What Howard Zinn Said at the Debut of the WW II Memorial

Roundup: Talking About History

Howard Zinn, in the Progressive (August 2004):

As I write this, the sounds of the World War II Memorial celebration in Washington, D.C., are still in my head. I was invited by the Smithsonian Institution to be on one of the panels, and the person who called to invite me said that the theme would be "War Stories." I told him that I would come, but not to tell "war stories," rather to talk about World War II and its meaning for us today. Fine, he said.

I made my way into a scene that looked like a movie set for a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza--huge tents pitched here and there, hawkers with souvenirs, thousands of visitors, many of them clearly World War II veterans, some in old uniforms, sporting military caps, wearing their medals. In the tent designated for my panel, I joined my fellow panelist, an African American woman who had served with the WACS (Women's Army Corps) in World War II, and who would speak about her personal experiences in a racially segregated army.

I was introduced as a veteran of the Army Air Corps, a bombardier who had flown combat missions over Europe in the last months of the war. I wasn't sure how this audience would react to what I had to say about the war, in that atmosphere of celebration, in the honoring of the dead, in the glow of a great victory accompanied by countless acts of military heroism.

This, roughly, is what I said: "I'm here to honor the two guys who were my closest buddies in the Air Corps--Joe Perry and Ed Plotkin, both of whom were killed in the last weeks of the war. And to honor all the others who died in that war. But I'm not here to honor war itself. I'm not here to honor the men in Washington who send the young to war. I'm certainly not here to honor those in authority who are now waging an immoral war in Iraq."

I went on: "World War II is not simply and purely a 'good war.' It was accompanied by too many atrocities on our side--too many bombings of civilian populations. There were too many betrayals of the principles for which the war was supposed to have been fought.

"Yes, World War II had a strong moral aspect to it--the defeat of fascism. But I deeply resent the way the so-called good war has been used to cast its glow over all the immoral wars we have fought in the past fifty years: in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan. I certainly don't want our government to use the triumphal excitement surrounding World War II to cover up the horrors now taking place in Iraq.

"I don't want to honor military heroism--that conceals too much death and suffering. I want to honor those who all these years have opposed the horror of war."

The audience applauded. But I wasn't sure what that meant. I knew I was going against the grain of orthodoxy, the romanticization of the war in movies and television and now in the war memorial celebrations in the nation's capital.

There was a question-and-answer period. The first person to walk up front was a veteran of World War II, wearing parts of his old uniform. He spoke into the microphone: "I was wounded in World War II and have a Purple Heart to show for it. If President Bush were here right now I would throw that medal in his face."

There was a moment of what I think was shock at the force of his statement. Then applause. I wondered if I was seeing a phenomenon that recurs often in society--when one voice speaks out against the conventional wisdom, and is recognized as speaking truth, people are drawn out of their previous silence....

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Vernon Clayson - 7/18/2004

The rancor the alleged Purple Heart recipient expressed in his spiteful diatribe against the present Commander in Chief is unbelievable and shameful. This comment was completely out of place at a ceremony honoring veterans of WWII. That aside, Mr. Schulman comments relegating Reserve service as a means to escape serving is even more out of line. There are thousands of Reservists serving right now in a war zone and they would quibble with his silly premise. Also, his premise that one of the reasons George Bush took pilot training was because it takes a long time is excrutiatingly stupid. Pilot training takes many months of schooling and flying and is exceedingly dangerous, there is no room for cowardice and there are no shortcuts. As for "volunteering" to serve in Alabama, the Reserves send their members to where they and their particular training are needed at any point in time. Mr. Schulman gives the Air Force little credit by devaluing Reserve membership. A little study on his part will show that the Air Force Reserve carries out the majority of transport and refueling missions and air/sea rescue missions and along with the Air National Guard participates in combat missions that get little attention because the pilots and crewmen are one and the same with the regular Air Force when the bullets are flying RIGHT NOW. Get over the Vietnam War, Mr. Schulman, it's ancient history.

michael ---- wreszin - 7/16/2004

Howard Zinn is a national treasure. He has kept a level head, and intelligent probing, an exhilerating skepticsm that has inspired countless students. I used his book for years in college courses. It is the only "text" I ever used that excited many students. He is of course right on about the current use of the "good war" as a cloak for American trimphalism. I don't always agree with Howard's historical focus or interpretation, but I can count on him to raise the right questions. Good show at the memorial

Ephraim n/a Schulman - 7/16/2004

It is astounding that the American people would put up with a cowardly president who supported the Viet Nam War but yet avoided service by enlisting in the Reserves. He opted for flight training probably thinking since it takes a long time to complete perhaps the war would be over. When he completed flight training the war not be over he then volunteered for "service" in Alabama. Washington spent thousands of dollars training Bush to guarntee that he would avoid active duty in the war he supported.