Friday, September 09, 2005

The Outer Limits of Empire - Tom Engelhardt interviews Howard Zinn: "It's interesting that we've had short wars ever since [Vietnam], except for this one, and those wars were deliberately designed to be short so that there wouldn't be time for an antiwar movement to develop. In this case, they miscalculated. Now, I don't think it's a question of if, just when. When and how. I don't think there's any question that the United States is going to have to get out of Iraq. The only questions are: How long will it take? How many more people will die? And how will it be done?"

"It does seem like a hard concept – war crimes, war criminals – to catch on here. There's a willingness to say the leadership is wrong, but it's a great jump from there to saying that the leadership is vicious. Unfortunately, in American culture, there's still a kind of monarchical idea that the president, the people up there, are very special people and while they may make mistakes, they couldn't be criminals. Even after the public had turned against the Vietnam War, there was no widespread talk about Johnson, [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara, and the rest of them being war criminals. And I think it has to do with an American culture of deference to the president and his men – beyond which people refuse to think."

One might think the idea of 'deference to the monarch' is not exclusively American.

"I would guess that a very large number of Americans against the war in Vietnam still believed in the essential goodness of this country. They thought of Vietnam as an aberration. Only a minority in the antiwar movement saw it as part of a continuous policy of imperialism and expansion. I think that's true today as well. It's very hard for Americans to let go of the idea that we're an especially good nation. It's comforting to know that, even though we do wrong things from time to time, these are just individual aberrations. I think it takes a great deal of political consciousness to extend the criticism of a particular policy or a particular war to a general negative appraisal of the country and its history. It strikes too close to something Americans seem to need to hold onto."

"Of course, there's an element that's right in this as well – in that there are principles for which the United States presumably stands that are good. It's just that people confuse the principles with the policies – and so long as they can keep those principles in their heads (justice for all, equality, and so on), they are very reluctant to accept the fact that they have been crassly, consistently violated. This is the only way I can account for the stopping short when it comes to looking at the president and the people around him as war criminals."

Hence the singular importance of the anarchistic philosophy.

"I like to think that the American empire has reached its outer limits with the Middle East. I don't believe it has a future in Latin America. I think it's worn out whatever power it had there and we're seeing the rise of governments that will not play ball with the United States. This may be one of the reasons why the war in Iraq is so important to this administration. Beyond Iraq there's no place to go. So, let's put it this way, I see withdrawal from Iraq whenever it takes place – and think of this as partly wish and partly belief [he chuckles at himself] – as the first step in the retrenchment of the American empire. After all we aren't the first country in history to be forced to do this.

"I'd like to say that this will be because of American domestic opposition, but I suspect mostly it will be because the rest of the world won't accept further American forays into places where we don't belong. In the future, I believe 9/11 may be seen as representing the beginning of the dissolution of the American empire; that is, the very event that immediately crystallized popular support for war, in the long run – and I don't know how long that will be – may be seen as the beginning of the weakening and crumbling of the American empire."

"Although lots of things are unclear to me, one thing is very clear. [War] is not in our genes. Whenever I read accounts, even by people who have been in war, that suggest there's something in the masculine psyche that requires this kind of violence and militarism, I don't believe it. I say this on the basis of historical experience; that is, if you compare the instances in which people, mostly men, have committed violent acts and gone to war to those in which people have not gone to war, have rejected war, it seems people don't naturally want war.... To me the strongest argument against an inherent drive to war is the extent to which governments have to resort to get people to go to war, the huge amounts of propaganda and deception of which we had an example very recently. And don't forget coercion. So I discard that idea of a natural inclination to war."

Let's hope the old man has got the wisdom here. The rest of us could be forgiven for thinking it most certainly is in the genes. The veneer of civilisation, including the modern veneer of besuited savages, seems just that, a veneer.

"When you look at the ratio of civilian to military dead, it changes from 50-50 in World War II to 80-20 in Vietnam, maybe as high as 90-10 today.... When you face that fact, war is now always a war against civilians, and so against children. No political goal can justify it, and so the great challenge before the human race in our time is to solve the problems of tyranny and aggression, and do it without war. [He laughs quietly.] A very complex and difficult job, but something that has to be faced – and that's what accounts for my becoming involved in antiwar movements ever since the end of World War II."

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