A Violent Cartography
by Howard Zinn
This essay serves as the introduction to Bomb After Bomb: a Violent Cartography, a collection of drawings illustrating the history of bombing by elin o’Hara slavick. o’Hara slavick is a professor of art at the University of North Carolina. More of her visionary work can be viewed on her website. AC / JSC
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 country sides 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’s most recent book is A Power Government’s Cannot Suppress.