Howard Zinn and the Art of War

zinnThe winners write history. The losers call Howard Zinn. If the name doesn't sound familiar, remember the words of Matt Damon's title character in "Good Will Hunting": "Have you ever read Howard Zinn's 'People's History of the United States'? That book will knock you on your ass."

Zinn is the author of over 20 books covering subjects ranging from war, terrorism, imperialism and foreign policy. "People's History of the U.S." documents both the conquerors and the conquered, stressing that the stories of both are necessary to fully understand the history of this country. Zinn's most recent work, "Terrorism and War," takes a fresh look at the U.S. since Sept.11.

Last fall, Oakland-based AK Press and Alternative Tentacles Records released a CD version of a speech Zinn gave last year at the Massachusetts College of Art titled "Artists in a Time of War." In the speech, Zinn addresses 9/11, the war on terrorism and the role of the artist as a voice of dissent. He remarked on the significance of Mark Twain's opposition to U.S. takeover of the Phillipines in 1906, Eugene O'Neil's condemnations of World War II and Bob Dylan's protest songs during the Vietnam era. Zinn stated his thesis succinctly with the line: "To criticize the government when you think it is wrong is the highest act of patriotism."

Zinn spoke with us from his office at Boston University last December, at about the same time U.N. weapons inspectors were entering Iraq.

Omaha Weekly Reader: One of the most striking points of the speech was the quote of the Trojan queen Hecuba when asked what war looks like: Like the backside of a baboon. When the baboon is up in a tree, with its hind end facing us, there is the face of war exactly: scarlet, scaly, glazed, framed in a clotted, filthy wig. You said if enough Americans could see that then the war in Iraq might not take place. How can you make that point to the average American who hasn't gone to war, or even been alive during a full ground assault war?

Howard Zinn: That's the role of art. Before I even experienced a war I read Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun." It's a novel written after WWI and the most powerful anti-war novel I've ever read. It's about a very ordinary guy from probably a place like Nebraska, some small town somewhere in the Midwest who goes off to war. He doesn't die but he loses all his limbs, his sight, his hearing. He's just a stump, a torso, and the whole novel is about him. As he's lying there they pick him up off the field and put him on a hospital bed and the whole book is about his thoughts and about what happens to him as he's lying there. His interaction with the people around him. It was so powerful, so visually compelling. I hadn't been in a war yet but it brought war home to me in a very vivid way.

This is what art does, this is what Goya's paintings did, what writers who write about war, Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front," movies, the poetry of e.e. cummings and Wilfred Owen. Art is a substitute for personal experience. It can bring people close to an experience even though they've never had the experience and almost make them feel how it really was. We've got to use art in every possible way to bring home to people what the war would be like.

What happened in the Vietnam War, people who had never seen war saw the photos of the victims of the My Lai massacre. They saw the photos of the kid walking down the street with the napalmed skin falling off her. The war was brought home to them through art, through photographs, through literature. So that's what will have to be done in this situation to make the American people realize that this is not just "oh, we're going to war, period" as an abstraction. Bush sees it as an abstraction. Not only has Bush never been in a war, but I don't think he's ever experienced an artistic rendering of war in a way that would move him in any way.

Do you believe him capable of being moved in such a way?

That's a good question. I don't know if he is.

Do you think that Americans have become so galvanized to the prospect of revenge that even the face of dead Iraqi civilians wouldn't prompt them to think twice about it?

No. I think right after 9/11, people were filled with anger, which turned into desire for retribution because Bush turned it into retribution. He declared war on terrorism and started bombing Afghanistan. Before people even had the chance to think about it, to have second thoughts, they had been swept along from the terror of 9/11 into war and retaliation.

But now, a year after we've been bombing Afghanistan with no obvious results in combating the war on terrorism, I believe that initial desire for retribution has faded. I travel around the country a lot and speak in a lot of different situations. I don't see desire for war or an enthusiasm for war. I see in many people passive acceptance of what the government is doing, but not enthusiastic support. Therefore I believe if the images of war are allowed to come through to the American people, if the press does its job and doesn't allow itself to be intimidated by the government or if the alternative press does so, that's what happened around the Vietnam War. The alternative press brought home to people what the establishment press was not doing. The story of the My Lai massacre was broken by Seymour Hersch, who was working for an alternative press.

I don't believe the American people are pushing for war or yearning for war. They're being pushed into it, but I think there's more and more reluctance. Even the polls show as soon as you mention casualties the support for the war drops from 75 percent to below 50 percent and that's with just talk about casualties. People are still confused and fearful but I don't think that immediately translates into a desire for war.

In your speech you said, "The artist transcends the here and now, the madness of terrorism and the madness of war. The artist thinks and speaks outside the framework of orthodoxy." Do you see any artists doing that now?

Yes. I see cartoonists like Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks) doing it. I see Eddie Vedder bringing the issue of war into some of his songs. I just recently heard of a CD of his in which he sings Bob Dylan's song "Masters of War," which is very powerful. I just got notice of a statement signed by many people in the arts -- actors and people in theater -- who signed a statement calling for the Bush administration not to go to war. Woody Harrelson was in England performing a play and he wrote a column for The Guardian of London in which he spoke out against war. I saw a quick clip on television of the actress Jessica Lange speaking in Spain to an audience and she was asked a question about what she thought of President Bush. She said, "I despise President Bush and his whole administration. I believe the war in Iraq is a stupid idea."

These are just glimmers, but I really believe people in the arts, much more than anybody else in the population, are opposed to war.

Terror and WarYou quoted journalist I.F. Stone, who said that every journalist must remember two words: "Governments lie." We hear "weapons of mass destruction" all the time. Is the true issue at stake here with Afghanistan and Iraq "blood for oil"?

Not so simply that you can say this is the only motive, but it is the most powerful motive. It is the motive that underlies all American policy in the Middle East ever since the end of WWII. There are others. The motive of political ambition, the motive of Bush thinking war gives him a stature that peacetime doesn't give him. Every president who goes to war immediately has a rise in his ratings.

There's another motive, too. War conceals the failures of the administration at home, and the American economy is faltering. More and more people are losing their jobs. Middle-class people have lost a lot of their savings because of what has happened in the stock market. There's no money in the administration's budget for education or health care. All sorts of services are being cut. There's no better way to make people forget about this than to get us into a war. Then war swallows up everybody's attention.

Many people believe that by not voting they are making a point about how they feel about the present state of politics. Then there are younger people who haven't given up hope in the system but we know that the differences between the two parties are so minute that you're not making enough of a difference if you do vote. Not voting doesn't solve anything, but does voting solve anything?

Not really. Historical experience indicates that the crucial element in changing policy is a national mass movement. Going back to the civil rights movement; neither the Republicans nor the Democrats, including Kennedy and Johnson, were ready to end racial segregation in the South. To do anything dramatic or important it took the movement of black people themselves in the South to finally cause the national leaders and Congress to agree to change. Same thing with Vietnam. Remember, the war ended under the Nixon administration, not under Johnson. Both Republicans and Democrats had escalated the war and if there were a movement strong enough as there was then even the Republican administration, like the Nixon administration, would finally bring an end to the war.

So the crucial thing is not who is in office. The crucial question is: Can you organize a movement in a country that will be large enough to affect, influence, maybe even scare whoever is in office?

Do you think that's possible?

Yes.

Do you think it's happening right now?

Only the beginning of it. I think it may be that the Bush administration's willingness to accept a compromise with the UN was at least in part affected by recognition that there is some growing anti-war sentiment in the country. It's hard to measure the effect. When Nixon was president during the Vietnam War he kept saying, "I don't give a damn about the demonstrations, I don't pay any attention to them." But later in his memoirs he indicated that he did pay attention to them. It's important for the demonstrators to know that in the past, movements that started small and at first didn't seem to have any effect grew and grew until they did have an effect.

In light of Homeland Security and Total information Awareness, has the responsibility transferred from the artist to the citizenry to think outside the framework and start asking these questions? Or does the artist have a greater responsibility?

I think the responsibility extends to everybody in the country who wants to preserve their privacy and doesn't want their e-mail looked at, their phone tapped, their credit card information given out. So in that sense everybody has an increased responsibility. But I do think artists have a special responsibility, if only because they have the possibility of reaching the public in a way that the ordinary citizen does not. These well-known actors and celebrities who sign statements or appear on stage and speak out against the war, they know that they have more clout than the average citizen and therefore they have the responsibility to use their influence for causes they care about.

Andrew Sigler is a freelance contributor to the Omaha Weekly Reader in Omaha, Nebraska.
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