The late Howard Zinn’s new book The Bomb is a brilliant little dissection of some of the central myths of our militarized society. Those who’ve read A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments, by H.P. Albarelli Jr. know that this is a year for publishing the stories of horrible things that the United States has done to French towns. In that case, Albarelli, describes the CIA administering LSD to an entire town, with deadly results. In “The Bomb,” Zinn describes the U.S. military making its first use of napalm by dropping it all over another French town, burning anyone and anything it touched. Zinn was in one of the planes, taking part in this horrendous crime.
In mid-April 1945, the war in Europe was essentially over. Everyone knew it was ending. There was no military reason (if that’s not an oxymoron) to attack the Germans stationed near Royan, France, much less to burn the French men, women, and children in the town to death. The British had already destroyed the town in January, similarly bombing it because of its vicinity to German troops, in what was widely called a tragic mistake. This tragic mistake was rationalized as an inevitable part of war, just as were the horrific firebombings that successfully reached German targets, just as was the later bombing of Royan with napalm.
Zinn blames the Supreme Allied Command for seeking to add a “victory” in the final weeks of a war already won. He blames the local military commanders’ ambitions. He blames the American Air Force’s desire to test a new weapon. And he blames everyone involved — which must include himself — for “the most powerful motive of all: the habit of obedience, the universal teaching of all cultures, not to get out of line, not even to think about that which one has not been assigned to think about, the negative motive of not having either a reason or a will to intercede.”
When Zinn returned from the war in Europe, he expected to be sent to the war in the Pacific, until he saw and rejoiced at seeing the news of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, 65 years ago this August. Only years later did Zinn come to understand the inexcusable crime of the greatest proportions that was the dropping of nuclear bombs in Japan, actions similar in some ways to the final bombing of Royan.
The war with Japan was already over, the Japanese seeking peace and willing to surrender. Japan asked only that it be permitted to keep its emperor, a request that was later granted. But, like napalm, the nuclear bombs were weapons that needed testing. The second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki, was a different sort of bomb that also needed testing. President Harry Truman wanted to demonstrate nuclear bombs to the world and especially to Russia. And he wanted to end the war with Japan before Russia became part of it. The horrific form of mass murder he employed was in no way justifiable.
Zinn also goes back to dismantle the mythical reasons the United States was in the war to begin with. The United States, England, and France were imperial powers supporting each other’s international aggressions in places like the Philippines. They opposed the same from Germany and Japan, but not aggression itself. Most of America’s tin and rubber came from the Southwest Pacific. The United States made clear for years its lack of concern for the Jews being attacked in Germany. It also demonstrated its lack of opposition to racism through its treatment of African Americans and Japanese Americans.
Franklin D. Roosevelt described fascist bombing campaigns over civilian areas as “inhuman barbarity” but then did the same on a much larger scale to German cities, which was followed up by the destruction on an unprecedented scale of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — actions that came after years of dehumanizing the Japanese. Zinn points out that “LIFE magazine showed a picture of a Japanese person burning to death and commented: ‘This is the only way.'” Aware that the war would end without any more bombing, and aware that U.S. prisoners of war would be killed by the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, the U.S. military went ahead and dropped the bombs.
Americans allowed these things to be done in their name, just as the Germans and Japanese allowed horrible crimes to be committed in their names. Zinn points out, with his trademark clarity, how the use of the word “we” blends governments together with peoples and serves to equate our own people with our military, while we demonize the people of other lands because of actions by their governments. “The Bomb” suggest a better way to think about such matters and firmly establishes that
- what the U.S. military is doing now, today, parallels the crimes of the past and shares their dishonorable motivations;
- the bad wars have a lot in common with the so-called “good war,” about which there was little if anything good;
- Howard Zinn did far more in his life for peace than for war, and more for peace than just about anybody else, certainly more than several Nobel Peace Prize winners.
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