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Fifteen years ago, in the immediate wake of 9/11 and ahead of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, historian Howard Zinn advised: "We should take our example not from our military and political leaders shouting 'retaliate' and 'war' but from the doctors and nurses and medical students and firefighters and police officers who were saving lives in the midst of mayhem, whose first thoughts were not violence but healing, not vengeance but compassion." (Portrait: Painting by Robert Shetterly/

Fifteen Years of Lessons Not Learned

Howard Zinn

 by The Progressive

Publisher's note for The Progressive: October 7 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the beginning of the longest war in U.S. history. Midday on Sunday October 7, 2001 U.S. president George W. Bush addressed the nation from the Treaty Room in the White House. As Bush himself noted, this is “a place where American presidents have worked for peace.”

However, on this day, he chose that room to announce the beginning a war with no clear end in sight and no single enemy or battlefield. In the nationally televised address, Bush ominously proclaimed:

“Today we focus on Afghanistan, but the battle is broader. Every nation has a choice to make. In this conflict, there is no neutral ground.”

Throughout its 107-year history, The Progressive has always stood as a voice for peace and against militarism and war. Our November 2001 issue had many voices speaking out against this doctrine of endless war. One of the most powerful of these voices was historian Howard Zinn, who regularly wrote for the magazine. His essay, reprinted below, reminds us of powerful lessons yet to be learned by our country’s leaders.

The Old Way of Thinking

The images on television were heartbreaking: people on fire leaping to their deaths from a hundred stories up; people in panic racing from the scene in clouds of dust and smoke.

We knew there must be thousands of human beings buried under a mountain of debris. We could only imagine the terror among the passengers of the hijacked planes as they contemplated the crash, the fire, the end. Those scenes horrified and sickened me.

Then our political leaders came on television, and I was horrified and sickened again. They spoke of retaliation, of vengeance, of punishment.

We are at war, they said. And I thought: They have learned nothing, absolutely nothing, from the history of the twentieth century, from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war, a hundred years of terrorism and counterterrorism, of violence met with violence in an unending cycle of stupidity.

"War is terrorism, magnified a hundred times."

We can all feel a terrible anger at whoever, in their insane idea that this would help their cause, killed thousands of innocent people. But what do we do with that anger? Do we react with panic, strike out violently and blindly just to show how tough we are?

“We shall make no distinction,” the President proclaimed, “between terrorists and countries that harbor terrorists.”

So now we are bombing Afghanistan and inevitably killing innocent people because it is in the nature of bombing (and I say this as a former Air Force bombardier) to be indiscriminate, to “make no distinction.” We are committing terrorism in order to “send a message” to terrorists.

We have done that before. It is the old way of thinking, the old way of acting. It has never worked. Reagan bombed Libya, and Bush made war on Iraq, and Clinton bombed Afghanistan and also a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan to “send a message” to terrorists. And then comes this horror in New York and Washington. Isn’t it clear by now that sending a message to terrorists through violence doesn’t work, that it only leads to more terrorism?

Haven’t we learned anything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Car bombs planted by Palestinians bring air attacks and tanks by the Israeli government. That has been going on for years. It doesn’t work. And innocent people die on both sides.

Yes, it is an old way of thinking, and we need new ways. We need to think about the resentment all over the world felt by people who have been the victims of American military action.

In Vietnam, where we carried out terrorizing bombing attacks, using napalm and cluster bombs, on peasant villages.

In Latin America, where we supported dictators and death squads in Chile and El Salvador and Guatemala and Haiti.

In Iraq, where more than 500,000 children have died as a result of economic sanctions that the United States has insisted upon.

And, perhaps most important for understanding the current situation, in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, where a million and more Palestinians live under a cruel military occupation, while our government supplies Israel with hightech weapons.

We need to imagine that the awful scenes of death and suffering we were witnessing on our television screens have been going on in other parts of the world for a long time, and only now can we begin to know what people have gone through, often as a result of our policies. We need to understand how some of those people will go beyond quiet anger to acts of terrorism. That doesn’t, by any means, justify the terror. Nothing justifies killing thousands of innocent people. But we would do well to see what might inspire such violence. And it will not be over until we stop concentrating on punishment and retaliation and think calmly and intelligently about how to address its causes.

We need new ways of thinking.

A $300 billion military budget has not given us security.

Military bases all over the world, our warships on every ocean, have not given us security.

Land mines and a “missile defense shield” will not give us security.

We need to stop sending weapons to countries that oppress other people or their own people. We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children.

War is terrorism, magnified a hundred times.

Yes, lets find the perpetrators of the awful acts of September 11. We must find the guilty parties and prosecute them. But we shouldn’t engage in indiscriminate retaliation. When a crime is committed by someone who lives in a certain neighborhood, you don’t destroy the neighborhood.

Yes, we can tend to immediate security needs. Let’s take some of the billions allocated for “missile defense,” totally useless against terrorist attacks such as this one, and pay the security people at airports decent wages and give them intensive training. Let’s go ahead and hire marshals to be on every flight. But ultimately, there is no certain security against the unpredictable.

True, we can find bin Laden and his cohorts, or whoever were the perpetrators, and punish them. But that will not end terrorism so long as the pent-up grievances of decades, felt in so many countries in the Third World, remain unattended.

We cannot be secure so long as we use our national wealth for guns, warships, F-18s, cluster bombs, and nuclear weapons to maintain our position as a military superpower. We should use that wealth instead to become a moral superpower.

We must deal with poverty and sickness in other parts of the world where desperation breeds resentment. And here at home, our true security cannot come by putting the nation on a war footing, with all the accompanying threats to civil liberties that this brings. True security can come only when we use our resources to make us the model of a good society, prosperous and peacemaking, with free medical care for everyone, education and housing, guaranteed decent wages, and a clean environment for all. We cannot be secure by limiting our liberties, as some of our political leaders are demanding, but only by expanding them.

We should take our example not from our military and political leaders shouting “retaliate” and “war” but from the doctors and nurses and medical students and firefighters and police officers who were saving lives in the midst of mayhem, whose first thoughts were not violence but healing, not vengeance but compassion.

From the November 2001 issue of The Progressive

© 2021 The Progressive
Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn (August 24, 1922 - January 27, 2010) was a historian, playwright, and activist. Howard authored many books, including "A People’s History of the United States," "Voices of a People’s History" (with Anthony Arnove), "A Power Governments Cannot Suppress," and "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History."

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