Tuesday, August 21, 2007

You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: Howard Zinn

Yesterday I watched a documentary about the life of Howard Zinn, author of The People's History of the US and several other books. The film seems to be loosely based on his memoir of the same title. I read at least part of the book (can't remember if I finished it.)

In some ways, Zinn is a very ordinary man. Born into a poor working-class family, fought in World War II, married and raised two kids, the first member of his family to go to college (apparently, neither of his parents ever got as far as high school), he eventually became a professor of history. Many people who have fought in wars take a dislike to the whole notion of war: that's not unusual either. But his passion stands out.

For me, one of the most moving parts of You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train (book and film) is an episode that happens at the end of WWII. Zinn had joined the Air Force in order to fight evil, in the form of Hitler. He dropped quite a few bombs on various German cities. The war was almost over when his squadron was sent out one night to attack a French village (they were told that it contained a large number of German soldiers, as well as civilians.)

Their planes were loaded with some new type of bomb: Zinn later discovered that it was napalm. He came to believe that the only reason he had been ordered to bomb that village was because the American military wanted to test its new weapon. This didn't sit too well with him, and neither did the thought of how many civilians he must have killed, in that bombing raid and all the others. Soon he became an advocate of non-violence and civil disobedience, starting with the civil rights movement, and protested against wars from Vietnam to the present day. (He has had no lack of opportunities for protest.)

I've always had a certain admiration for conscientious objectors, and anybody who stands up for what they believe in--without resorting to violence. But Zinn's story reminds me that in some ways, those who deserve the most respect are people who have made mistakes and risen above them.

It's all very well to have a clear conscience and never to have gone to war in the first place (for example.) But what if your conscience is not clear? We've all done regrettable things. Few of us, I hope, have the same thing to regret that Zinn did: killing a large number of people. How do we cope with our comparatively minor regrets?

I don't recall Zinn expressing particular guilt or remorse for his warlike actions (although it was a long time ago.) He doesn't have to: his later actions speak for themselves. He came to believe that war is wrong, and he does his best to ensure that such things will never happen again. That is all a person can do.

I think to myself: If he can live with what he did, then I have nothing to complain about at all.

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