The Good War


Historian Howard Zinn speaking in 2009. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Howard Zinn was a bombardier in World War II. He flew B-17 missions over Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. He didn’t like war, but he joined in the fight against Fascism because he believed this war was “a people’s war, a war against the unspeakable brutality of Fascism.” Unlike other wars, this war “was not for profit or empire”:

What could be more justifiable than a war against Fascism, which was ruthlessly crushing dissent at home, and taking over other countries, while proclaiming theories of racial supremacy and promoting a spirit of nationalist arrogance. When Japan, which was committing atrocities in China, allied itself to Italy and Germany, and then attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, it seemed to be clear—it was the democratic countries against the Fascist countries.[i]

Indeed, World War II is the national archetype of the good war, the just war, the war for democracy and liberty. US wars have been infused ever since with the heroic spirit of its just cause.

Based on his experience and then on his research as a professional historian, Zinn changed his mind about World War II and war in general. His reassessment is worth reflecting upon since, as he put the matter, World War II is the supreme test of whether there is such a thing as a just war.[ii]

How could the US claim to fight a war to protect the rights of nations to independence and self-determination when it had a long history of expansion through war and conquest, and when it waited so long to intervene against Fascist expansion? Isn’t this a sign of hypocrisy? Or was it really a just war to defend self-determination, oppose racism, save the Jews, and secure democracy?

Zinn gives us cause for questioning the standard narrative of the good war. In brief:

  1. On the matter of self-determination, FDR’s and Churchill’s Atlantic Charter publicly promised a postwar world of national independence in order to court the support of the nonwhite colonial world—a world colonized by the likes of Britain, France, Holland, and Belgium—even as the US Secretary of State gave the French private assurances that they could reclaim their colony of Indochina after the war. The point wasn’t to change Europe or the world but to get rid of Hitler and his allies. And it was an opportunity to give US business a leg up in Middle East oil and other enterprises when the British were too weakened by the war to maintain their old empire. The war launched the “American century.”[iii]
  1. What about fighting against the Nazi notion of a superior race? US armed forces, like the country in general, were segregated by race; black soldiers and sailors were largely relegated to menial tasks and otherwise discriminated against in the military. Japanese residing in the US, most of whom were US citizens, were rounded up and confined to concentration camps, euphemistically referred to as relocation camps. They lost their freedom and their property.[iv]
  1. FDR shunted the issue of Hitler’s assault on Jews to the US State Department, which assigned the problem a low priority and continued to stall even when, as late as August 1942, Jewish leader Stephen Wise brought its attention to evidence of the ongoing holocaust.[v]
  1. What about fighting for freedom and democracy? Dissenters in the US were sent to prison, workers wages were frozen, and soaring corporate profits concentrated wealth in fewer hands. Social reform was not on the agenda.[vi]
  1. What about atrocities? Is a war just when both sides commit atrocities? The Nazis murdered millions of Jews. The US and its allies indiscriminately bombed cities, as did Germany and its allies. Massive airstrikes against German civilians aimed to lower their morale. The saturation bombing of Dresden alone created a firestorm that suffocated 100,000 people. Another 100,000 people died when the city of Tokyo was reduced to ashes. And then came the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The moral line was crossed. “It seems that once an initial judgment has been made that a war is just, there is a tendency to stop thinking, to assume then that everything done on behalf of victory is morally acceptable,” Zinn observed.[vii]
  1. And what did the victory over Fascism bring about? Two superpowers emerged to vie with one another for world domination, “carving out new spheres of influence, on a scale even larger than that attempted by Fascist powers. Both superpowers supported dictatorship all over the world.”[viii] And wars continued to flare up in Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Putting World War II into perspective should caution us against believing in a good war. In Zinn’s words:

The practical effect of declaring World War II just is not for that war but for the wars that follow. And that effect has been a dangerous one, because the glow of rightness that accompanied that war has been transferred, by false analogy and emotional carryover, to other wars. To put it another way, perhaps the worst consequence of World War II is that it kept alive the idea that war could be just.[ix]

Zinn determined that war—any war—corrupts everyone and everything it touches. It poisons the minds and souls of combatants on all sides. It is a process that makes us “unthinking killers of innocent people. A decision is made at the start of a war that your side is good and the other side is bad, and once you make that decision you don’t have to think any more; anything you do, no matter how horrible, is acceptable.”[x]

Several fallacies are embedded in the logic of war. One is that our side is good because the other side is evil. Another is that a just cause legitimizes the ravages of war, which maims and kills the very people we would liberate from a tyrant. By far, most of the victims of modern wars have been civilians. War is indiscriminate destruction and killing. It cannot be humanized, no matter how it is justified or celebrated. It does not change the world for the better. And its prospect is increasingly horrendous with “advances” in killing technologies.

The internal contradiction of a war on terrorism is that “war itself is terrorism.”[xi]


[i] Howard Zinn, Just War (Milano, Italy: Charta, 2005), 25, 27.

[ii] Howard Zinn, Passionate Declarations: Essays on War and Justice (NY: Perennial, 2003), 80.

[iii] Zinn, Passionate Declarations, 85-87.

[iv] Zinn, Passionate Declarations, 87-89.

[v] Zinn, Passionate Declarations, 83.

[vi] Zinn, Passionate Declarations, 91-92.

[vii] Zinn, Passionate Declarations, 96.

[viii] Zinn, Passionate Declarations, 99.

[ix] Zinn, Passionate Declarations, 104.

[x] Zinn, Just War, 37.

[xi] Zinn, Just War, 48.


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