Preface to Saving Private Power
by Michael Zezima
This preface is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and
his publisher, Soft Skull Press. We recommend that you read the whole book.
"Fortunately, we were on the winning side…"
It was a conversation about a movie that set the writing of this book in
motion. Two people, one a Vietnam vet, were discussing the 1998 film "Saving
Yes, both agreed, war is "really like that opening sequence."
"You know," the vet confided, "I saw my share of it in 'Nam."
When it came time to question the motives of those who sent "our boys" to
face such carnage, even the vet had to admit that little about the Vietnam
War could justify this action.
"But," he hastily added, "World War II was different. That was a just war."
Was WWII a just war? Is the "Good War" fable rooted in reality, false hope,
or propaganda? This enduring myth goes well beyond Memorial Day barbecues
and flickering black-and-white movies on late night TV. WWII is the most
popular war in American history: 18 million served in the armed forces while
25 million home-front workers gave regularly to war bonds (1). According to
the accepted history, it was an inevitable war forced upon a peaceful people
thanks to a surprise attack by a sneaky enemy. This war, then and now, has
been carefully and consciously sold to us as a life-and-death battle against
pure evil. For most Americans, WWII was nothing less than good and bad going
toe-to-toe in khaki fatigues.
But, Hollywood aside, John Wayne never set foot on Iwo Jima. Despite the
former president's dim recollections, Ronald Reagan did not liberate any
concentration camps. And, contrary to popular belief, FDR never actually got
around to sending American troops "over there" to take on Hitler's Germany
until after the Nazis had already declared war on the U.S.
American lives weren't sacrificed in a holy war to avenge Pearl Harbor nor
to end the Nazi Holocaust, just as the Civil War wasn't fought to end
slavery. WWII was about territory, power, control, money, and imperialism.
Sure, the Allies won and ultimately, that's a very good thing — but it doesn't
mean they did it fair and square. Precisely how unfairly they behaved will
be explored in detail herein but, for now, the words of U.S. General Curtis
LeMay, commander of the 1945 Tokyo fire bombing operation, will suffice: "I
suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.
Fortunately, we were on the winning side." (2)
Not everyone was oblivious to the true motives behind WWII. In a 1939
satirical skit, for example, the American Communist party lampooned the
media-created image of a noble war.
"We, the governments of Great Britain and the United States," the skit
writers proclaimed, "in the name of India, Burma, Malaya, Australia, British
East Africa, British Guiana, Hongkong, Siam, Singapore, Egypt, Palestine,
Canada, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, as well as Puerto
Rico, Guam, the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, and the Virgin Islands, hereby
declare that this is not an imperialist war." (3)
Journalist Paul Mattick offered a more straightforward critique of WWII:
"If all the other issues of this war are still clouded, it is perfectly
clear that this war is a struggle between the great imperialist contestants
for the biggest share of the yields of world production, and thus for the
control over the greatest number of workers, the richest resources of raw
material and the most important industries. Because so much of the world is
already controlled by the small competitive power groups fighting for
supreme rule, all controlled groups in all nations are drawn into the
struggle. Since nobody dares to state the issues at stake, false arguments
are invented to excite the population to murder. The powerlessness of the
masses explains the power of current ideologies." (4)
These "false arguments" had enormous influence. Even much of the American
left were eventually taken under their sway. When Nazi Germany invaded
Soviet Russia in 1941, as historian Howard Zinn documents, "the American
Communist party, which had repeatedly described the war between the Axis
Powers and the Allied Powers as an imperialist war, now called it a
'people's war' against Fascism." (5)
To begin the process of comprehending some of the myths and false arguments
surrounding this so-called people's war, it is instructive to examine what
is currently being taught and written on the subject. To do that, throughout
Saving Private Power, I will refer to some popular mainstream books along
with a specific college-level history textbook now in use: Western
Civilization: A Brief History (6) (a title that cannot help but evoke
Gandhi's reply to the query, "What do you think of Western civilization?" He
said, "I think it would be a very good idea.").
The selection of this particular book is obviously not meant to represent
the contents of all college-level history texts. Rather, it was chosen for
its distinct "average-ness." Specifics may vary from text to text, but the
main thrust of what is being conveyed about WWII remains intact — thanks not
only to schoolbooks, but mainstream commentators like Stephen Ambrose, Tom
Brokaw, and Colin Powell. (7)
Both volumes of the third edition of Western Civilization were updated in
1997 by author Marvin Perry of Baruch College, City University of New York.
In his preface, Perry tells us that "Western civilization is a grand but
tragic drama," and warns us that he "has been careful to avoid superficial
generalizations that oversimplify historical events." In the second volume
(starting with the 1400s), Perry dedicates two chapters (a grand but tragic
total of 63 pages) to WWII and the events he claims led up to it, but
remarkably offers no index entry for "war crimes." (He did call it a "brief"
history.) The author remains diligent in his guard against "superficial
generalization" as he starts the chapter on WWII by declaring that "Few
[historians] would deny that World War II was Hitler's war."
It is precisely that brand of oversimplification that, I feel, makes Saving
Private Power necessary. We cannot afford to chalk up all global violence
to a select few inhuman enemies of the United States, who act out their
villain's role in some grand but tragic drama. In a nation like ours, with a
defense budget of over $250 billion per year, we are all partially
responsible for every car bomb, every land mine, and every sanctions-related
death — even those who choose to fight against it. Entire wars cannot and must
not be foisted upon the one man.
Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels once said, "It is not enough to reconcile
people more or less to our regime, to move them towards a position of
neutrality towards us, we want rather to work on people until they are
addicted to us."
Thus, it is our moral obligation to see through our own propaganda and kick
the addictive habit of lazy thinking. Our duty is to discover, for example,
what is not shown in films like "Saving Private Ryan" — e.g., the
crucial fact that by the time of the D-Day invasion, the Russians were engaging 80
percent of the German Army.
"As regards the defeat of Hitler, D-Day itself, was, relatively speaking,
and not to downgrade heroism and sacrifice, a sideshow," remarks journalist
Alexander Cockburn. "The war had already been won on the Eastern front by
the Russians at Stalingrad and then, a year before D-Day, at the Kursk
Salient, where 100 German divisions were mangled. Compared with those epic
struggles, D-Day was a skirmish … Hitler's generals knew the war was lost,
and the task was to keep the meeting point between the invading Russians and
Western armies as far east as possible." (8)
Saving Private Power will address these and many other uncomfortable
truths about WWII while focusing on the public relations and media
propaganda used by Western corporate states to transform a conflict between
capitalist nations into a holy crusade.
What I experienced from viewing "Saving Private Ryan" was a feeling of dread
and guilt. I knew as I sat in that comfortable, air-conditioned theater,
watching the scenes of bloody warfare unfold, bombs were exploding in many
places across the globe. Machine guns were being fired on soldiers and
civilians and activists and dissidents. Land mines were blowing off legs
without any concern for ideology. And not only were many of these weapons
produced thanks to American taxpayers like me, the death and destruction was
being justified by someone somewhere as being part of a good cause.
I was moved then to do my part to help peel away the layer of propaganda
that obscures the imperialist motives of most military conflicts, turning
them instead into patriotic exercises with all the pathos of a video game.
Addressing each war was not an option. Analyzing every economic factor and
ideology was not my goal. My goal, as stated here, was to challenge the
"Good War" myth: how it came to be, who perpetrated it, who benefits from
it, and what is its legacy.
My hope is that by exposing the lie of such a powerful and enduring myth, we
can all begin questioning everything being marketed to us within our
commodity culture. "Saving Private Ryan," by bringing home the insanity and
suffering of warfare, has led directly to Saving Private Power which, I
feel, can help explain how that insanity and suffering has been packaged and
sold as inevitable and necessary … and good.
For me, the main difference between WWII and any other bloody military
conflict throughout history is scope: with high-end estimates of 50 million
dead bodies scattered across the entire globe from Nanking to Dresden, from
Hiroshima to Auschwitz, from Pearl Harbor to Stalingrad. Our debt to those
50 million is to not glorify or romanticize their deaths. Instead we must
struggle to comprehend the truths behind the facade and analyze the
motivations of the nations involved.
Finally, I must address some of the questions Saving Private Power will
undoubtedly provoke. Again, of course I think it's good that Hitler was
defeated. This book is not meant to defend the Axis powers in any way.
Rather, what must be addressed is the reality that having whipped the forces
of evil in a noble and popular war, the United States and many of its
allies — despite committing their own atrocities during WWII — can now wave the
banner of humanitarianism and intervene with impunity across the globe
without their motivations being questioned. Especially when every enemy of
the U.S. is likened to Hitler.
As for whether or not the U.S. should have entered the war, there are many
"if onlys" to consider before answering that question. If only the Allies
hadn't invaded Russia after World War I or forced the Germans to submit at
Versailles or supported the fledgling fascist regimes in Italy and Germany
or had chosen negotiation instead of economic warfare in the Pacific. The
list goes on. However, since a certain path was taken, a certain answer must
be given. Once the U.S. and its allies had made all of the decisions that
brought the world closer to war, the military defeat of the Axis became
imperative. While it was never a specific goal, the liberating of the death
camps was urgent. Even after decades of animosity, relieving the murderous
pressure placed on the Soviet people on the Eastern front was critical. In
the end, by waging a ruthless imperialist war, the Allies were able to
attain their own short-sighted goals while tangentially doing some good.
If we can somehow ignore all the "if onlys," this is at best a fair
trade-off, but certainly not a just and noble mission.
World War II was not inevitable and its legacy is far from "good." The U.S.
did not join the global fray to liberate the death camps, to end fascism, or
to make the world safe for democracy. Until one of its colonies was
attacked, America did nothing more than provide aid to Britain while
simultaneously trading with Germany, Italy, and Japan. Until Hitler declared
war on the U.S., America would not fight Nazi Germany. While WWII can
undoubtedly provide many incredible stories of individual heroism, it was
never the good war we've been taught it was.
Truths like this may be ugly but that's why the big lies are invented in the
first place. As U.S. Attorney General-turned-human rights activist Ramsey
Clark has warned about examining the behavior of the U.S. capitalist state,
"It is hardest for those who want to love their country and still love
I believe we must first come together to work for and achieve justice before
we can ever dream of living in a country worth loving.
1. Howard Zinn. A People's History of the United States (New York:
HarperPerennial, 1995) p. 398.
2. It is useful to note LeMay's later role as U.S. Air Force chief of staff
from 1961 to 1965 when he immortalized himself by declaring his desire to
"bomb [the North Vietnamese] back into the Stone Age." LeMay also served as
vice presidential candidate on George Wallace's 1968 ticket.
3. Zinn, p. 398.
4. From the fall 1941 issue of Living Marxism, quoted by Robert F. Barsky
in Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997) p.
5. Zinn, p. 398.
6. Western Civilization: A Brief History, Volume II, From the 1400s
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997) is used in approximately 130
schools nationwide, and the publisher characterizes it as being "very
well-received and respected" and "one of the best selling brief history
texts," written by a "well-respected scholar."
7. For an example of such mainstream commentary, consider Colin Powell's
description of the term "G.I." in Time (June 14, 1999, pp. 71-3): "Two
generations later [it] continues to conjure up the warmest and proudest
memories of a noble war that pitted pure good against pure evil-and good
triumphed … They were truly a 'people's army,' going forth on a crusade to
save democracy and freedom, to defeat tyrants, to save oppressed peoples and
to make their families proud of them...for most of those G.I.s, World War II
was the adventure of their lifetime. Nothing they would ever do in the
future would match their experiences as the warriors of democracy, saving
the world from its own insanity."
8. Alexander Cockburn. The Golden Age Is in Us (New York: Verso, 1995) p.
9. Ramsey Clark, The Fire This Time: U.S. War Crimes in the Gulf (New
York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992) p. xviii.