Zinn takes on 'just' wars at inaugural philosophy colloquium

By Daniel Kerwin

Although Henry West retired last year after 44 years as a philosophy professor at Macalester, he’s not done giving to the college. On Tuesday, he made it possible for his friend of over 50 years, Howard Zinn, to come to campus as the first speaker in the inaugural Henry West Philosophy Colloquium.For anyone unfamiliar with him, Howard Zinn is kind of a big deal. The majority of those in attendance knew this and gave him a standing ovation before he even said a word.

Zinn is one of the most, if not the most, well known names in the field of American history. His book “A People’s History of the United States” is a part of the syllabus in high schools around the country, even though Zinn admits that when the book first came out it was meant more for the general public, and high school teachers were reluctant to use it. Today it has sold around two million copies.

Zinn’s talk on Monday centered around whether or not there is such thing as a “just” cause for war, focusing specifically on the American Revolutionary War, the American Civil War and World War II. Zinn characterized these as the three “holy” wars since they are wars in which their just cause is seldom questioned, but he did just that.

“I like to claim I make distinctions that aren’t often made,” Zinn said.

Although Zinn is currently 86 years old and a bit hard of hearing, he talked about the subject as if he could have gone on forever. At some points it seemed that he would go on forever, but he managed to reluctantly restrain himself in the interest of time. On one such occasion, he took a token look at his watch and proclaimed “Let me look at my watch to pretend that I care.”

Zinn looked at the three wars by Placing them on a “balance sheet,” balancing the just causes they were fought for against the casualties and hardships caused along the way. He talked about a version of history that has not traditionally been brought to light, such as mutinies that occurred during the Revolutionary War and draft riots during the Civil War. Zinn, who himself served as a bombardier in World War II, also talked of the atrocities of the mass bombings by the so called “good side” in the war in places such as Dresden and Tokyo.

“There’s a reality to these atrocities that’s very hard to convey, but it must be taken into consideration,” Zinn said. “You go into war and you’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys, but as the war proceeds you become the bad guys also.”

By the end of the talk, Zinn drove home his concluding point that humanity has to do away with war.

“I think we’re at a point in human history where we have to decide that war is not the solution,” Zinn said. “The human race is supposed to be smart; we should be smart enough to find ways to solve our problems without war.”

To some it may seem that Zinn is stating an obvious necessity, but there is no doubt that the message takes on an added power coming from a man with such a storied past such as Zinn.

Zinn not only has spent his career writing history, he has been a participant in many important movements. He was involved with Civil Rights activism in the late 1950s, before the brunt of the movement started, while he was a professor at Spellman College in Atlanta, describing himself as a “writer-participant” in the movement.

Spellman College is where he met Henry West. Together with their wives, they were involved together in what Zinn called “guerilla actions against segregation” with their students. They worked together on desegregating the Atlanta Public Library, and on one occasion brought African American members of a theater group into a municipal auditorium, despite the action being strictly prohibited.

Throughout his academic career, Zinn has taken his role as writer-participant to heart, and believes that history should be taught with the same principles.

“Education is not a neutral thing, education should have a social objective,” Zinn said.

Zinn’s visit to campus was a stong start to the series, and not without moments of excitement. There was a point at the beginning of his talk where it looked like the audience may not get to hear him talk after all when Zinn took his time bending down to pick up some notes he dropped on the floor, but he rebounded from the situation by exhibiting his sharp humor.

“I hope you weren’t worried that I would never get up; it would be a very dramatic way to end my lecture,” Zinn said.