Howard Zinn, introduction to “Bomb after Bomb”

December 19th, 2007

This is an introductory essay that social critic and historian Howard Zinn wrote for Bomb after Bomb, by elin o’Hara slavick, a collection of cartographic drawings–based on military surveillance imagery, aerial photographs, battle plans, maps, and mass media sources–of American aerial bombing campaigns. Zinn’s essay was reprinted in the December 15–16, 2007 issue of CounterPunch. It was brought to our attention by Mark Brady at Liberty & Power.

Perhaps it is fitting that elin o’Hara slavick’s extraordinary evocation of bombings by the United States government be preceded by some words from a bombardier who flew bombing missions for the U.S. Air Corps in the second World War. At least one of her drawings is based on a bombing I participated in near the very end of the war–the destruction of the French seaside resort of Royan, on the Atlantic coast.

As I look at her drawings, I become painfully aware of how ignorant I was, when I dropped those bombs on France and on cities in Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, of the effects of those bombings on human beings. Not because she shows us bloody corpses, amputated limbs, skin shredded by napalm. She does not do that. But her drawings, in ways that I cannot comprehend, compel me to envision such scenes.

I am stunned by the thought that we, the civilized nations, have bombed cities and countrysides and islands for a hundred years. Yet, here in the United States, which is responsible for most of that, the public, as was true of me, does not understand–I mean really understand–what bombs do to people. That failure of imagination, I believe, is critical to explaining why we still have wars, why we accept bombing as a common accompaniment to our foreign policies, without horror or disgust.

We in this country, unlike people in Europe or Japan or Africa or the Middle East, or the Caribbean, have not had the experience of being bombed. That is why, when the Twin Towers in New York exploded on September 11, there was such shock and disbelief. This turned quickly, under the impact of government propaganda, into a callous approval of bombing Afghanistan, and a failure to see that the corpses of Afghans were the counterparts of those in Manhattan.

We might think that at least those individuals in the U.S. Air Force who dropped bombs on civilian populations were aware of what terror they were inflicting, but as one of those I can testify that this is not so. Bombing from five miles high, I and my fellow crew members could not see what was happening on the ground. We could not hear screams or see blood, could not see torn bodies, crushed limbs. Is it any wonder we see fliers going out on mission after mission, apparently unmoved by thoughts of what they have wrought.

It was not until after the war, when I read John Hersey’s interviews with Japanese survivors of Hiroshima, who described what they had endured, that I became aware, in excruciating detail, of what my bombs had done. I then looked further. I learned of the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945, in which perhaps a hundred thousand people died. I learned about the bombing of Dresden, and the creation of a firestorm which cost the lives of 80,000 to 100,000 residents of that city. I learned of the bombing of Hamburg and Frankfurt and other cities in Europe.

We know now that perhaps 600,000 civilians–men, women, and children-died in the bombings of Europe. And an equal number died in the bombings of Japan. What could possibly justify such carnage? Winning the war against Fascism? Yes, we won. But what did we win? Was it a new world? Had we done away with Fascism in the world, with racism, with militarism, with hunger and disease? Despite the noble words of the United Nations charter about ending the scourge of war — had we done away with war?

As horrifying as the loss of life was, the acceptance of justifications for the killing of innocent people continued after World War II. The United States bombed Korea, with at least a million civilian deaths, and then Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, with another million or two million lives taken. Communism was the justification. But what did those millions of victims know of communism or capitalism or any of the abstractions which cover up mass murder?

We have had enough experience, with the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leaders, with the bombings carried out by the Allies, with the torture stories coming out of Iraq, to know that ordinary people with ordinary consciences will allow their instincts for decency to be overcome by the compulsion to obey authority. It is time therefore, to educate the coming generation in disobedience to authority, to help them understand that institutions like governments and corporations are cold to anything but self-interest, that the interests of powerful entities run counter to the interests of most people.

This clash of interest between governments and citizens is camouflaged by phrases that pretend that everyone in the nation has a common interest, and so wars are waged and bombs dropped for national security, national defense, and national interest.

Patriotism is defined as obedience to government, obscuring the difference between the government and the people. Thus, soldiers are led to believe that we are fighting for our country when in fact they are fighting for the government — an artificial entity different from the people of the country — and indeed are following policies dangerous to its own people.

My own reflections on my experiences as a bombardier, and my research on the wars of the United States have led me to certain conclusions about war and the dropping of bombs that accompany modern warfare.

One: The means of waging war (demolition bombs, cluster bombs, white phosphorus, nuclear weapons, napalm) have become so horrendous in their effects on human beings that no political end– however laudable, the existence of no enemy — however vicious, can justify war.

Two: The horrors of the means are certain, the achievement of the ends always uncertain.

Three: When you bomb a country ruled by a tyrant, you kill the victims of the tyrant.

Four: War poisons the soul of everyone who engages in it, so that the most ordinary of people become capable of terrible acts.

Five: Since the ratio of civilian deaths to military deaths in war has risen sharply with each subsequent war of the past century (10% civilian deaths in World War I, 50% in World War II, 70% in Vietnam, 80-90% in Afghanistan and Iraq) and since a significant percentage of these civilians are children, then war is inevitably a war against children.

Six: We cannot claim that there is a moral distinction between a government which bombs and kills innocent people and a terrorist organization which does the same. The argument is made that deaths in the first case are accidental, while in the second case they are deliberate. However, it does not matter that the pilot dropping the bombs does not intend to kill innocent people — that he does so is inevitable, for it is the nature of bombing to be indiscriminate. Even if the bombing equipment is so sophisticated that the pilot can target a house, a vehicle, there is never certainty about who is in the house or who is in the vehicle.

Seven: War, and the bombing that accompanies war, are the ultimate terrorism, for governments can command means of destruction on a far greater scale than any terrorist group.

These considerations lead me to conclude that if we care about human life, about justice, about the equal right of all children to exist, we must, in defiance of whatever we are told by those in authority, pledge ourselves to oppose all wars.

If the drawings of elin o’Hara slavick and the words that accompany them cause us to think about war, perhaps in ways we never did before, they will have made a powerful contribution towards a peaceful world.

Howard Zinn

Listen: Kurt Vonnegut on the firebombing of Dresden

April 14th, 2007

Billy went into his bedroom, even though there were guests to be entertained downstairs. He lay down on his bed, turned on the Magic Fingers. The mattress trembled, drove a dog out from under the bed. The dog was Spot. Good old Spot was still alive in those days. Spot lay down again in a corner.

Billy thought hard about the effect the quartet had had on him, and then found an association with an experience he had had long ago. He did not travel in time to the experience. He remembered it shimmeringly–as follows:

§

He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked. The meat locker was a very safe shelter. All that happened down there was an occasional shower of calcimine. The Americans and four of their guards and a few dressed carcasses were down there, and nobody else. The rest of the guards had, before the raid began, gone to the comforts of their own homes in Dresden. They were all being killed with their families.

So it goes.

The girls that Billy had seen naked were all being killed, too, in a much shallower shelter in another part of the stockyards.

So it goes.

A guard would go to the head of the stairs every so often to see what it was like outside, then he would come down and whisper to the other guards. There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.

It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.

So it goes.

The guards drew together instinctively, rolled their eyes. They experimented with one expression and then another, said nothing, though their mouths were often open. They looked like a silent film of a barbershop quartet.

So long forever, they might have been singing, old fellows and pals; So long forever, old sweethearts and pals–God bless ’em–

§

Tell me a story, Montana Wildhack said to Billy Pilgrim in the Tralfamadorian zoo one time. They were in bed side by side. They had privacy. The canopy covered the dome. Montana was six months pregnant now, big and rosy, lazily demanding small favors from Billy from time to time. She couldn’t send Billy out for ice cream or strawberries, since the atmosphere outside the dome was cyanide, and the nearest strawberries and ice cream were millions of light years away.

She could send him to the refrigerator, which was decorated with the blank couple on the bicycle built for two–or, as now, she could wheedle, Tell me a story, Billy boy.

Dresden was destroyed on the night of February 13, 1945, Billy Pilgrim began. We came out of our shelter the next day. He told Montana about the four guards who, in their astonishment and grief, resembled a barbershop quartet. He told her about the stockyards with all the fenceposts gone, with roofs and windows gone–told her about seeing little logs lying around. There were people who had been caught in the fire-storm. So it goes.

Billy told her what had happened to the buildings that used to form cliffs around the stockyards. They had collapsed. Their wood had been consumed, and their stones had crashed down, had tumbled against one another until they locked at last in low and graceful curves.

It was like the moon, said Billy Pilgrim.

§

The guards told the Americans to form in ranks of four, which they did. Then they had them march back to the hog barn which had been their home. Its walls still stood, but its windows and roof were gone, and there was nothing inside but ashes and dollops of melted glass. It was realized then that there was no food or water, and that the survivors, if they were going to continue to survive, were going to have to climb over curve after curve on the face of the moon.

Which they did.

§

The curves were smooth only when seen from a distance. The people climbing them learned that they were treacherous, jagged things–hot to the touch, often unstable–eager, should certain important rocks be disturbed, to tumble some more, to form lower, more solid curves.

Nobody talked much as the expedition crossed the moon. There was nothing appropriate to say. One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design. There were to be no moon men at all.

§

American fighter planes came in under the smoke to see if anything was moving. They saw Billy and the rest moving down there. The planes sprayed them with machine-gun bullets, but the bullets missed. Then they saw some other people moving down by the riverside and they shot at them. They hit some of them. So it goes.

The idea was to hasten the end of the war.

Kurt Vonnegut (1969), Slaughterhouse-Five, chapter 8.

Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007) was an American novelist known for his works blending black comedy and science fiction to illuminate the human condition. His most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death, written in 1969, drew from Vonnegut’s own experience in World War II, where he was captured by Nazi forces and witnessed the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war. After surviving the bombing in a meat locker, he and his fellow prisoners were put to work by their guards cleaning up bodies until they were found and freed by Soviet forces in May 1945. Before the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, few people in English-speaking countries knew about the bombing of Dresden and it was rarely discussed by historians of the war.

Vonnegut died at the age of 84 on Wednesday, April 11, in Manhattan, New York, from complications related to a fall in his home.

Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas

August 12th, 2006

Here is a drawing of five troops marching forward in white gas masks, looking for all the world like distorted versions of dead men's skulls.

Otto Dix, from War (1924)

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