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.
What’s interesting to me later, in thinking about it, is that it didn’t occur to me to stand up in the briefing room and say, "What are we doing? Why are we doing this? The war is almost over, there is no need." It didn’t occur to me. To this day, I understand how atrocities are committed. How the military mind works. You are taught to just mechanically go through the procedures that you have been taught, you see. So, we went over Royan, and they told us in the briefing that we were going to drop a different kind of bomb this time. Instead of the usual demolition bombs, we are going to drop thirty hundred-pound canisters of what they called jellied gasoline, which was napalm. It was the first use of napalm in the European war. We went over. We destroyed the German troops and also destroyed the French town of Royan. "Friendly fire." That’s what bombing does.
To this day, when I hear the leaders of the country say, "Well, this is precision bombing and we are being very careful, and we are only bombing military"–that’s nonsense. No matter how sophisticated the bombing technology, there is no way you can avoid killing nonmilitary people when you drop bombs. It wasn’t until after the war that I looked back on that. In fact, it wasn’t until after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that I looked back on that. Because after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which at first I had welcomed like everybody at that time did–"Oh yes, the war is going to be over"–then I read John Hershey’s book Hiroshima, and for the first time the human consequences of dropping the bomb were brought home to me in a way I hadn’t thought of. When you are dropping bombs from 30,000 feet you don’t hear screams. You don’t see blood.
I suddenly saw what the bomb in Hiroshima did. I began to rethink the whole question of a "good war." I came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a good war. They may start off with good intentions, at least on the part of the people who fight in them. Generally not on the part of the people who make the decision; I doubt they have good intentions. But there may be good intentions on the part of the GIs who believe, yes, we are doing this for a good cause. But those good intentions are quickly corrupted. The good guys become the bad guys. So I became convinced that war is not a solution, fundamentally, for any serious problem. It may seem like a solution, like a quick fix, a drug. You get rid of this dictator, that dictator, as we did Hitler, Mussolini. But you don’t solve fundamental problems. In the meantime, you’ve killed tens of millions of people.
HK: You have written, talking now about history and the importance of education, "It confirmed what I learned from my Spelman years, that education becomes most rich and alive when it confronts the reality of moral conflict in the world."
HZ: My experience at Spelman College is an example of the interaction between education and activism. When my students went into town for the first time to sit in, to demonstrate, to be arrested in spring of 1960, I had colleagues at Spelman, Morehouse, Atlanta University–the complex of black colleges–who said, "This is bad, they are hurting their education." One of them wrote a letter to the Atlanta Constitution saying "I deplore what my students are doing; they are cutting class; they are missing out on their education." And I thought, what a pitiful, narrow, cramped view of education this is. To think that what these student are going to learn in books can compare to what they will learn about the world, about reality. They will come from town, they will come back from prison, and then when they will go into the library, they will go into it with an enthusiasm and a curiosity that didn’t exist before.
HK: You’re a person who is up front about his values and up front about the emotion that he feels about injustice. I want you to talk about how your writing is affected by these honesties about both your values and your emotions. Is that a plus in making it easier to tell these stories?
HZ: I know that there is a kind of conventional wisdom, or, as I put it, conventional foolishness, that if you’re passionate about something you can’t really write well about it. In the arts, we accept that passion makes the arts come alive. But we don’t accept it in scholarship, and therefore we draw a false line between the arts and scholarship. But I believe that being passionate about your scholarly work, being passionate about history is something that needs to be expressed in order to be honest. I think there’s nothing more important than being honest about your feelings. Otherwise you are presenting something that is not yourself.
There is another element to it, and that is, in being passionate about something, you are giving that intensity to what you write, which magnifies its power. In a way, you’re trying to make up for the fact that people who have written other things dominate the ideological landscape. Because you’re a minority voice, you have to speak louder, more eloquently, more vividly, more passionately.