After a year of fighting in Iraq and an occupation fraught with violence, surely it is not rash to suggest, given the debacle over missing "weapons of mass destruction," that it is a good general rule to treat any official rationale for war with skepticism.
This conduct would be a healthy departure from the tendency of both Congress and the major media to assume, as was clearly done on the eve of this war in Iraq, that the government is telling the truth. And such skepticism would certainly be a prudent approach to any supposed candor coming from presidential press conferences, such as last night's, during an election campaign.
If one human being on trial can only be given a death sentence on the basis of certainty beyond "a reasonable doubt," then surely this criterion should be applied where the lives of thousands are at stake. The decision to go to war in Iraq should have been challenged on two grounds.
First, that the fearsome weapons claimed to be in Iraq's possession had not been found despite months of inspection by a United Nations team given unrestricted access throughout that country. Second, common sense suggested that a nation with 25 million people, devastated by two wars and 10 years of economic sanctions, without a single nuclear weapon, surrounded by enemies far better armed, could not be an imminent threat to the most powerful military machine in history.
Not only did the president deceive the public, and take the country into war with a rationale that defied common sense, but Congress and the media, by going along, became accessories to that deception.
A bit of history might have suggested skepticism. It might have been recalled that President James Polk took us into war with Mexico in 1846, and William McKinley took us into war with Spain in 1898, and Congress authorized war in Vietnam in 1964, all based on deceptions.
Another suggested principle: When a calamity occurs - such as the killing of soldiers on the Mexican border, or the sinking of the battleship Maine, or the blowing up of the Twin Towers, should Congress, the media and the public not be wary that the calamity might be made an excuse for going to war, with the real reasons concealed from the country?
Should we not, after the terrible events of Sept. 11, have acted more intelligently, in a more focused way, against terrorism, seeking fundamental causes, rather than striking out blindly at whatever seemed easy targets - Afghanistan, Iraq? Should we not have considered whether military action might not inflame terrorism rather than diminish it?
When the evidence for war is shaky, should we not ask: What is the real reason for military intervention?
History might be useful here. Is it too embarrassing to suggest that oil is the real reason for virtually anything the United States has done in the Middle East? The real reason for war with Mexico was to take almost half of its territory. The real reason for war in Cuba was to replace Spanish control of that island with U.S. control. The real reason for war in the Philippines was the markets of China. The real reason for the Vietnam War was to take another piece of real estate in the Cold War game of Monopoly with the Soviet Union.
Another general principle, buttressed by history: Military interventions and occupations do not lead to democracy. I would cite the long occupations of the Philippines, Haiti, the Dominican Republic. Also: the military action in Vietnam on behalf of a corrupt and dictatorial government, and the many covert actions - Iran, Guatemala, Chile - leading to brutal dictatorships.
More conclusions, from both history and our experience in Iraq: that all wars have unintended consequences, usually bad ones; that military occupation is corrupting to the occupied country and also to the occupiers; that the casualties of a military adventure are not just the immediate ones, but continue far beyond. Think of the tens of thousands of suicides of Vietnam veterans, the 160,000 medical casualties of the Persian Gulf War.
A final lesson from past and present: The American public cannot depend on our much overrated system of "checks and balances" to prevent a needless and costly war. Congress and the Supreme Court have proved to be no check for an executive branch hell-bent on combat. Only an aroused citizenry can provide the check on unbridled power that a democracy requires.
Howard Zinn is professor emeritus at Boston University and author of "The People's History of the United States."
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