Peace Trainer

Zinn and the Art of Anti-War Movement Maintenance

In contrast, last week's Win Without War letter, signed mostly by celebrities (Martin Sheen, Janeane Garofalo), along with Zinn and a few retired military personnel, is a focused statement of opposition to a hasty war in Iraq. Zinn is "someone the folks in Hollywood want to be associated with," says Alistair Millar, vice president of the Fourth Freedom Forum, the Washington-based peace group that helped coordinate the coalition. Win Without War demands a patient tolerance of inspections and a peaceful resolution to the Iraq crisis, while at the same time acknowledging the danger that Saddam's thirst for big weapons poses. It also benefits from the backing of a number of more mainstream progressive organizations such as the Sierra Club, the NAACP, and NOW, who lend an air of legitimacy. Zinn dismisses criticisms of the NION organizers' positions and biases, saying their commonality greatly overshadows whatever differences he may have with the other signatories. "A movement's success is based on what it says and what it does, not who is organizing it," he says. "Every progressive movement has had in it some fringe groups." But when asked if, in the same spirit of anti-war solidarity, he would support a protest rally organized by the America-first isolationist Pat Buchanan, who also opposes a war in Iraq, Zinn concedes that there are limits to whom one can find common ground with, support for Maoist despotism notwithstanding.

"What to do is always more complicated and takes more than a slogan like 'Don't Bomb Iraq,' " Zinn says. "Has the movement dealt enough with that? Well, probably not, because the answer is not something you can put on a poster." But Zinn challenges the assumption that Saddam Hussein's weapons stockpile is the most dangerous threat facing the world. "I would like to see inspection teams go into the laboratories of the United States," he says, in full flip-the-script mode. "I'd like to see what chemical and biological weapons the United States is storing." His anti-war stance—he takes pains to say that pacifism seems to him "logically indefensible," but sets the threshold for war higher than even "just war" proponents—stems from his own experience, and from knowing that the justifications for war (to stop aggression, to "preserve peace") often differ from the actual reasons nations go to war (strategic relationships, power balances).

In the period of censorious sensitivity following the September 11 attacks, many dissenters came under attack for voicing unpopular views, and Zinn is no exception. His critique of American foreign policy was the center of a storm of outrage in January, when Newton North High School in Massachusetts invited him to speak to a student assembly about the attacks. After he told those gathered that the bombing in Afghanistan "put us on the same level" as the terrorists, a group of neighborhood parents attacked the school for allowing such subversive talk to reach their children. But rather than stifling Zinn's critique, the hubbub only led to more speaking engagements at more high schools. "Yeah, it's publicity," he chuckles.

Veteran anti-war agitator Zinn: "I think it’s a race against time."
photo: Sean W. Hennessy
Veteran anti-war agitator Zinn: "I think it’s a race against time."

It's been a big year for Zinn's books. In addition to SNCC and Vietnam, South End Press reprinted five volumes of earlier work, most of it from the '60s and '70s. Seven Stories Press also published Terrorism and War, a smaller collection of his interviews on the conflict in Afghanistan. And in February, HarperCollins will sponsor a celebration of the sale of over a million copies of Zinn's seminal A People's History at the 92nd Street Y, with readings by Ben Affleck and Danny Glover. For Zinn, the popularity of his work indicates that Americans hunger for a different perspective. It gives him hope that an unjust war can be stopped before it begins. "The word optimism is probably too strong to describe my feelings," he says. "It's really a matter of possibility."

Because, as Howard Zinn's own history shows, a clearly defined social movement, unburdened by ideology, can be an unstoppable force. Its members just have to agree on their demands, and who they're talking to: themselves, or a larger audience.

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