Howard Zinn knows firsthand how war dehumanizes all involved, how the greatest evils can be done with the noblest of intentions. As a U.S. bombardier in World War II, he flew sorties over France and Germany, at a point in the war when it was clear that Germany would eventually lose. “As a moral act, I hadn’t really questioned it,” he says. “They were the bad guys, we were the good guys, and therefore nothing we did was wrong.” One of those bombing raids, over the French town of Royan, is where Zinn remembers dropping the air force’s new jellied-gasoline bomb and killing over a thousand cornered German troops, as well as a number of French civilians.
So when the 80-year-old retired Boston University political science professor speaks out against war, he argues with the force of experience and history. Everywhere he looks these days, he sees possibilities for a strong popular movement against an invasion of Iraq. He sees hope in the college and high school students he speaks to, some of whom have read his bestselling revisionist history, A People’s History of the United States (1980). And the numerous rallies and protests that are popping up in small towns from Montana to Alaska—not counting the larger events in cities like New York and Washington—give him heart. Zinn also looks at the polls, which show that as soon as questions of casualties or an extended campaign are raised, most of the country is opposed to war in Iraq. “There are large numbers of Americans whose support for the war is easily punctured by facts, by new information,” he tells the Voice.
Zinn is one of the most prominent figures of the growing anti-war movement, but it’s not a new role for a man who has spoken out against every U.S. military con?ict since World War II. Eschewing objectivity, he played a personal role in the civil rights and Vietnam anti-war movements, influencing the leaders of both. Two of his most popular works have recently been reprinted by South End Press: the history-from-the-inside SNCC: The New Abolitionists and Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, his second-bestselling work. But unlike the limp peace protests that blinked into and out of existence around the Gulf War and the conflict in Afghanistan, the opposition this time to an unprovoked attack on Iraq seems to be more widespread.
“I think it’s a race against time, because the Bush administration is hell-bent on war,” he says. Time will probably win. The Bush administration announced on December 19 that Iraq’s 12,000-page weapons declaration contained “significant omissions,” and that it constituted a “material breach” of the UN resolution. Many observers believe that war is most likely to come before the end of February, as winter allows for more protective chemical and biological weapons gear for U.S. soldiers.
But stopping a war before it happens is a different enterprise than coordinating opposition to an existing injustice. As a young professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, Zinn had a front-row seat for the civil rights stirrings of the early ’60s, where he met many young black students who would go on to play huge roles in shaping black America’s future. Novelist Alice Walker has called Zinn “the best teacher I ever had.” Civil rights figures such as Julian Bond and Marion Barry also took his classes, and in turn inspired him to join the protests. From his experiences at the sit-ins and marches across the South, he wrote SNCC, an examination of the rise and trials of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee that weaves first-person experience, reportage, historical analysis, biography, and polemics into a seamless and indispensable history of the civil rights movement from the point of view of one who helped inspire some of its leaders. One of Zinn’s main conclusions is that the movement drew strength from its clearly definable goals—ending segregation, demanding the right to vote—that stood apart from ideology.
Until very recently, critics have decried the character of much of the current anti-war movement, calling it unfocused and beholden to the radical agendas of the main organizing groups, ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) and Not in Our Name. As Michelle Goldberg outlined in a damning Salon analysis in October, ANSWER is a front group organized by Ramsey Clark’s International Action Center (Clark also belongs to the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic), which criticizes any efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein, while Not in Our Name is partly run by Clark Kissinger of the Revolutionary Communist Party, which supports Peru’s brutal Shining Path guerrillas and the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The Not in Our Name statement, published in 39 news-papers internationally in early summer, and signed by Zinn and more than 100 other notables, offers a point-ed argument, and assumes that the recent war in Afghanistan was an unprovoked attack by the United States. It also calls for Iraqi self-determination, free from U.S. interference. It’s a familiar grab-bag condemnation of America’s imperialist and repressive tendencies, even squeezing in a critique of the slow war in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
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.
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.