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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 Private Ryan."

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 justice." (9)

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. 39.

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. 400.

9. Ramsey Clark, The Fire This Time: U.S. War Crimes in the Gulf (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992) p. xviii.