leaving their homes to make dangerous journeys to places they
think might be more safe.
Not one human life should be expended in this reckless violence
called a "war against terrorism."
We might examine the idea of pacifism in the light of what
is going on right now. I have never used the word "pacifist"
to describe myself, because it suggests something absolute, and
I am suspicious of absolutes. I want to leave openings for unpredictable
possibilities. There might be situations (and even such strong
pacifists as Gandhi and Martin Luther King believed this) when
a small, focused act of violence against a monstrous, immediate
evil would be justified.
In war, however, the proportion of means to ends is very,
very different. War, by its nature, is unfocused, indiscriminate,
and especially in our time when the technology is so murderous,
inevitably involves the deaths of large numbers of people and
the suffering of even more. Even in the "small wars"
(Iran vs. Iraq, the Nigerian war, the Afghan war), a million people
die. Even in a "tiny" war like the one we waged in Panama,
a thousand or more die.
Scott Simon of NPR wrote a commentary in The Wall Street Journal
on October 11 entitled, "Even Pacifists Must Support This
War." He tried to use the pacifist acceptance of self-defense,
which approves a focused resistance to an immediate attacker,
to justify this war, which he claims is "self-defense."
But the term "self-defense" does not apply when you
drop bombs all over a country and kill lots of people other than
your attacker. And it doesn't apply when there is no likelihood
that it will achieve its desired end.
Pacifism, which I define as a rejection of war, rests on a
very powerful logic. In war, the means-indiscriminate killing-are
immediate and certain; the ends, however desirable, are distant
Pacifism does not mean "appeasement." That word
is often hurled at those who condemn the present war on Afghanistan,
and it is accompanied by references to Churchill, Chamberlain,
Munich. World War II analogies are conveniently summoned forth
when there is a need to justify a war, however irrelevant to a
particular situation. At the suggestion that we withdraw from
Vietnam, or not make war on Iraq, the word appeasement" was
bandied about. The glow of the "good war" has repeatedly
been used to obscure the nature of all the bad wars we have fought
Let's examine that analogy. Czechoslovakia was handed to the
voracious Hitler to "appease" him. Germany was an aggressive
nation expanding its power, and to help it in its expansion was
not wise. But today we do not face an expansionist power that
demands to be appeased. We ourselves are the expansionist power-troops
in Saudi Arabia, bombings of Iraq, military bases all over the
world, naval vessels on every sea-and that, along with Israel's
expansion into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has aroused anger.
It was wrong to give up Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler.
It is not wrong to withdraw our military from the Middle East,
or for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, because
there is no right to be there. That is not appeasement. That is
Opposing the bombing of Afghanistan does not constitute "giving
in to terrorism or appeasement." It asks that other means
be found than war to solve the problems that confront us. King
and Gandhi both believed in action-nonviolent direct action, which
is more powerful and certainly more morally defensible than war.
To reject war is not to "turn the other cheek,"
as pacifism has been caricatured. It is, in the present instance,
to act in ways that do not imitate the terrorists.
The United States could have treated the September 11 attack
as a horrific criminal act that calls for apprehending the culprits,
using every device of intelligence and investigation possible.
It could have gone to the United Nations to enlist the aid of
other countries in the pursuit and apprehension of the terrorists.
There was also the avenue of negotiations. (And let's not
hear: "What? Negotiate with those monsters?" The United
States negotiated with-indeed, brought into power and kept in
power-some of the most monstrous governments in the world.) Before
Bush ordered in the bombers, the Taliban offered to put bin Laden
on trial. This was ignored. After ten days of air attacks, when
the Taliban called for a halt to the bombing and said they would
be willing to talk about handing bin Laden to a third country
for trial, the headline the next day in The New York Times read:
"President Rejects Offer by Taliban for Negotiations,"
and Bush was quoted as saying: "When I said no negotiations,
I meant no negotiations."
That is the behavior of someone hell-bent on war. There were
similar rejections of negotiating possibilities at the start of
the Korean War, the war in Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the bombing
of Yugoslavia. The result was an immense loss of life and incalculable
International police work and negotiations were-still are-alternatives
to war. But let's not deceive ourselves; even if we succeeded
in apprehending bin Laden or, as is unlikely, destroying the entire
Al Qaeda network, that would not end the threat of terrorism,
which has potential recruits far beyond Al Qaeda.
To get at the roots of terrorism is complicated. Dropping
bombs is simple. It is an old response to what everyone acknowledges
is a very new situation. At the core of unspeakable and unjustifiable
acts of terrorism are justified grievances felt by millions of
people who would not themselves engage in terrorism but from whose
ranks terrorists spring.
Those grievances are of two kinds: the existence of profound
misery- hunger, illness-in much of the world, contrasted to the
wealth and luxury of the West, especially the United States; and
the presence of American military power everywhere in the world,
propping up oppressive regimes and repeatedly intervening with
force to maintain U.S. hegemony.
This suggests actions that not only deal with the long-term
problem of terrorism but are in themselves just.
Instead of using two planes a day to drop food on Afghanistan
and 100 planes to drop bombs (which have been making it difficult
for the trucks of the international agencies to bring in food),
use 102 planes to bring food.
Take the money allocated for our huge military machine and
use it to combat starvation and disease around the world. One-third
of our military budget would annually provide clean water and
sanitation facilities for the billion people in the world who
Withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia, because their presence
near the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina angers not just bin
Laden (we need not care about angering him) but huge numbers of
Arabs who are not terrorists.
Stop the cruel sanctions on Iraq, which are killing more than
a thousand children every week without doing anything to weaken
Saddam Hussein's tyrannical hold over the country.
Insist that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories,
something that many Israelis also think is right, and which will
make Israel more secure than it is now.
In short, let us pull back from being a military superpower,
and become a humanitarian superpower.
Let us be a more modest nation. We will then be more secure.
The modest nations of the world don't face the threat of terrorism.
Such a fundamental change in foreign policy is hardly to be
expected. It would threaten too many interests: the power of political
leaders, the ambitions of the military, the corporations that
profit from the nation's enormous military commitments.
Change will come, as at other times in our history, only when
American citizens-becoming better informed, having second thoughts
after the first instinctive support for official policy-demand
it. That change in citizen opinion, especially if it coincides
with a pragmatic decision by the government that its violence
isn't working, could bring about a retreat from the military solution.
It might also be a first step in the rethinking of our nation's
role in the world. Such a rethinking contains the promise, for
Americans, of genuine security, and for people elsewhere, the
beginning of hope.
Howard Zinn is a columnist for The Progressive.