Howard Zinn, 'War and Civil Disobedience'

IssueJuly - August 2010
Review by Gabriel Carlyle

During the Vietnam war, peace groups who invited Noam Chomsky to speak often tried to pair him with Howard Zinn. Chomsky’s stark analysis might paralyse some, but Zinn’s humour and optimism would lift people, and inspire them to go out and take action.

No slouch in the action department himself, Zinn was an active participant in the civil rights movement, managed anti-war priest Daniel Berrigan’s movements underground while he was on the run from the FBI, and was arrested numerous times for his opposition to America’s wars. In one case he was charged, appropriately, with “failure to quit”.

Zinn begins this CD, a recording of a speech given in 2008, by reminding his audience of some grounding principles of political analysis (“Governments lie”). Then, after a brief run-through of deceit and atrocities in American wars past (“If you don’t have history, it’s as if you were born yesterday”, he notes) he talks about his experiences as a bombardier during Second World War (during which he took part in the first napalm bombings); the ways in which fear is used to manufacture support for war; and the importance of Mark Twain’s definition of patriotism (“[S]upporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it”).

Stressing the importance of law-breaking and grassroots pressure from below, he exhorts us to “Keep in mind that people who have the power … have that power only because everyone else obeys. When people stop obeying their power disappears. When soldiers start disobeying, the power to carry on war disappears”. And we all need to do something, no matter how small, to get the ball rolling. Whilst perhaps this is not his finest speech – I recommend his Heroes and Martyrs: Emma Goldman, Sacco & Vanzetti, and the Revolutionary Struggle (AK Press, 2001; ISBN 978-1-902-593-26-5; 2 CDs; £12) – newcomers to peace activism or radical politics will still find much of value here.

Topics: Anti-militarism
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