In the forthcoming book, Political Awakenings: Conversations with Twenty of the World’s Most Influential Writers, Politicians, and Activists, author Harry Kreisler sits down with the late historian Howard Zinn. In this excerpted interview from 2001, which will be published later this month, Zinn reveals much about his coming-of-age as a radical thinker–specifically his experience as a soldier and its influence on his politics–and his quest to not only study democracy, but to experience it.
Harry Kreisler: Before you were in college, you were working on the docks and you were involved in a demonstration at Times Square, and the police attacked. That is an example of a kind of event that changed your thinking, and that’s an argument that you make in a lot of your history, that people can be changed by things that happen to them and act accordingly.
Howard Zinn: That’s right. Sometimes it’s one very vivid experience. Of course, it’s never just one vivid experience, but it’s that one experience coming on top of a kind of only semiconscious understanding that’s been developed, and then it becomes crystallized by an event. I think that’s what happened to me at the age of seventeen, when I was hit by a policeman and knocked unconscious. I woke up and said, my God, this is America, where, yes, there are bad guys and there are good guys, but the government is neutral. And when I saw that, no, the police are not neutral, the government is not neutral, that was a radical insight.
HK: Your involvement in the antiwar movement was informed, in part, by your experience as a soldier. In one of the last bombing missions of the war, you were a bombardier on a plane that was responsible for one of the first uses of napalm, on an innocent French village called Royan. Tell us about that experience and what you learned from it, and how it affected your activism in the antiwar movement and your view of war in general.
HZ: I enlisted in the Air Force. I volunteered. I was an enthusiastic bombardier. To me it was very simple: it was a war against fascism. They were the bad guys; we were the good guys. One of the things I learned from that experience was that when you start off with them being the bad guys and you being the good guys, once you’ve made that one decision, you don’t have to think anymore, if you’re in the military. From that point on, anything goes. From that point on, you’re capable of anything, even atrocities. Because you’ve made a decision a long time ago that you’re on the right side. You don’t keep questioning, questioning, questioning. You’re not Yossarian, who questions.
And so, I was an enthusiastic bombardier, as I say. The war was over, presumably–a few weeks from the end. Everybody knew the war was about to end in Europe. We didn’t think we were flying missions anymore. No reason to fly. We were all through France, into Germany. The Russians and Americans had met on the Elbe. It was just a matter of a few weeks. And then we were awakened in the wee hours of the morning and told we were going on a mission. The so-called intelligence people, who brief us before we go into a plane, tell us we are going to bomb this tiny town on the Atlantic coast of France called Royan, near Bordeaux, and we are doing it because there are several thousand German soldiers there. They are not doing anything. They are not bothering anyone. They are waiting for the war to end. They’ve just been bypassed. And we are going to bomb them.