For Howard Zinn, writing history was never a neutral act. His work exists as a constant reminder that America’s future rests on our understanding of the American past, and that contemporary events can be shaped for better or worse according to our ability to recognize destructive historical patterns and break them.
Therefore, as we eulogize Zinn on the fifth anniversary of his death this past Tuesday, January 27 (as well as the fiftieth anniversary of the March to Selma, in which he participated), it is important not to make Zinn himself into a historical artifact. All one needs to do to experience Zinn’s work as a living document is open a volume and read it today, finding there the same concerns that animate our national consciousness now. Inequality of wealth and resources, institutionalized racism, war profiteering, the deceptive will of the national security state, environmental destruction, oppression of women, rabidly anti-immigrant jingoism, misinformed nationalism, and religious fanaticism. All are present in Zinn’s narrative of American history; and all present themselves in sadly renewed forms today.
As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Zinn’s writing was a sustained attempt to see the future rhyme with what is best in our national character rather than its uglier aspects, and the following three titles of his that we have had the honor to publish at City Lights bear the fruits of that labor.
1. The Bomb (2010)
Zinn served as a fighter pilot in WWII, firebombing civilian areas in Germany and German-occupied France. Zinn’s research into the enormity of the bombings he participated in, their historical afterlife, and the effects they had on the civilian populations affected him greatly, which is the subject of the “The Bombing of Royan,” one of the long essays published in The Bomb. It is an important essay not only because this experience served as the root of Zinn’s pacifism, a sentiment that animates all of his work on the history of American conflicts overseas; it is equally if not more important because it puts into practice Zinn’s historiographical principles, which might be said to have founded something like a “truth and reconciliation” school. Recalling and describing his own actions in Royan, his complicity in the state-sanctioned destruction of civilian lives and livelihoods, allows Zinn to lay out a defiantly alternative perspective:
One can see in the destruction of Royan [in which Zinn admits taking part] that infinite chain of causes, that infinite dispersion of responsibility, that can give infinite work to historical scholarship and sociological speculation, and bring an infinitely pleasurable paralysis of the will. What a complex of motives! In the Supreme Allied Command, the simple momentum of the war, the pull of prior commitments and preparations, the need to fill out the circle, to pile up the victories as high as possible. At the local military level, the ambitions, petty and large, the tug of glory, the ardent need to participate in a grand communal effort by soldiers of all ranks. On the part of the American Air Force, the urge to try out a newly developed weapon. (Paul Métadier wrote: “In effect, the operation was above all characterized by the dropping of new incendiary bombs which the Air Force had just been supplied with. According to the famous formulation of one general: ‘They were marvelous!'”) And among all participants, high and low, French and Americans, the most powerful motive of all: the habit of obedience, the universal teaching of all cultures, not to get out of line, not even to think about that which one has not been assigned to think about, the negative motive of not having either a reason or a will to intercede.
Equally germane, lest we forget the continued massive presence of nuclear arsenals the world over (and certain world leaders’ habit of casually mentioning them in speeches), is Zinn’s essay “Hiroshima: Breaking the Silence,” also included in The Bomb.
2. The Historic Unfulfilled Promise (2012)
This collection of essays written by Zinn for The Progressive constitute his attempts to get around what he called the “dullness of ordinary political discourse.” The pieces range from 1980 to 2009, but they concentrate heavily on the 21st century and the urgency of countering the contemporary proliferation of armed solutions with more humane ones. In “Our War on Terrorism,” Zinn writes:
Since war is itself the most extreme form of terrorism, a war on terrorism is profoundly self-contradictory. Is it strange, or normal, that no major political figure has pointed this out?
It is a theme that arises again and again throughout the essays collected here, and the analysis that Zinn provides for the War on Terror is often unsettling, as in 2002’s “Operation Enduring War,” which ominously links the concerns of the Occupy Movement with the country’s initial acquiescence to invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan:
What shall we do? We start with the core problem: that there is immense wealth available, enough to care for the urgent needs of everyone on Earth, and that this wealth is being monopolized by a small number of individuals, who squander it on luxuries and war while millions die and more millions live in misery. This is a problem understood by people everywhere, because it has a simplicity absent in issues of war and nationalism. That is, they know with supreme clarity – when their attention is not concentrated by the government and the media on waging war – that the world is run by the rich, and that money decides politics, culture, and some of the most intimate human relations.
The evidence for this is piling up, and becoming hard to put aside.
The Historic Unfulfilled Promise also includes a tribute essay on the life and work of Zinn’s late friend Kurt Vonnegut, a lampoon of the Nobel Committee for its legacy of awarding the Peace Prize to blatant violators of world peace, and an important essay on “Why War Fails.”
3. A Power Governments Cannot Suppress (2007)
This collection of stray pieces published by Zinn in various books and periodicals contains many essays on various topics that serve as supplements to the narrative set forth in Zinn’s million-selling People’s History of the United States. Included here are Zinn’s meditations on his American influences and heroes, from Thoreau to Eugene Debs and Sacco and Vanzetti, as well as further analyses of epochal events in American history such as the Boston Massacre of 1770, Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, and Al Qaeda’s destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11.
For more on Howard Zinn, check out the following links:
Check back each week as we continue looking back at practically everything we published in 2015, as we celebrate our 60th anniversary as a publisher.