Howard Zinn’s death earlier this year robbed us of one of the most important post-war historians – someone who wasn’t afraid to criticise or condemn governments and leaders.
In his lifetime Zinn wrote many passionate works designed to inspire and arm those who wanted to stand up against injustice. This final, posthumous work is a short polemic against modern military might as a way of bringing justice.
Serving as an air force bombardier in the Second World War, Zinn knew that he played his role in the mass bombing of civilian targets. The bombardiers of today, he says, are “in the same position I was in, following orders without question, oblivious of the human consequences of our bombing”. He describes his happiness on hearing of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, without any real idea of what an atom bomb was. He felt the war was at an end.
Zinn spends some time dwelling on the human consequences of the atom bombs and the missions he himself took part in. In the immediate aftermath of the war a civil censorship code blocked reporting of the suffering from the atom bombs. But it is important to highlight this suffering, he argues, because otherwise we cannot judge whether it was right to drop the weapons that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.
For Zinn there is no argument. He cites evidence that the US knew of the Japanese movement towards peace and he argues that the deliberate choice of cities with high-density civilian populations was nothing less than terrorism. This wasn’t about ending the war quickly and with fewer casualties but a demonstration of US military power.
A similar point is made about a crime that Zinn himself took part in – the destruction of the French coastal town of Royan. A few days short of the end of the war, heavy bombing utterly destroyed this military backwater. Once again the US was demonstrating a new weapon – napalm. But Zinn also argues that despite the obvious military pointlessness of the attack, no one expressed their misgivings.
There is one criticism that should be made. It is surprising that a historian of Zinn’s stature uses as a source the work of Holocaust denier David Irving. Zinn quotes Irving’s 1964 book on the Allied destruction of Dresden. Yet this is a work that has often been criticised for factual error and distortion. Zinn should have been aware of the nature of Irving’s work and it is a strange inclusion.
This, however, doesn’t undermine the general thrust of Zinn’s argument – we live in a world where those in power are prepared to murder on a phenomenal scale to protect their power and advance their economic interests. We all have a role in preventing that happening again.
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