If you've ever read the book Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, you already know something about Dr. Howard Zinn. The novel's protagonist, a bombardier named Yossarian who tries to act crazy so he won't have to keep flying missions, is widely rumored to be based on Zinn. There's certainly a parallel. A few weeks before the end of World War II, Howard Zinn, a bombardier in the U.S. Air Force, dropped napalm on German troops near Rohan, France, wiping out Rohan in the process.
Until then, he'd been a patriotic and self-described "enthusiastic" participant in the war, but he never forgave himself for following orders that he quickly realized were barbaric and useless—the war would have ended without incinerating a French town and a bunch of war-weary Jerries. After the war, the former Brooklyn dockworker became an academic with a lifelong fascination for U.S. history. His seminal 1980 work, A People's History of the United States, helped spark a revolution in critical pedagogy for its focus on the voices of the oppressed and less-than-flattering trivia about America's ruling-class mythology.
In 2004, Zinn published a sequel, Voices of a People's History of the United States, which he co-wrote with Anthony Arnove. (Ever humble, Zinn said the book was necessary because the unedited words of the voiceless were far more interesting than anything he could say.) As long as he's been a scholar, Zinn has also been a tireless activist—for civil rights; against the Vietnam War, Central American interventions and the ongoing U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf. He visits Chapman to discuss what he's learned about America over the years. It's a shame America hasn't learned more from him.
Dr. Howard Zinn speaks at Chapman Auditorium, Memorial Hall at Chapman University, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 744-7610. Wed., 7 p.m. Free.
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