Howard Zinn

The Good War

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Historian Howard Zinn speaking in 2009. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Howard Zinn was a bombardier in World War II. He flew B-17 missions over Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. He didn’t like war, but he joined in the fight against Fascism because he believed this war was “a people’s war, a war against the unspeakable brutality of Fascism.” Unlike other wars, this war “was not for profit or empire”:

What could be more justifiable than a war against Fascism, which was ruthlessly crushing dissent at home, and taking over other countries, while proclaiming theories of racial supremacy and promoting a spirit of nationalist arrogance. When Japan, which was committing atrocities in China, allied itself to Italy and Germany, and then attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, it seemed to be clear—it was the democratic countries against the Fascist countries.[i]

Indeed, World War II is the national archetype of the good war, the just war, the war for democracy and liberty. US wars have been infused ever since with the heroic spirit of its just cause.

Based on his experience and then on his research as a professional historian, Zinn changed his mind about World War II and war in general. His reassessment is worth reflecting upon since, as he put the matter, World War II is the supreme test of whether there is such a thing as a just war.[ii] (more…)

Empire or Democracy

1899 political cartoon by Winsor McCay. Uncle Sam (representing the United States), gets entangled with rope around a tree labeled "Imperialism" while trying to subdue a bucking colt or mule labeled "Philippines" while a figure representing Spain walks off over the horizon. Reference to the United States taking control of the Philippines from Spain at end of the Spanish American War and the subsequent Philippine-American War. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

1899 political cartoon by Winsor McCay. Uncle Sam (representing the United States), gets entangled with rope around a tree labeled “Imperialism” while trying to subdue a bucking colt or mule labeled “Philippines” while a figure representing Spain walks off over the horizon. Reference to the United States taking control of the Philippines from Spain at end of the Spanish American War and the subsequent Philippine-American War. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2008, seven years into an unending war on terrorism, historian Howard Zinn raised the question of whether the time had come not only to acknowledge America’s imperial past and present, but also to break the habit of militarism.

Have not the justifications for empire, embedded in our culture, assaulting our good sense — that war is necessary for security, that expansion is fundamental to civilization — begun to lose their hold on our minds? Have we reached a point in history where we are ready to embrace a new way of living in the world, expanding not our military power, but our humanity?

Zinn’s question signals a moment of transition or, at least the possibility thereof, which implies an alternative vision of how to live in the world. (more…)

Combative Patriotism

Patriotic Christmas light display in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA (photo by Pezow / Wikimedia Commons).

Patriotic Christmas light display in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA (Pezow / Wikimedia Commons).

The rush of patriotism. We’ve all seen it, perhaps even gotten caught up in it. It is a ritual of nationalism that enacts the story of America and the mythic vision of its special calling.

For many (perhaps most) who are U.S. citizens, there is something vital and irresistible, even right, about this public celebration of national identity, especially in times of crisis. Expressing pride of country brings us together, suggests a common past and shared purpose, reassures us that we will overcome adversity, that we are not alone in the face of danger.

Yet, the price we pay for this prideful rite is high. It makes us combative in our assertion of national identity. We define who we are as a people in opposition to an enemy. The rush of patriotism becomes an act of righteous indignation and polarization. It’s US against THEM—the United States vs. the World. It constitutes an attitude of war.

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