Veterans and Dissent at the War Memorial November 11, 2014


Bas relief at the World War II Memorial. Image: National Park Service.

For Veterans Day, we highlight this article, “Dissent at the War Memorial,” written by Howard Zinn for The Progressive in 2004. Asked to speak on a panel called, “War Stories,” Zinn said, “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.”

This is followed by additional resources for learning and teaching about war.


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. Continue reading at

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