President Barack Obama started off his presidency by distinguishing between the two wars America is currently fighting: The war in Iraq is the one that is unnecessary and the war in Afghanistan was the one of “necessity.” But what makes a war necessary? Obama argues that the Afghan war is being fought for the immediate safety and security of the United States. But is that reason enough for war?
Renowned historian and author, Howard Zinn has recently been traveling around the country and speaking out against war — he himself came to the revelation that his own service in World War II was wrong.
Zinn makes the important distinction between a “just cause” and a “just war.”
“Our culture is so war prone, that we immediately rush and make this logical jump from ‘this is a just cause’ to ‘it deserves a war,’” he said.
Indeed, a war and a cause are very different things, but what distinguishes the moral justness appropriate to each?
Zinn argues that, without exception, the means of wars have not been justified by their ends. For instance, during the Korean War from 1950–1953, an estimated 2 million Korean civilians were killed. The situation after the war was almost identical to that before the war — with a dictatorship in power in North Korea and a dictatorship in power in South Korea.
The word “civilian” is too abstract and technical, and doesn’t adequately communicate what a “civilian death” truly is. Maybe wars would be seen in a different light if, in print and on TV, the word “civilian” were replaced with “completely innocent person minding his own business, who likely had a spouse and children, and a mother and a father, all of whom he loved and who loved him dearly.”
There are many parallels between these other unjustified wars and the current war in Afghanistan. Estimates of total civilian deaths from the war — including direct deaths from bombs and guns and indirect deaths from lack of access to hospitals and food — range in the tens of thousands.
Many experts have claimed that the terrorist groups that the war in Afghanistan was supposed to defeat have in fact become even stronger as a result of the war. In a 2005 paper, the Oxford Research Group stated that “Al-Qaida and its affiliates remain active and effective, with a stronger support base and a higher intensity of attacks than before 9/11.” Claims like these cast serious doubt on the justness and necessity of the war in Afghanistan.
How do countries get tangled up in all of these wars and death? Zinn frequently cites psychologist Gustave Gilbert, who interviewed extensively high-ranking Nazi officials before, during and after their trials. In talking to Hermann Göring, the second ranking official under Adolf Hitler, Gilbert recorded Göring as saying, “Naturally, the common people don’t want war … But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along … That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
This is obviously not the evidence for the case to cease all wars, but it does aptly describe how war is initiated.
Zinn is often presented with the notion that war is part of human nature. If this were true, however, why do governments bend over backwards in their efforts to persuade the populations to go to war? Wouldn’t hoards of people just spontaneously jump up, guns in hand and ready to fight, at the mere mention of bloody battle?
Rather, the American government has to spend months and years and billions of dollars persuading its people to consent and pick up arms. The current public opinion doesn’t seem to be very strong for continued operations in Afghanistan: a recent New York Times/CBS poll found that half of Americans are disaffected by the war and the majority want all troops back within two years.
Hopefully, Obama will soon come to see the Afghan war — not just the Iraq war — as one of wasted resources and life instead of continuing to believe in its necessity.
Obama has a lot riding on the war in Afghanistan, from the thousands of jobs it generates to the keeping of his own word. But if he thinks it over and decides to pull American forces out as soon as possible, it would be the bravest decision any president has made in a long time.
Max Hoiland is a senior majoring in cinema-television critical studies.