Art of War

Historian Howard Zinn's new book, Artists in Times of War—pamphlet-sized at five by seven inches and 112 pages—is a timely primer for budding progressives. It's aimed mostly at American college students, that easily distractible but perennially idealistic, eager-to-be-motivated group of young people who, it happens, also suffer from a political naivet that is legendary among their student counterparts in Europe or Latin America, and who are a constant source of frustration to activists here as well. With his direct, common-sense style, though, Zinn knows how to reach them. He realizes that the political ingenuousness of American students comes from a potent mixture of elements—on the plus side an instinctive generosity, a sense of democratic fair play, a recoil at overt displays of tyranny; on the minus, a Teflon innocence in the face of unhappy facts, a distrustful sense that politics is too complicated and icky, and the worry that criticizing the federal government at a time like this is tantamount to betrayal. And Zinn knows that that mixture, properly shaken and stirred, might be able to yield up a new generation of progressives eager to take on the battles of terrorism, American hegemony and the new globalism.

It helps that Zinn is himself a commanding figure, the author of A People's History of the United States, a classic of historical revisionism that presents the American story as a brutish power struggle in which big fish eat little fish, and little fish eat littler fish. But in this book, he comes off less authoritative than avuncular, saying, Come now, but you're not children anymore, and it's time you put away childish things. He's like a guy trying to cheer everybody up after a Noam Chomsky lecture, saying, “Well, the man's right, power is corrupt and politics is war by other means; but remember, the promise of democracy abides.”

The book consists of four essays—two originally delivered as college lectures, one first delivered to an audience of young filmmakers, and the last an introduction to an academic volume issued in 1993. The title essay, presented initially as a lecture a month after Sept. 11 and minorly revised here, is a sane, honorable and brave antidote to the nationalistic hysteria that followed the Twin Towers' fall. Zinn quotes Dan Rather during those weeks as saying, “Bush is my president. When he says get into line, I get into line,” and then, without jumping up and down as leftists are wont to do, Zinn sanely notes how dangerous it is for an influential journalist to stop thinking for himself. As an alternative, Zinn gives us I.F. Stone, the legendary newspaperman, who told his journalism students, “If you really want to be a good journalist, you only have to remember two words: governments lie. Not just the U.S. government, but, in general, all governments lie.”

If that sounds like too much for the young to swallow, Zinn patiently explains that we “are right to be skeptical and suspicious of those who hold official power, because the tendency of those who hold power is to lie in order to maintain it.” This may be Chomsky Lite, but Zinn's doing advance work here, preparing the troops for battle. The role of the artist in times like ours, Zinn says, is to help facilitate that skepticism, to “transcend conventional wisdom . . . the word of the establishment . . . to go beyond and escape what is handed down by government and what is said in the media.” (“The irony,” Zinn points out, “is that it is exactly in times of war—when you're dealing with life-and-death matters—that you're not supposed to speak. So you have freedom of speech for trivial matters, but not for life-and-death matters. That's a nice working definition of democracy.”) He piles on examples from our literary history: Mark Twain denounced Teddy Roosevelt when he celebrated an American massacre of 600 Filipino Muslims in 1906. (Noting that Twain was in turn denounced for his patriotic disloyalty, Zinn says: “To criticize the government is the highest act of patriotism.”) Zinn also quotes the great passage from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court where Twain makes the distinction between loyalty to a country's ideals (a good thing) and blind loyalty to government (not a good thing), a distinction with a hallowed tradition going back to Thomas Jefferson and forward to Langston Hughes (“Columbia,” “Let America Be America Again”) and any number of contemporary writers.

Zinn's honor role of artist dissidents continues with e.e. cummings, who, in “I sing of Olaf glad and big,” renounces war, despite all the pressure from pseudo-patriots, by insisting “there is some shit I will not eat.” He quotes Eugene O'Neill in a letter written right after Pearl Harbor: “It is like acid burning in my brain that the stupid butchering of the last war taught men nothing at all.” And he briefly discusses the absurdist war novels Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five and Bob Dylan's song “Masters of War.” He doesn't go beyond the '60s, but could have included in this tradition Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow, Carolyn Forch's poem collection The Country Between Us, Terrence Malick's great film The Thin Red Line, and the entire songbooks of the Clash and Rage Against the Machine. And in the wake of Sept. 11, essays by Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, and of course Chomsky. (He has a new book out called Hegemony or Survival, incidentally.)

In another lecture, delivered to presumably young, independent filmmakers at the Taos Talking Pictures Festival in 1999, Zinn exhorts them, too, “to transcend conventional wisdom” and make films that not only deglorify war but “will make war abhorrent to people.” There are plenty of real and exciting historical stories to base these on, Zinn suggests, from stories of lower-class Revolutionary War soldiers who desert the army when they're betrayed by their officers, to the story of how President James K. Polk lied to Americans to drive them into war with Mexico, to the tales of American brutality in the Philippines in the opening years of the 20th century. “War needs to be presented on film in such a way as to create a new population of people who simply say 'no' to war.” Here Zinn sometimes seems naive himself, thinking filmmakers are going to get financing to make such bummer stories (look what happened when Oprah made Beloved). But though he doesn't make the case himself, once in a while progressives do break through to popular consciousness. Think of Errol Morris's new film on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, or Michael Moore's docu-comedies, or Warren Beatty's sly Bullworth.

Zinn doesn't take on some of the more interesting aesthetic questions surrounding the political engagement of artists—such as how to create a shimmering piece of art if it's laden with political ideology that tends to simplify complex realities. But that's probably not a question for a historian, and Zinn is a historian, one of the two or three best the left has. It'd be nice if this little book got read, argued over and coffee- and cigarette-stained beyond the obvious places—student cafes in Berkeley or Madison or Greenwich Village. How about Fullerton, Santa Ana, Irvine and Costa Mesa?

Artists in Times of War by Howard Zinn; Seven Stories Press. Paperback, 112 pages, $9.95.

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