Howard Zinn is an interesting historian, partly because he is so mundane. His field of specialty is the history of class struggle – hardly anything to write home about. What makes him interesting, is that he writes about class struggle in the US, where the very idea that there are separate classes, never mind a struggle between them, is complete taboo. Nonetheless, his 1980 book A People’s History of the United States has sold more than a million copies (not bad for an academic history book), and even the New York Times, which is about as mainstream as they come, poured praises over the book. I have read it, and it is a very interesting, well written book.
The most interesting thing about Zinn is the fact that in many ways he is a European historian trapped in an American body. He does two things that European historians do so often, they take it for granted: He believes it is impossible and undesirable to be objective as a historian and he writes mostly about power and class struggle. But he also does two other things which are extremely rare of any historian: He turns his work into activism, and he translates often complex concepts into plain language. He is a people’s historian in two senses of the word: He researches and writes about the lives of ordinary people, and he goes out of his way to make his work accessible to ordinary people also.
Today, while taking my now weekly traditional walk about the International District, I took a recent lecture by Zinn to listen to. The topic of this talk is what he calls “Three Holy Wars” meaning three wars which are sacred in the US national myth – the war of independence, the American civil war, and the Second World war. First he notes that the wars are “holy” because one is not permitted to speak critically of them – they are considered as having been completely just and fought for high moral principles. He develops a few interesting points on examining these three wars:
1. American historians are not capable of separating a just cause for a war from a just war. For instance he asks, was independence from Britain a just case for the American colonists? Yes, probably. But Canada too was a British colony, and is now independent, and they did not have to fight a was to achieve that. Similarly, many countries achieved emancipation without fighting wars to do it.
2. The human costs of these wars are not examined, and the benefits are not examined correctly – only the high moral outcomes are discussed. The second world war killed 50 million people, and maimed or injured an unknown number. However, the personal consequences to those individuals and their families is never discussed. It is assumed that it was worth the cost because of the high moral outcome (in this case, ending fascism). Of course, the second world war did not end fascism or militarism, much as the civil war did not end slavery – it simply transformed it into wage slavery and other forms of class-based oppression. The wars are still considered great and just by virtue of their declared moral outcomes.
3. No-one asks which class gained and which class lost from these wars. The civil war was fought mostly by the poor. In the North, you could buy your way out of the draft for $300, and in the South, only 1 in 6 of those fighting owned any land or slaves. Similarly, the conditions for the non-cpmissioned troops during the revolutionary war were so poor that on several occasions the troops mutinied against Washington. However, the standard histories do ont cover these aspects – war is seen as an endevour where all all equal in their sacrifice; where in fact the sacrifice and benefit are felt in the same way as they are felt in the society at large.