We remember the legendary historian, author, professor, playwright and activist Howard Zinn, who was born 100 years ago today. Zinn was a regular guest on Democracy Now! from the start of the program in 1996 up until his death in 2010 at age 87. After witnessing the horrors of World War II as a bombardier, Zinn became a peace and justice activist who picketed with his students at Spelman College during the civil rights movement and joined in actions such as opposing the Vietnam War. He later spoke out against the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I believe neutrality is impossible, because the world is already moving in certain directions. Wars are going on. Children are starving,” Zinn said in a 2005 interview. “To be neutral … is to collaborate with whatever is going on, to allow it to happen.” His classic book, “A People’s History of the United States,” retells the country’s history from the perspective of everyday people who resisted oppression and exploitation by more powerful forces.
AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour remembering Howard Zinn, the late, great historian, author, professor, playwright and activist. Zinn was born 100 years ago, on August 24th, 1922, to working-class Jewish immigrant parents in Brooklyn. He died in 2010 at the age of 87, but his books continue to be read across the globe.
At 18, Zinn began working as a shipyard worker, then joined the Air Force, where he served as a bombardier in World War II. After witnessing the horrors of war, Howard Zinn went on to become a lifelong dissident and peace activist. He was active in the civil rights movement and other struggles for social justice, taught at Spelman College in Atlanta, the historically Black college for women. He was fired for insubordination for standing up for student protesters. While at Spelman, he served on the executive committee of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
After being forced out of Spelman, Zinn became a professor at Boston University. In 1967, he published Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. It was the first book on the war to call for immediate withdrawal, no conditions. A year later, he and Father Dan Berrigan traveled to North Vietnam to receive the first three American prisoners of war released by the North Vietnamese. When Dan Ellsberg needed a place to hide the Pentagon Papers before they were leaked to the press, he went to Howard and his late wife, Ros Zinn.
In 1980, Howard Zinn published his classic work, A People’s History of the United States. The book would go on to sell over a million copies, changed the way we looked at history in the United States.
Howard Zinn was a regular guest on Democracy Now! from the time we went on the air in 1996 up until his death. We begin today’s show with an interview I did with Howard Zinn in 2005, when he came to our firehouse studio.
AMY GOODMAN: It is great to have you with us.
HOWARD ZINN: Well, it’s nice of you to invite me. I was worried.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you just came from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, actually, yesterday afternoon I spoke at the Bedford Hills, euphemistically called, Correctional Facility — they hardly correct anything, but — spoke to prisoners there, women prisoners, mostly prisoners of color. I spoke to them yesterday afternoon before I gave this talk last night at Manhattanville College.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you talk about with the women?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, they had been using my book. They have classes. They’re using my book, A People’s History of the United States. And I talked to them about history, about doing history, about why I did history the way I did, why I did unneutral history and how I came to do it. And I told them something about my life, and, of course, I always like to talk about that, you know.
And then they asked a lot of questions, a very lively, enthusiastic, excited group. I mean, if every teacher in the country had a class like that, you know, they would be inspired. And it’s wonderful — and I’ve always found this to be true — wonderful and always amazing when you talk to prisoners, who should be the last ones to be up and optimistic and in good spirits, but it’s always there. It’s actually encouraging, you know, and, of course, troubling to know that these people, these remarkable people, are being kept in prison, you know, very often, most of the time, for nonviolent crimes, and kept there for long periods of time. It’s a sort of sad commentary on American society that we have people in Washington who are free, and these people are in prison.
AMY GOODMAN: You talked about being a teacher, but, Howard Zinn, the places you were — where you did teach — well, Spelman, you were fired, and Boston University, you were almost fired.
HOWARD ZINN: Oh, are you trying to make me out as a troublemaker?
AMY GOODMAN: What happened to you at Spelman?
HOWARD ZINN: At Spelman, I got involved with my students in the actions that were going on in the South, the sit-ins, the demonstrations, the picket lines. I was supporting my students. And this was the first Black president of Spelman College, a very conservative institution. He wasn’t happy about me joining the students in all of these things, wasn’t happy about a lot of things that they did. But he couldn’t do anything about it. But when I — the students came back from, you might say, from jail and then rebelled against the campus regulations and the restrictions on them, and I supported them, that was too much.
AMY GOODMAN: During the civil rights years?
HOWARD ZINN: This was — yeah, these were during the civil rights years. And so, you know, he was very unhappy with the fact that I was supporting the students who were rebelling against the paternalism and the authoritarianism on that campus.
AMY GOODMAN: They were women students?
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, these were Black women students. And, you know, the movement brought them out of this little sort of convent-like atmosphere of Spelman College and out into the world.
AMY GOODMAN: The author Alice Walker was one of those students?
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, Alice Walker was one of my students. Marian Wright Edelman, the head of the Children’s Defense Fund now in Washington, she was one of my students. I’m very proud of those students I had at Spelman. And yeah, Marian Wright Edelman was in jail, and Alice Walker was in jail. And yeah, it was a great moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Boston University was many years later. Why did you almost get thrown out of there?
HOWARD ZINN: Why did I almost get thrown out of Boston University? We had a strike. Faculty went on strike. Secretaries went on strike. They settled with the faculty after what was a successful strike, but not with the secretaries. And so, I and some other faculty refused to cross the secretaries’ picket line. And five of us who refused to do that were threatened with firing, even though all of us had tenure. And so it was a long struggle, but we won.
AMY GOODMAN: Going back before both of your tenures as professor, you were a bombardier in World War II.
HOWARD ZINN: That’s true, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And you talk about your final bombing run, not over Japan, not over Germany, but over France.
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah. Well, we thought our bombing missions were over. The war was about to come to an end. This was in April of 1945. You may remember the war ended in early May 1945. This was a few weeks before the war was going to be over, and everybody knew it was going to be over, and our armies were past France into Germany, but there was a little pocket of German soldiers hanging around this little town of Royan on the Atlantic coast of France, and the Air Force decided to bomb them — 1,200 heavy bombers, and I was in one of them, flew over this little town of Royan and dropped napalm — first use of napalm in the European theater.
And we don’t know how many people we killed, how many people were terribly burned as a result of what we did. But I did it, like most soldiers do, unthinkingly, mechanically, thinking we’re on the right side, they’re on the wrong side, and therefore we can do whatever we want, and it’s OK. And only afterward, only really after the war, did I — when I was reading about Hiroshima from John Hersey and reading the stories of the survivors of Hiroshima and what they went through, only then did I begin to think about the human effects of bombing. Only then did I begin to think about what it meant to human beings on the ground when bombs were dropped on them, because as a bombardier, I was flying at 30,000 feet, six miles high, couldn’t hear screams, couldn’t see blood. And this is modern warfare.
In modern warfare, soldiers fire, they drop bombs, and they have no notion, really, of what is happening to the human beings that they’re firing on. Everything is done at a distance. This enables terrible atrocities to take place. And I think, reflecting back on that bombing raid, and thinking of that in Hiroshima and all the other raids on civilian cities and the killing of huge numbers of civilians in German and Japanese cities, the killing of 100,000 people in Tokyo in one night of firebombing, all of that made me realize war, even so-called good wars against fascism, like World War II, wars don’t solve any fundamental problems, and they always poison everybody on both sides. They poison the minds and souls of everybody on both sides. We’re seeing that now in Iraq, where the minds of our soldiers are being poisoned by being an occupying army in a land where they are not wanted. And the results are terrible.
AMY GOODMAN: You learned you dropped napalm on this French village?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, we didn’t — actually didn’t know what it was. They said, “Oh, you’re not going to have the usually 500-pound demolition bombs. You’re going to carry one — you’re going to carry 30 100-pound canisters of jellied gasoline.” We had no idea what that was, but it was napalm.
AMY GOODMAN: You went to that village later?
HOWARD ZINN: Later, I went, yeah. Later, I visited that village, about 10 years after the war. And I went to the library, which had been destroyed and which was now rebuilt, and I dug out records of the survivors and what they had written about the bombing. And I wrote a kind of essay about the bombing of Royan, which appears — where does it appear? — it appears in my book The Zinn Reader and also in my book The Politics of History. But it was — for me, it was a very important experience, a very great sobering lesson about so-called good wars.
AMY GOODMAN: You learned when you were there on the ground many years later who had died?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, I — you know, I spoke to people who had survived that and whose family members had died. And they were very bitter about the bombing. And, you know, they attributed it to all sorts of things, the desire to try out a new weapon. It’s amazing how many things are done in a war just to try out new weapons. You know, maybe one of the reasons for dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to see what this does to human beings. Human beings become sacrifices in the desire to develop new military technology. And I think that was one of those instances.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to historian Howard Zinn, here in our firehouse studio in Chinatown, just blocks from where the towers of the World Trade Center once stood. You went to Vietnam, to North Vietnam, with Dan Berrigan?
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
HOWARD ZINN: Why? Well, this was early 1968. This was the time of the Tet Offensive, also the time of the Tet holiday, the Vietnamese holiday. And the North Vietnamese decided they wanted to release the first three airmen prisoners who had been shot down over North Vietnam. And they wanted to release them in the custody of not the American government, but the peace movement. So Daniel Berrigan, poet, priest, whom I had never met before, he and I traveled together to Hanoi, to North Vietnam, to pick up these three American airmen who were being released by the North Vietnamese.
And then we spent some time in Hanoi and in the surrounding area, visited bombed-out areas, visited little villages that had been jet bombed in the middle of the night, a million miles from any possible military target. And that — we were being bombed — Vietnam was being bombed every night. Every day we were going into air raid shelters. Every night Daniel Berrigan would write a poem about what had happened that day. And, you know —
AMY GOODMAN: What do you say to those, then and now, before the invasion, who would go to Iraq, those who went to North Vietnam, when they would be called traitors, giving comfort to the enemy?
HOWARD ZINN: You mean Americans who went to North Vietnam? You mean like Jane Fonda and so many others who went to North Vietnam?
AMY GOODMAN: And Iraq before. I mean even people like Congressmember McDermott of Seattle, reporters saying that they should resign.
HOWARD ZINN: Oh, people have gone to Iraq. And, I mean, what about — you know, there’s people in Voices in the Wilderness, Americans who went to Iraq and violating the U.S. sanctions, bringing food and medicine, you know. And the whole business of being traitors, you know, I think there’s a whole — there’s somehow some wrongheaded notion of what treason is and what patriotism is, and there’s some notion that if you disobey the orders of your government or the laws of your government, you’re being treasonous. But I believe the government is being treasonous and the government is being unpatriotic when the government violates the fundamental rights of human beings, when the government invades another country, a country that has not attacked it, a country that has not threatened it. When our government invades another country and drops bombs and kills huge numbers of people, and then Americans have the guts to go to that country and bring people food and medicine or go to see what is going on, as many Americans did when they went to Vietnam, I think these are the most patriotic Americans.
And, you know, if you define patriotism as obedience to the government, then you are, I think, following a kind of totalitarian principle, because that’s the principle of a totalitarian state, that you do what the government tells you to do. And democracy means that the government is an instrument of the people. This is the Declaration of Independence. Governments are artificial entities set up in order to preserve the rights, equal right to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness of people. When the government violates those rights, it is the duty of people to defy that government. That is patriotism.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn, you called your autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Why?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, it came from — I stole it from myself. That is, I used to say that to my classes at the beginning of every class. I wanted to be honest with them about the fact that they were not entering a class where the teacher would be neutral. It was not going to be a class where the teacher spent a half a year or year with the students, and they would have no idea where the teacher stood on the important issues. This is not going to be a neutral class, I said. I don’t believe in neutrality. I believe neutrality is impossible, because the world is already moving in certain directions. Wars are going on. Children are starving. And to be neutral, to pretend to neutrality, to not take a stand in a situation like that, is to collaborate with whatever is going on, to allow it to happen. I did not want to be a collaborator with what was happening. I wanted to enter into history. I wanted to play a role. I wanted my students to play a role. I wanted us to intercede. I wanted my history to intercede and to take a stand on behalf of peace, on behalf of a racial equality or sexual equality. And so I wanted my students to know that right from the beginning, know you can’t be neutral on a moving train.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Howard Zinn, joining us in 2005 in Democracy Now!’s firehouse studio at Downtown Community Television, DCTV. When we come back, we continue with our Zinntennial, with a speech Howard Zinn made two weeks after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, launched what became the longest war in U.S. history. Back in 30 seconds.
AMY GOODMAN: “Ludlow Massacre” by Woody Guthrie, about a Colorado militia gunning down coal strikers in 1914. Howard Zinn once said hearing the song was a defining moment for him and inspired him to research and tell stories left out of most history books.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with our Zinntennial. That’s right, remembering the legendary historian Howard Zinn on what would have been his 100th birthday.
On October 21st, 2001, Howard Zinn gave a major address at the University of Vermont, Burlington. This was just over a month after the 9/11 attacks and two weeks after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, beginning what became the longest war in U.S. history. It was a year ago this month when the U.S. finally withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban regained control. This is Howard Zinn in 2001.
HOWARD ZINN: I emphasize this because we have to understand what we are doing in Afghanistan to end terrorism, because we need to end terrorism. We absolutely need to end terrorism. We have to, yes. And we have to begin to think about what we need to do to end terrorism. And we have to think about whether bombing Afghanistan is going to end terrorism. And because — how much thinking went into this? Really, how much thinking went into this? You think there are all these minds. It doesn’t matter how many minds you have. It’s the quality of mind that counts. And it’s also, you know, the morality of these minds, and the understanding of these minds that there may be people in other countries who deserve to live as much as those people in the Twin Towers deserve to live. You know, that’s — you know.
So, well, people say, “Yeah, but you must do something.” I agree. You know, they say, “You can’t do nothing.” I agree. You must do something. I like the logic: You must do something, therefore bomb. I don’t get it. I mean, that’s the only possible thing you can do, if you must do something?
The medical students, you know, are confronted with — you know, somebody has a leg infection. They don’t know what to do about it. Amputate it. The medical students take the Oath of Hippocrates. You don’t know what to do. Something is bad, really bad. You must do something. But the first rule is: Do no harm. Let’s — you have to start off with that: Do no harm. We are doing great harm. Great harm, you see?
And if you think we’re not, try to imagine — they say, “Oh, well, you know, we’re not killing that many people. We’re not killing that many people.” We don’t know how many people we’re killing, first of all, because you can’t believe the government. I’m not saying you can believe the Taliban. No, all governments lie. Right? But it’s just a matter of common sense and knowing the history of bombing that we know, and since there are little reports that come through, even through the filter of control and so on.
You know, there were reporters in villages in Afghanistan reporting. There they were, right on the spot, and there were these houses destroyed, and there were these freshly dug graves, and there was a man who lost his wife and four kids in a bombing. And there — and there’s some things are admitted. Yes, a Red Cross compound was hit — right? — on the same day that Bush is asking people to contribute to the Red Cross. Well, if you’re going to — we’re going to contribute to the Red Cross, first assure us that you’re not going to bomb the Red Cross, you see.
And, no, people — you know, if you think what we’re doing in Afghanistan is not very much, you know, consider that there are hundreds of thousands of people in Afghanistan who are fleeing the cities and towns in which they live. Have you seen the pictures of Afghan refugees? It started as soon as Bush promised to bomb, because there are certain American promises they can count on, you see, and that’s one of them. And the refugees immediately began moving. And so you see the pictures of these families with all their possessions, or as many of their possessions they carry on the backs and their wagons, and their kids, and hundreds of thousands of them. So this isn’t a small thing. This isn’t just, “Oh, we’re killing a few people, and that’s a price we’re willing to pay.” We are terrorizing Afghanistan. I’m not exaggerating.
The people who are — the people who are in Kabul — the people who are in Kabul — the people who are in Kabul and people in other places in Afghanistan have to live with the fear of these bombs. Have you lived under bombs? Do you know what it’s — can you imagine what it’s like? And you’re in a very backward, technologically — right? — undeveloped country, and there are these monster machines coming over with this ferocious noise and the lights and the flashing and the explosions. And it’s — yes, we’re terrorizing people in Afghanistan. And it’s not — it’s not right to respond to the fact that we have been terrorized, as we have, not right to respond to that by terrorizing other people. Absolutely wrong, you see. You know.
And furthermore, it’s not going to help. And you could say, “Well, maybe it may be worth doing, because this will end terrorism.” I mean, how much common sense does it take to know that you cannot end terrorism by indiscriminately just throwing bombs on Afghanistan. And then, of course, you get reports: “We have now destroyed three of their camps. We’ve destroyed four” — who are you kidding? How many hours does it take to set up a training camp? How easy it is to move from one place to another?
I mean, the history of bombing is mostly a history of futility. Yes, really. You know, there’s a book that came out recently called A History of Bombing. A History of Bombing. I was a bombardier. And, sure, the technology has improved, although it was claimed — even then, it was claimed our bombs are smart, because we’re using this special bombsight, this Norden bombsight. People really believed that. Even we believed that, we who were using the bombsight, because we would bomb at 11,000 feet or 4,000 feet, and we got pretty close to the target. But then, when we flew on missions, we were bombing at 30,000 feet, and the bombs went all over the place and killed an awful lot of people, all sorts of people. You know, didn’t matter.
I say it didn’t matter, because these people were ciphers. Who were these people? I didn’t even see them. You bomb, you bomb another country, you don’t see these people. You’re bombing from high altitudes. You know, our planes are bombing at high altitudes because they want to escape anti-aircraft fire, right? No, you don’t see anything on the ground. You see flashes, and you see explosions and may take pictures, but you don’t — you don’t hear screams. You don’t see blood. You don’t see severed limbs. You don’t see any of that.
We saw that in New York. We saw those scenes in New York. They horrified us. We saw people in panic, running, running from that — those explosions, that enormous pile of debris, you know, and we were horrified. These were real people to us. But then, if we bomb other countries, those people are not real to us.
One of the things I thought of after I got over my initial horror at what happened in New York, I thought, “Hey, that’s what it must have been like when I was bombing in Europe.” That’s what it must have been like, and I didn’t even know it, because these people were ciphers to me, you see. And then I thought, “Maybe to these terrorists, that’s what it is for them.” Oh, 6,000 human beings. You know, no, they have a mission. They have a goal. No. They’re not — they’re not human beings to terrorists. And people in other parts of the world have not been human beings to us.
If there’s anything we might get out of this experience, it’s that we might take that horror that we have felt looking at those scenes in New York, and compassion that we have felt for the people who endured this and their families, and extend this to people in other parts of the world who have been enduring this — enduring this for a very long time. And that does mean — that does mean examining the United States and our policies.
You know, if you — because, you know, when you do that, when you suggest that, say, “You know what? I think maybe we ought to look at ourselves and our policies,” people say, “Oh, you’re justifying what happened.” No, no, absolutely not. To explain is not to justify. But if you don’t want to explain anything, you will never learn anything. So you have to — you have to understand, you have to explain, without justifying.
And you have to look — yes, you have to dig down and see if you can figure out what is at the root of this terrorism, because there is something at the root besides, you know, irrational, murderous feeling. And, yes, this was murderous, fanatical feeling. But these were not simply madmen, who just — you know, there are people, like, who just go berserk and kill everybody in sight, right? We know that, because we’ve seen that in our country, when somebody just — you know, something goes haywire in them, and they just go wild. And they — no, it’s not that. Terrorism is not that sort of thing. There’s something underneath that, you know, that fanaticism, which may have a core of truth to it. That is, there’s something in the core of belief of these terrorists which may also be at the core of belief of millions of other people in the world who are not terrorists, who are angry at American policy but who are not fanatic enough to go and kill Americans because they’re angry at our policy, but who are capable of doing that if they are even more aroused, and even if we begin even doing more things to anger them. There’s an — you might say there’s a reservoir of possible terrorists among all those people in the world who have suffered as a result of U.S, foreign policy.
Now, I don’t know if you think I’m exaggerating when I say there are millions of people in the world who have suffered as a result of U.S. foreign policy. But, yes, there are. And Bush, at a recent press conference, said something like, “I don’t understand why these people hate us.” No, I don’t — you know, said, “We are good.” That’s what he said. “We are good.” You know, look at me. I’m good. You know. Well, sometimes the United States is good. Yes, there are a lot of good things about the United States. And yes, there are times when the United States is good. And then there are times, unfortunately many times, too many times, when the United States has been bad, evil really, and has carried out policies that have resulted in the deaths of, yes, millions of people.
AMY GOODMAN: Legendary historian Howard Zinn, speaking at the University of Vermont in Burlington in 2001, just two weeks after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and launched what became the longest war in U.S. history. Back with our Zinntennial in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: “Prayer for Amerikkka pt. 1 & 2” by the trumpeter jaimie branch’s group Fly or Die. jaimie died August 22nd at the age of 39 in Brooklyn, New York.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with our Zinntennial. That’s right, the legendary historian Howard Zinn would have been 100 years old today. In 2006, we featured a speech Zinn delivered in Madison, Wisconsin, as he received the Haven Center’s Award for Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship. His lecture was titled “The Uses of History and the War on Terrorism.”
HOWARD ZINN: I was talking to my barber the other day, because we always discuss world politics. And he’s totally politically unpredictable, as most barbers are, you see. He said, “Howard,” he said, “you know, you and I disagree on many things, but on one thing we agree: War solves nothing.” And I thought, “Yeah.” It’s not hard for people to grasp that.
And there again, history is useful. We’ve had a history of war after war after war after war. What have they solved? What have they done? Even World War II, the “good war,” the war in which I volunteered, the war in which I dropped bombs, the war after which, you know, I received a letter from General Marshall, general of generals, a letter addressed personally to me, and to 16 million others, in which he said, “We’ve won the war. It will be a new world.” Well, of course, it wasn’t a new world. It hasn’t been a new world, war after war after war.
There are certain — I came out of that war, the war in which I had volunteered, the war in which I was an enthusiastic bombardier, I came out of that war with certain ideas, which just developed gradually at the end of the war, ideas about war. One, that war corrupts everybody who engages in it. War poisons everybody who engages in it. You start off as the good guys, as we did in World War II. They’re the bad guys. They’re the fascists. What could be worse? So they’re the bad guys, we’re the good guys. And as the war goes on, the good guys begin behaving like the bad guys. You can trace this back to the Peloponnesian War. You can trace it back to the good guy, the Athenians, and the bad guys, the Spartans. And after a while, the Athenians become ruthless and cruel, like the Spartans.
And we did that in World War II. We, after Hitler committed his atrocities, we committed our atrocities — you know, our killing of 600,000 civilians in Japan, our killing of probably an equal number of civilians in Germany. These, they weren’t Hitler, they weren’t Tojo. They weren’t — no, they were just ordinary people, like we are ordinary people living in a country that is a marauding country, and they were living in countries that were marauding countries, and they were caught up in whatever it was and afraid to speak up. And I don’t know, I came to the conclusion, yes, war poisons everybody.
And war — this is an important thing to keep in mind, that when you go to war against a tyrant — and this was one of the claims: “Oh, we’re going to get rid of Saddam Hussein,” which was, of course, nonsense. They didn’t — did our government care that Saddam Hussein tyrannized his own people? We helped him tyrannize his people. We helped him gas the Kurds. We helped him accumulate weapons of mass destruction, really.
But when you go to war against a tyrant, the people you kill in the war are the victims of the tyrant. The people we killed in Germany were the victims of Hitler. The people we killed in Japan were the victims of the Japan Imperial Army, you know. And the people who die in wars are more and more and more people who are not in the military. You may know this about the different ratio of civilian-to-military deaths in war, how in World War I, 10 military dead for one civilian dead; in World War II, it was 50-50, half military, half civilian; in Vietnam, it was 70% civilian and 30% military; and in the wars since then, it’s 80% and 85% civilian.
I became friends a few years ago with an Italian war surgeon named Gino Strada. He spent 10 years, 15 years doing surgery on war victims all over the world. And he wrote a book about it, Green Parrots: Diary of a War Surgeon. He said in all the patients that he operated on in Iraq and Afghanistan and everywhere, 85% of them were civilians, one-third of them, children. If you understand, and if people understand, and if you spread the word of this understanding, that whatever is told to you about war and how we must go to war, and whatever the threat is or whatever the goal is — a democracy or liberty — it will always be a war against children. They’re the ones who will die in large numbers.
So, war — well, Einstein said this after World War I. He said, “War cannot be humanized. It can only be abolished.” War has to be abolished, you know. And it’s — I know it’s a long shot. I understand that. But you have to — when something’s a long shot, but it has to be done, you have to start doing it. Just as the ending of slavery in this country in the 1830s was a really long shot, but people stuck at it, and it took 30 years, but slavery was done away with. And we can see this again and again. So, we have a job to do. We have lots of things to do.
One of the things we can learn from history is that history is not only a history of things inflicted on us by the powers that be. History is also a history of resistance. It’s a history of people who endure tyranny for decades, but who ultimately rise up and overthrow the dictator. We’ve seen this in country after country, surprise after surprise. Rulers who seem to have total control, they suddenly wake up one day, and there are a million people in the streets, and they pack up and leave. This has happened in the Philippines, in Yemen, all over, in Nepal. Million people in the streets, and then the ruler has to get out of the way. So, this is what we’re aiming for in this country.
Everything we do is important. Every little thing we do, every picket line we walk on, every letter we write, every act of civil disobedience we engage in, any recruiter that we talk to, any parent that we talk to, any GI that we talk to, any young person that we talk to, anything we do in class, outside of class, everything we do in the direction of a different world is important, even though at the moment they seem futile, because that’s how change comes about. Change comes about when millions of people do little things, which at certain points in history come together, and then something good and something important happens.
AMY GOODMAN: Legendary historian Howard Zinn, speaking in 2006. Well, three years later, in May of 2009, the year before he died, Howard Zinn joined us in the Democracy Now! studio as he launched the paperback edition of A Young People’s History of the United States. I asked him if he thought his retelling of history about Columbus and other traditional heroes was suitable for children.
HOWARD ZINN: It’s true that people have asked that question again and again. You know, should we tell kids that Columbus, whom they have been told was a great hero, that Columbus mutilated Indians and kidnapped them and killed them in pursuit of gold? Should we tell people that Theodore Roosevelt, who is held up as one of our great presidents, was really a warmonger who loved military exploits and who congratulated an American general who committed a massacre in the Philippines? Should we tell young people that?
And I think the answer is: We should be honest with young people; we should not deceive them. We should be honest about the history of our country. And we should be not only taking down the traditional heroes, like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, but we should be giving young people an alternate set of heroes.
Instead of Theodore Roosevelt, tell them about Mark Twain. Mark Twain — well, Mark Twain, everybody learns about as the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but when we go to school, we don’t learn about Mark Twain as the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League. We aren’t told that Mark Twain denounced Theodore Roosevelt for approving this massacre in the Philippines. No.
We want to give young people ideal figures like Helen Keller. And I remember learning about Helen Keller. Everybody learns about Helen Keller, you know, a disabled person who overcame her handicaps and became famous. But people don’t learn in school and young people don’t learn in school what we want them to learn when we do books like A Young People’s History of the United States, that Helen Keller was a socialist. She was a labor organizer. She refused to cross a picket line that was picketing a theater showing a play about her.
And so, there are these alternate heroes in American history. There’s Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses. There are the heroes of the civil rights movement. There are a lot of people who are obscure, who are not known. We have — in this Young People’s History, we have a young hero who was sitting on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to leave the front of the bus. And that was before Rosa Parks. I mean, Rosa Parks is justifiably famous for refusing to leave her seat, and she got arrested, and that was the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and really the beginning of a great movement in the South. But this 15-year-old girl did it first. And so, we have a lot of — we are trying to bring a lot of these obscure people back into the forefront of our attention and inspire young people to say, “This is the way to live.”
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn in the Democracy Now! studio in 2009. Tune in Labor Day for an expanded Zinntennial, our tribute to Howard Zinn to mark what would have been his 100th birthday. We’ll include dramatic readings from Voices of a People’s History, including Alfre Woodard reading the words of the labor activist Mother Jones.
Special thanks to Mike Burke, Neil Shibata and Brendan Allen. I’m Amy Goodman.