Howard Zinn: Free Radical

Filmmakers Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller couldn't have asked for anything better for their Howard Zinn bio-pic You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train than an opening that coincides with the arrival of Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Sure, Moore's film will get more attention. But along with a propitious confluence of current events, from the upcoming Democratic and Republican conventions to the ongoing revelations about the realities of the war in Iraq, Moore's film has raised the general level of political awareness. And that's exactly the kind of atmosphere Howard Zinn thrives in. It's almost as if he, Ellis, and Mueller had been planning this all along. Because if Fahrenheit 9/11 unveils the problem, then You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train offers the hope that there indeed are solutions.

"The emergence of the film wasn't planned for any particular time," Zinn, a former Boston University history professor, confirms over the phone from his home in Auburndale. "I don't think they had in mind the idea of timing the film for anything that was going on. And maybe they felt they didn't have to because they thought that no matter when the film came out, the US would be in a foreign-policy crisis. The war in Iraq and the fact that we're in an election year is just a particularly extreme manifestation of what goes on normally in American political life."

That sort of bold yet understated analysis is characteristic of Zinn. He's a human-rights crusader who has always managed to temper moral outrage with a sense of humor, an anti-war activist who volunteered to fight in World War II, an academic who has never confined himself to the classroom, and a celebrated if controversial historian (most famously of "A People's History of the United States") who remains in touch with his blue-collar roots. He may be as liberal as they come, but there's nothing knee-jerk about the philosophical underpinnings of his positions. In contrast to Moore, who has a talent for identifying and then demolishing obvious targets like Charlton Heston and George W. Bush, Zinn is a big-picture guy who has been around and involved himself in enough history in the making (WW2, the civil-rights movement, the Vietnam protests, etc.) to take a broad view of current events, including the war in Iraq.

"There's no doubt that what has happened with the torture photos has brought far more critical attention to the war than there was before," he says. "But even before the photos came out, every day the American people were being faced with the body count of American soldiers and the numbers going up from five to six to seven hundred. And there was a lot of talk in the press about deception about weapons of mass destruction. I still don't doubt that close to half of the American people still believe that the war is right. But the figures are going down, and Bush's credibility is going down. I'm sure that if you have a graph for Bush's support going slowly down, there's been a sharper turn at this point. But even with this sharper turn, there are still many, many Americans who will not be swayed by anything. There's a reason for this: It's not elitist to say that the American people are ignorant of what's been going on in the Middle East. Because it's not a commentary on them that they have not known the facts. It's just that the media in the United States have not given them the information. And the media have given enormous attention to the statements and the position of the administration."

As You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train documents, Zinn learned about government deception the hard way when, as a WW2 bombardier, he was ordered to drop barrels of "jellied gasoline" on a small French village just weeks before Germany surrendered. It was one of the first uses of what would become one of the nastier tools in the Vietnam War arsenal – napalm. And as he recounts in the film, it was used late in the war to kill German soldiers who were simply sitting around waiting for the fighting to end. It makes you wonder whether, given the opportunity to go back in time, he'd have opted to take the automatic military exemption afforded him as a dock worker instead of volunteering to fight.

"That's a good question. It's such a tough issue to deal with. I have a different view of WW2 now than I did at the time, when it was purely a good war, when it was simply a war against Fascism. Now, in the light of my own experiences in the war, especially that bombing raid in France, and looking at the world since the war and studying American policy, my view of WW2 is a much more complex one – more morally ambiguous.

"Fascism needed to be resisted. But that doesn't really answer the question of whether it had to be resisted at such cost and with so many atrocities committed on our side. This is one of the things that makes it morally ambiguous: The motives of the government were not the same as the motives of the guys who, like myself, volunteered to fight. It took a while for me to realize that. And motivation has an important effect on how a war is carried out. To me, that's the most important thing about WW2 today, because there's no way of recapitulating the conditions of that time and making a decision about what scenario would have been best in resisting Fascism. All that I would claim is that the fact that it was done in exactly the way it was done, with the bombing of large populations and with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, doesn't mean that it had to happen that way. But there is a way in which historical events take on an absolute firmness that cannot be dislodged. It becomes very difficult even to hypothesize other scenarios. The point that I really want to make about WW2 is not to go back over what was done or what might have been done, because the most important point about history is not what you can say about the past but the way it is used in the present. In that regard, the most important aspect of WW2 is that the moral element has been used and misused again and again as a way of justifying every ugly war we have fought since."

Zinn may not come right out and say it, but it's clear he's alluding to the parallels both Bush administrations drew between Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. And he hasn't been shy about making his thoughts known. "I was invited recently to the WW2 war memorial in Washington, to be on a panel. And I told them what I thought about the uses that have been made of WW2 and how I resented that the military glory and the moral glow surrounding WW2 were being used to cast the same kind of moral glow on the war in Iraq. To me, that is the most important point to be made about WW2."

After a lifetime spent not just chronicling but participating in controversial events that have shaped history, and watching that history repeat itself in often upsetting ways, you might think that Zinn would be at least a little discouraged by what he sees in the world today. But it's more complicated than that. "I don't want to sound like a sappy, happy fool whistling in the dark. But I don't allow my discouragement to become permanent because I'm aware that the American people are always in the position of being deceived by the media and by their leaders, and that they will show the effects of that deception for quite a while. But I also have seen again and again that when people learn what is really going on, despite what the media do or in cases when the facts and the reality of a situation become so obvious that even major media have to report them, a certain common decency, a basic sense of morality, asserts itself.

"My example of that is the Vietnam War, where most Americans went along with the idea that we were doing the right thing. But the truth of what was going on there became gradually apparent to more and more Americans, and they turned against the war. What's interesting to me is that even as they turned against the war – as they moved from two-thirds of the country supporting the war to two-thirds of the country opposing the war – there was still a hardcore of one-third who believed the official line, whatever the facts were. If we only look at those people, which is easy to do because they are so well represented in the media, it's easy to become very discouraged. But if we look at change over time in various historical situations, we see at least the possibility, not the inevitability, that people can change."

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