Bringing History Alive
A new compilation of essays by Howard Zinn
A Power Governments Cannot Suppress
By Howard Zinn
(City Lights, 2006)
308 pp. $16.95
In a new compilation of essays, activist historian Howard Zinn tells the story of Sergeant Jeremy Feldbusch who wakes up blind five weeks after a shell explosion in the Iraq War puts him in a coma. Jeremy’s father sits beside him in the army hospital and wonders “if God thought you had seen enough killing.”
Zinn, our elder statesman of progressive American history, begins his opening essay with this story to reflect back on a long, painful pattern of young people enticed to enlist in seemingly just military causes whose devastated lives become forgotten statistics. This flashback narrative approach is Zinn’s compelling trademark, bringing history alive by casting current political controversies in a stark historical light that reveals how today’s injustices echo through American history.
As in A People’s History of the United States, which many conscientious high school teachers use to counterbalance the ideological slant of standard history texts, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress will help students harness history as a critical tool. Zinn details the ugly underside of oppression in U.S. history, while celebrating long-ignored examples of courageous resistance that can inspire the activist looking for models. In one essay he describes how a speech he gave to memorialize the Boston Massacre at the city’s landmark Faneuil Hall became an occasion to reflect on massacres American forces have perpetrated since Puritan settlers slaughtered over 600 Pequot Indians in 1636.
Zinn not only brings home the visceral realities of war, but asks troubling questions about the connection between war and other manifestations of violence in America. Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building, killing 168 people, also fought in the first Gulf War when an American bomb dropped on a Baghdad air raid shelter killed three times as many innocents. Zinn’s point is not to evaluate the relative horror of atrocities, but to establish a link between aggressive military action abroad and violence at home. He speaks unequivocally about the connection between war and terrorism. “War is terrorism magnified hundreds of times,” he writes. “If an action will inevitably kill innocent people, it is as immoral as a deliberate attack on civilians.”
Zinn tells his own coming of age story to illustrate how historical study can shake one’s moral compass. Repulsed by fascism, he enlisted in World War II and at age 20 became a bombardier, attacking cities in Europe from a safe distance above the consequences. When he first learned of the bombing of Hiroshima, he was initially relieved. Only after the war, partly in response to reading history, did he begin to question what he had done.
Zinn distrusts news reporting or history rendered merely as factual events or statistics and insists that it be told as a human story. After the September 11 attack, The New York Times printed miniature portraits of the victims with photos and anecdotes about their lives. We might query our students, as Zinn asks, what the response would be if the Times also did this for civilians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq? When the true consequences of war are brought to the human level, he asserts, citizens will be morally activated to resist.
There may be teachers who worry that Zinn will overwhelm students with a graphic litany of national injustices; they should be sure also to include his buoyant celebration of America’s many unrecognized heroes who have challenged oppression. In his introduction, Zinn offers what might be taken as his activist credo:
If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, and occasionally to win.
One example he cites is Baltimore priest Philip Berrigan who engaged in civil disobedience against nuclear war preparation by repeatedly breaking into nuclear facilities, pouring vials of blood on the weaponry and attacking the warheads’ cones with a hammer. Every time Berrigan was released from prison he continued to act, spending an accumulated 10 years behind bars. Zinn tells the stories of countless others whose names are even less known.
Zinn also cautions supporters of social protest from becoming too comfortable with official heroes. While Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks continue to be great role models, the inspirational power of the Civil Rights Movement dissipates if we rely only on such mainstreamed figures. Secondary school teachers interested in deepening units on the civil rights era, for example, might also explore the story of the Mississippi Freedom Riders and the radical Freedom Schools they set up in the summer of 1964.
Zinn uses these stories to remind us, as his book title makes clear, that even the most monolithic government power is ultimately vulnerable in the face of an aroused people. When we help students realize this truth, we protect them from cynicism and apathy, and as teachers we become true activists. To teach with the conviction that a deeply changed world is possible is itself an active step toward making that world a reality.