Howard Zinn: The Ultimate Betrayal
- The Ultimate Betrayal
by Howard Zinn
Published in the April, 2004 issue of The Progressive
Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch, blinded in Iraq, and his mother
with sixth graders recently in Blairsville, Pa. (NYT
I cannot get out of my mind the photo that appeared on
the front page of The New York Times on December 30,
alongside a story by Jeffrey Gettleman. It showed a
young man sitting on a chair facing a class of sixth
graders in Blairsville, Pennsylvania. Next to him was
a woman. Not the teacher of the class, but the young
fellow's mother. She was there to help him because he
That was Jeremy Feldbusch, twenty-four years old, a
sergeant in the Army Rangers, who was guarding a dam
along the Euphrates River on April 3 when a shell
exploded 100 feet away, and shrapnel tore into his
face. When he came out of a coma in an Army Medical
Center five weeks later, he could not see. Two weeks
later, he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze
Star, but he still could not see. His father, sitting
at his bedside, said: "Maybe God thought you had seen
The newspapers on December 30 reported that 477
American GIs had died in the war. But what is not
usually reported is that for every death there are
four or five men and women seriously wounded.
The term "seriously wounded" does not begin to convey
the horror. Sergeant Feldbusch's mother, Charlene
Feldbusch, who, along with his father, virtually lived
at his bedside for two months, one day saw a young
woman soldier crawling past her in the corridor. She
had no legs, and her three-year-old son was trailing
She started to cry. Later she told Gettleman, "Do you
know how many times I walked up and down those
hallways and saw those people without arms or legs and
thought: Why couldn't this be my son? Why his eyes?"
George Bush was eager to send young men and women half
a world away into the heart of another nation. And
even though they had fearsome weapons, they were still
vulnerable to guerrilla attacks that have left so many
of them blinded and crippled. Is this not the ultimate
betrayal of our young by our government?
Their families very often understand this before their
sons and daughters do, and remonstrate with them
before they go off. Ruth Aitken did so with her son,
an Army captain, telling him it was a war for oil,
while he insisted he was protecting the country from
terrorists. He was killed on April 4, in a battle
around Baghdad airport. "He was doing his job," his
mother said. "But it makes me mad that this whole war
was sold to the American public and to the soldiers as
something it wasn't."
One father, in Escondido, California, Fernando Suarez
del Solar, told reporters that his son, a lance
corporal in the Marines, had died for "Bush's oil."
Another father in Baltimore, whose son, Kendall
Waters-Bey, a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps, was
killed, held up a photo of his son for the news
cameras, and said: "President Bush, you took my only
son away from me."
Of course, they and their families are not the only
ones betrayed. The Iraqi people, promised freedom from
tyranny, saw their country, already devastated by two
wars and twelve years of sanctions, were attacked by
the most powerful military machine in history. The
Pentagon proudly announced a campaign of "shock and
awe," which left 10,000 or more Iraqi men, women, and
children, dead, and many thousands more maimed.
The list of betrayals is long. This government has
betrayed the hopes of the world for peace. After fifty
million died in the Second World War, the United
Nations was set up, as its charter promised, "to save
succeeding generations from the scourge of war."
The people of the United States have been betrayed,
because with the Cold War over and "the threat of
communism" no longer able to justify the stealing of
trillions of the public's tax dollars for the military
budget, that theft of the national wealth continues.
It continues at the expense of the sick, the children,
the elderly, the homeless, the unemployed, wiping out
the expectations after the fall of the Soviet Union
that there would be a "peace dividend" to bring
prosperity to all.
And yes, we come back to the ultimate betrayal, the
betrayal of the young, sent to war with grandiose
promises and lying words about freedom and democracy,
about duty and patriotism. We are not historically
literate enough to remember that these promises, those
lies, started far back in the country's past.
Young men--boys, in fact (for the armies of the world,
including ours, have always been made up of
boys)--were enticed into the Revolutionary Army of the
Founding Fathers by the grand words of the Declaration
of Independence. But they found themselves mistreated,
in rags and without boots, while their officers lived
in luxury and merchants were making war profits.
Thousands mutinied, and some were executed by order of
General Washington. When, after the war, farmers in
Western Massachusetts, many of them veterans, rebelled
against the foreclosures of their farms, they were put
down by armed force.
It is a long story, the betrayal of the very ones sent
to kill and die in wars. When soldiers realize this,
they rebel. Thousands deserted in the Mexican War, and
in the Civil War there was deep resentment that the
rich could buy their way out of service, and that
financiers like J. P. Morgan were profiting as the
bodies piled up on the battlefields. The black
soldiers who joined the Union Army and were decisive
in the victory came home to poverty and racism.
The returning soldiers of World War I, many of them
crippled and shell-shocked, were hit hard, barely a
dozen years after the end of the war, by the
Depression. Unemployed, their families hungry, they
descended on Washington, 20,000 of them from every
part of the country, set up tents across the Potomac
from the capital, and demanded that Congress pay the
bonus it had promised. Instead, the army was called
out, and they were fired on, tear-gassed, dispersed.
Perhaps it was to wipe out that ugly memory, or
perhaps it was the glow accompanying the great victory
over fascism, but the veterans of World War II
received a GI Bill of Rights--free college education,
low interest home mortgages, life insurance.
The Vietnam War veterans, on the other hand, came home
to find that the same government that had sent them
into an immoral and fruitless war, leaving so many of
them wounded in body and mind, now wanted to forget
about them. The United States had sprayed huge parts
of Vietnam with the chemical defoliant Agent Orange,
resulting for the Vietnamese in hundreds of thousands
of deaths, lingering cancers, birth defects. American
GIs were also exposed in great numbers, and tens of
thousands, pointing to sickness, to birth defects in
their children, asked the Veterans Administration for
help. But the government denied responsibility.
However, a suit against Dow Chemical, which made the
defoliant, was settled out of court for $180 million,
with each family receiving $1,000, which suggests that
more than 100,000 families claimed injuries from the
As the government pours hundreds of billions into war,
it has no money to take care of the Vietnam veterans
who are homeless, who linger in VA hospitals, who
suffer from mental disorders, and who commit suicide
in shocking numbers. It is a bitter legacy.
The United States government was proud that, although
perhaps 100,000 Iraqis had died in the Gulf War of
1991, there were only 148 American battle casualties.
What it has concealed from the public is that 206,000
veterans of that war filed claims with the Veterans
Administration for injuries and illnesses. In the
dozen or so years since that war, 8,300 veterans have
died, and 160,000 claims for disability have been
recognized by the VA.
The betrayal of GIs and veterans continues in the
so-called war on terrorism. The promises that the U.S.
military would be greeted with flowers as liberators
have disintegrated as soldiers die every day in a
deadly guerrilla warfare that tells the GIs they are
not wanted in Iraq. An article last July in The
Christian Science Monitor quotes an officer in the 3rd
Infantry Division in Iraq as saying: "Make no mistake,
the level of morale for most soldiers that I've seen
has hit rock bottom."
And those who come back alive, but blind or without
arms or legs, find that the Bush Administration is
cutting funds for veterans. Bush's State of the Union
address, while going through the usual motions of
thanking those serving in Iraq, continued his policy
of ignoring the fact that thousands have come back
wounded, in a war that is becoming increasingly
The quick Thanksgiving visit of Bush to Iraq, much
ballyhooed in the press, was seen differently by an
army nurse in Landstuhl, Germany, where casualties
from the war are treated. She sent out an e-mail: "My
'Bush Thanksgiving' was a little different. I spent it
at the hospital taking care of a young West Point
lieutenant wounded in Iraq. . . . When he pressed his
fists into his eyes and rocked his head back and forth
he looked like a little boy. They all do, all nineteen
on the ward that day, some missing limbs, eyes, or
worse. . . . It's too bad Bush didn't add us to his
holiday agenda. The men said the same, but you'll
never read that in the paper."
As for Jeremy Feldbusch, blinded in the war, his
hometown of Blairsville, an old coal mining town of
3,600, held a parade for him, and the mayor honored
him. I thought of the blinded, armless, legless
soldier in Dalton Trumbo's novel Johnny Got His Gun,
who, lying on his hospital cot, unable to speak or
hear, remembers when his hometown gave him a send-off,
with speeches about fighting for liberty and
democracy. He finally learns how to communicate, by
tapping Morse Code letters with his head, and asks the
authorities to take him to schoolrooms everywhere, to
show the children what war is like. But they do not
respond. "In one terrible moment he saw the whole
thing," Trumbo writes. "They wanted only to forget
In a sense, the novel was asking, and now the returned
veterans are asking, that we don't forget.
Howard Zinn, the author of "A People's History of the
United States," is a columnist for The Progressive.
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