Learning From World War II

After some 60 million dead, did we rid the world of fascism or racism or militarism? Not at all, the late Howard Zinn told Big Think.
  • Transcript


Question: What did you learn from your experience in WW II?

Howard Zinn: I didn’t learn much about myself during that time, that is, while I was at war. You don’t learn much while you’re in the military except doing your job. By that, I mean you don’t think outside of your job. I didn’t really learn very much until after the war and when I began to think about the war, and this was the best of wars. I began to think about what war accomplishes and, as I say, this was the best of wars. When I examined the best of wars, I found it so ridden through with immorality and atrocity, not just on the Nazi side, but on our side. I began to question the whole idea of war itself, war for any reason, war against evil. I decided that even if you’re fighting a great evil, by going to war, you match that evil and you perpetuate the evil in a different form.

All you have to do is look at the world since we defeated Hitler and Mussolini and Japan and ask yourself if we rid the world of them, after 60 million dead, did we rid the world of fascism or racism or militarism? Not at all.

Yes, I began to think after the war about all of these things. I came to the recognition that we cannot, whatever the excuse, whatever the justification, whatever tyranny is going on in the world, whatever border has been crossed, we must not resort to war. War is the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people, especially with modern technology. It should not be tolerated in a world that considers itself humane.


Question: How can we confront atrocities?

Howard Zinn:  It’s not easy to deal with things like Darfur and Sudan.  The problem is how to deal with these things without making things worse.  There may be situations with some small and focused and temporary use of military force, which may have been true in Rwanda, for instance, in the [1994], may stop a genocide, situations like that. 

In other words, I’m not a total pacifist.  I’m a pacifist with regard to war, because I define war as the indeterminable--since there’s no end to war as we’ve seen--and indiscriminate killing of large numbers of innocent people, totally unfocused in an attempt to right some wrong.  That cannot solve any problem.  It cannot solve a problem with genocide.  It cannot solve a problem where atrocities are going on.  We have to figure out ways of dealing with these situations without war.  We have only begun, not really begun, to explore all the alternatives that exist in the vast spectrum between passivity and war.

Date Recorded: July 05, 2008