Thursday, March 4, 2010

Howard Zinn: On Facts About Wars

To lead off Howard Zinn’s 1994 lecture at Michigan Tech, Social Sciences Professor Mary Durfee gave a superb introduction, highlighting the famous historian’s experiences both in war and against war. As Durfee said of Zinn, “Here is a man who has been active in pressing the cause of peace, but who was a bombardier during much of World War Two because he believed strongly in combating the evils of fascism.”

Zinn also mentioned his wartime experience, explaining how he had evolved from “enthusiastic bombardier” to peace activist. In fact, a significant part of Zinn’s lecture focused on war, on reasons for and against war, and on the questions we need to ask about war.

We especially need to ask these questions, Zinn said, because the stated reasons for any particular war might not be the prime motivations behind it. It thus becomes important for citizens, historians, and journalists to dig into these motivations, to ask questions about the factors underlying wars, especially if we hope to understand wars and how we might avoid them in the future. This kind of questioning was my own goal in the article, “Afghanistan: War for Oil? Local Voices Weigh In,” published online in 2002 by Keweenaw Now.

With war as his subject, Zinn illustrated for his Houghton audience how he differentiated between the types of facts addressed by history. On one hand, we have standard facts from standard texts – such as names of presidents or dates of events – memorized (or not) by standard students. These, Zinn opined, might not mean as much as the types of facts that he considered more important. Here’s how he explained what he meant.

Howard Zinn:

“There are important facts to ask about – let’s say, in connection with the Mexican War. It’d be very interesting to ask, how did the Mexican War start? The Mexican War, you may recall, took place between 1846 and 1848…. It started with a fabricated incident. It started with the United States government sending troops into a disputed area with Mexico. It wasn’t clear who this land belonged to…. Mexico claimed it, the United States claimed it, but the United States sent troops into this disputed area, whereupon there was a skirmish, blood was shed, and immediately President Polk … announced to the nation, ‘American blood has been shed upon American soil!’

“That happens every once in a while, right? Somebody has done something, somebody has insulted us, somebody has fired at us, somebody has done something to us – we’ve got to go to war, concealing the real reasons for the war. In this case, concealing the fact that Polk and the United States government – they had their eyes on Mexican territory long before this incident took place on the Texas-Mexican border…. There was a big part of Mexico that they coveted, and the war enabled them to get it. Relatively short war, America victorious, and we take 40 percent of Mexican territory: California – nice place to have – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, that whole area of the southwest. That was Mexico. You wonder, why are there so many Spanish names there? It was Mexican!

“Well, that would be an interesting and important fact to ask about, not because it’s a fact about the past, not just because it informs you about something that you didn’t know about in the past, but because it has very strong connections with things that happened after that and things that are still happening today. Because it raises questions about how wars begin. And to learn that about the Mexican War might lead you to ask questions about other wars. It might lead you to wonder, is it possible that governments – I mean, not just our government, of course, but governments everywhere – find reasons to start wars that they want for purposes that they will not tell the public about.

“It might lead people to ask whether we really went into Cuba to fight Spain in the Spanish-American War in 1898 because we wanted to ‘liberate’ Cuba from Spain, because we were just natural-born ‘liberators.’ But it’s very appealing to think that we are. It’s always appealing to think, well, when we go somewhere, it’s to liberate somebody. Might be interesting to go into that and then ask, well, what happened in Cuba after the United States ‘liberated’ Cuba from Spain? You’ll discover very quickly, we got the Spaniards out, we got ourselves in. Now Cuba no longer belonged to Spain. Now Cuba belonged to us. Now American corporations could go into Cuba. Now American railroads could go into Cuba. Now American banks could go into Cuba. Now United Fruit could go into Cuba. Now we could take several million acres of Cuban land and get it dirt cheap, and we could write into the Cuban constitution the power of the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever we felt like. Well, that’s dangerous thinking….

“We might ask questions then about how did the war in Vietnam start? And we might look into the Gulf of Tonkin episode in 1964, when … the United States leaders … announced that ‘American destroyers have been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin’ …. Nobody asked, ‘What were we doing halfway around the world in the Gulf of Tonkin?’ …. What were our destroyers doing there? And were they really on a ‘routine patrol’ as was claimed by the Secretary of Defense, or were they doing something else? And in fact did the attack really take place? There was no physical evidence of any attack. Nobody had been hurt, no injury had been done to any American vessel….

“What if people then ask questions about the Gulf War? …. Did we really go into the Gulf War because President Bush’s heart ached for Kuwait? And because President Bush just is emotionally moved every time one country invades another? Is that why? People might ask: Why did we go into Panama? Did we really go to end the drug trade? Any of you who have followed the situation in Panama since the United States went into Panama and yanked Noriega out – any of you who have followed the drug trade will learn that the drug trade has increased since that time.

“Anyway, yes, there are historical facts which are important and interesting because they reverberate through history and they come down to our present day and they raise important questions about national policy which as citizens we should be asking….

“I guess all of this is to explain my point of view in teaching American history…. I was – I dropped bombs in the Second World War. I hesitated to tell you which war that I was in, but I thought if I didn’t say it, you might think it was the Spanish-American War. [audience laughs]

“But it was the Second World War, what is known as ‘The Good War,’ right. That’s the war that has the best reputation. It’s the best of wars, although some of you may have noticed if any of you have read Studs Terkel’s oral history of World War Two, you may have noticed that he puts quotation marks around ‘The Good War.’ And when I came out of the Air Force, although I had been an enthusiastic bombardier, by the time I finished and came out of the Air Force, I, too, was putting quotation marks around it. I was beginning to have questions about this simplistic notion that there are good wars and bad wars …. Especially as the years went on and I observed the world after the war, the world that had been promised as: now, finally, a world without fascism, without racism, without Hitler, you know, this would be the good world, after the expenditure of 40 million, 50 million lives. And I guess I came to the conclusion that war, even the best of wars, really doesn’t solve anything in the long run. And that somehow, human beings have to find different ways of solving problems of aggression and tyranny, all the problems that exist in the world, the real problems. Not to be passive, [but] to find a way to solve these problems without the massive destruction of human life and the corruption of values that goes along with it.”

Coming soon, one more excerpt from Howard Zinn's 1994 MTU lecture: Zinn on his reasons for optimism.

1 comment:

groove68 said...

Watch films with Howard Zinn - a Paper Tiger show about history instruction and a documentary about Bush and the politics of fear - as video on demand streams