Professor, activist and author Howard Zinn has championed the use of historical analysis to illuminate modern times. His best-known book, A People's History of the United States, has sold over 400,000 copies, and is considered one of the definitive texts on the history of North America. WW spoke with Dr. Zinn by telephone Sunday before his trip to Oregon.
Willamette Week: You're speaking at the University of Oregon on Friday, presumably about the war in Iraq. Which historical events will you use to illustrate the subject?
Howard Zinn: I see the war in Iraq as part of a very long train of events in American foreign policy, the common denominator being American expansion. The history goes back to the defeat of the British and the opening up of western lands to expansion, the Louisiana Purchase and the driving of Indians off the land. It goes back to the Mexican War, where also we were going to bring peace and prosperity and instead took half of Mexico. In other words, the historical antecedence of the war in Iraq is all of those incidences in which the United States, pretending to care about democracy, kept moving outward--first across the continent, and then, at the turn of the century, the Caribbean. We didn't liberate Cuba, despite the military victory over Spain. We certainly didn't liberate the Philippines shortly afterward in a very bloody war. I know that supporters of this war like to use World War II as a basis for comparison with Saddam Hussein, but I don't think that stands up very well. That is, in World War II Hitler was clearly an aggressor with a very powerful military force moving into other countries. Now, in the Middle East, the United States is a very aggressive military power moving into other countries.
You were a bombardier in World War II. How did that experience affect your outlook?
Well, at the time I was a very enthusiastic and eager bombardier. I believed I was fighting a just war. Therefore, I didn't think about what I was doing. I didn't ask whom we were bombing, or why we were bombing them. It wasn't until the end of the war that I began to think back on my experience, especially after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then I began to think about my own bombing missions.
I began to question the purity of World War II. I began to think that war, even a so-called "good war," ultimately solves no fundamental problems after it kills huge numbers of people. My war experience turned me against the idea that you can have a just war. Because
if war is inevitably the killing of large numbers of people indiscriminately (and wars have become more and more indiscriminate, despite all the talk of "smart bombs"), then it cannot be justified--whatever the political end, whatever tyrant is in power, whatever boundary has been crossed.
I conclude that if there are tyrants to be toppled, if there are injustices to be remedied, then it has
to be accomplished without recourse to war.
What questions do you ask yourself in the process of developing your ideas?
What can I learn from history that will illuminate what is going on today? What are the motives of the major players in history? What is being left out of this story? What voices aren't being heard? What scenes aren't being shown? What information is not being given to people that I might be able to look for and then supply? Those are some of the questions that I ask.
What information about the war in Iraq would you say is being withheld from us now?
The human impact of what we're doing. The terrorizing of a country. That's not being fully disclosed to the American public. By that I mean, if a bomb hits a marketplace in Baghdad, you see a story that appears one day and disappears the next. There's no cumulative effect of what is really an enormous bombing campaign that terrorizes the population of a country unable to defend itself. There's a human story that is not being told. Another thing that's not being reported is the discrepancy between the American military power and the Iraqi military power. In some vague way people know that we're a big country and they're a little one, but the impact of that discrepancy is not clear. Otherwise, I think a lot more people would be horrified by the idea that a country with a military budget of 400 billion dollars is attacking a country with a military budget of less than half of 1 percent of ours.
will address students and members at the McDonald Theater, 1010 Willamette St., Eugene, (800) 992- 4499. 7 pm Friday, April 4. $5-$7.
's latest film,
, will be shown on the campus of the University of Oregon, 7 pm Thursday, April 3. with a ticket to the Zinn lecture.