Historian holds US front line in war against war

October 25, 2002

Is student activism reviving? Stephen Phillips talks to a US campus political veteran.

As a US air force bombardier stationed in Britain during the second world war, bestselling radical American historian and veteran campus activist Howard Zinn flew numerous bombing missions over occupied Europe. One of his last sorties in particular sticks in his mind. In the conflict's closing days, Zinn's B-17, loaded with napalm, participated in an Allied air raid that strafed thousands of German troops cornered in southwestern France. At the time, he did not think to question his military orders, recalling: "I volunteered (for the war) enthusiastically, thinking it was simply a good war."

Nowadays, though, he is "horrified" by the episode. He views any war, even against an aggressor such as Nazi Germany, with far more moral equivocation. "Fascism is evil, but the Allies committed atrocities culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

Zinn worked in the shipyards before enlisting. His blue-collar upbringing in New York, his wartime experience and his social conscience, nourished by the works of Charles Dickens, fostered in him a lifelong disdain for the pomp and circumstance of the "great man" school of history.

His decades-long academic career has been dedicated to prying beneath abstract concepts to salvage the dignity of the ordinary individuals who are so often the cannon fodder of others' grand designs. After taking his PhD at Columbia University, he began teaching at a black women's college in Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1950s. He is now emeritus professor of history at Boston University.

Zinn makes no bones about his partisanship. "Writing and teaching history was not something I could pretend to be neutral about. Objectivity is impossible."

He adds: "I've been moved from the beginning to write, research and teach in accordance with my own ideas, focusing on what has not been concentrated on." In his A People's History of the United States , which has sold more than a million copies since being published in 1980, he tells the stories of Christopher Columbus and American economic progress from the perspective of indigenous people and workers.

By his own account, the book "spends more time on dissidents than on presidents". It is an approach that has endeared him to many. Matt Damon's character tells Robin Williams in the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster Good Will Hunting that the book "willI knock you on your ass". Novelist Alice Walker cites Zinn as "the best teacher I ever had". But some academic reviewers have been "excoriatory", Zinn says.

He is no armchair historian, though. Of a piece with his scholarship has been Zinn's campaigning for black civil rights in the US south and against the Vietnam war.

Now, pushing 80, the elder statesman of the protest movement has become a conduit for opposition to George W. Bush's policy on Iraq. Unlike some, he is not discouraged by the findings of opinion polls - he takes heart from the 62 per cent public approval rating that war against Iraq commands in the US. It means that more than one-third of the populace opposes or at least questions military action, Zinn points out.

He considers this "remarkable" given a public environment he sees as characterised by misinformation from the White House, a pliant mainstream media and timorous Democratic political opposition.

Zinn is what you might call a glass half-full type of person. "My experience is that there's no vehement pro-war feeling among young people in this country. Whatever pro-war sentiment (there is) is passive, uncertain, thin and easily punctured by several hours of information."

He is encouraged in such optimism by the rousing reception he has received at campuses. He got a standing ovation from a capacity crowd of 700 students at a recent rally at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and more than 300 people turned out to witness his address at Holy Cross University in Massachusetts last month. He is now gearing up for a march in Washington DC this weekend, billed as the largest demonstration to date against US mobilisation.

Not that you would know about such sentiment from most US media coverage of the issue, which Zinn accuses of turning a blind eye to domestic opposition. He does not expect himself or fellow pacifists such as Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and investigative journalist Michael Moore to grace mainstream US television, which tends to favour more hawkish pundits, any time soon.

For the time being, at least, such voices remain confined to the margins, preaching to the converted - or at least the receptive - on campuses or through alternative media outlets.

From a historical perspective, Zinn sees current US policy as part of a tradition of resorting to force to assert national interests - as seen in theatres of operations from Vietnam to Grenada. He also draws parallels between what he sees as the shadowy threats of the increasingly nebulous war on terrorism and the "communist bogeyman" of the cold war.

But he adds: "This administration is more ruthless and closed than previous ones." Moreover, he is worried by what he sees as the Bush government's refusal to brook any opposition. "The (inference) of the Bush administration that (those) who dissent are unpatriotic has intimidated people. It's made (them) reluctant to speak their mind."

Ultimately, Zinn remains convinced that domestic opinion will turn against war as it did against military engagement in Vietnam. But he worries about what it might take to get to that point. After all, he says, support for Vietnam ebbed only after revelations of US atrocities and soldiers being brought home in body bags.

Ultimately, Zinn's opposition to US policy on Iraq is in keeping with the spirit of his historical writing. "The talk is all about strategy and tactics, geopolitics and personalitiesI air war and ground war, weapons of mass destruction, arms inspections, alliances, oil and 'regime change'", he wrote in a recent Boston Globe editorial. "What is missing is what an American war on Iraq will do toI thousands of ordinary human beings."

Drawing more parallels with Vietnam, such discussion as there has been of US casualties has focused on the implications for political support, he observed.

"That was uppermost in the mind of Lyndon Johnson, as we have learnt from the tapes of his White House conversations. He worried about Americans dying if he escalated the war in Vietnam, but what most concerned him was his political future. If we pull out of Vietnam, he told his friend Senator Richard Russell, 'They'll impeach me, won't they?'"

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