Howard Zinn, The Bomb (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010), 91pp.
Howard Zinn (1922–2010) grew up in the slums of Brooklyn, the son of two immigrant factory workers. After serving in the Air Force, Zinn completed his doctorate in history at Columbia University. From 1964 until 1988 he was a professor of political science at Boston University. Zinn is best known for his million-seller A People's History of the United States, which typified his "radical analysis of the structures of power [that] formed the basis of his teaching, writing, and activism" in movements for peace and justice. The Bomb was the last of his thirty-plus books that Zinn published before his death in 2010.
Three weeks before Germany surrendered and the war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, a young Howard Zinn participated as a B-17 bombardier in the bombing of Royan, France, on the Atlantic coast near Bordeaux. It was Zinn's last bombing mission, and the first ever military use of "jellied gasoline" or napalm. The mission was militarily superfluous, it destroyed Royan, and it killed over a thousand civilians in its mission to attack "stubborn German garrisons." Three months later, even though Japan was on the verge of surrender, America bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. These mass murders constitute the historical backdrop for Zinn's final protest in a cri de coeur that lasted sixty years.
When non-state renegades commit mass murder, says Zinn, we call them "terrorists." When single individuals commit mass murder, we call them psychopaths. When self-righteous governments do the same as a matter of official policy, we justify the slaughter in any number of ways. We dehumanize the enemy. We appeal to patriotism and glorify war. We insist that our cause alone is the righteous one of liberation. We subjugate the conscience of the citizenry to the motives of the state. We argue that political ends justify immoral means. But any justification of mass murder like those of Royan, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, says Zinn, constitute a "devastating commentary on our moral culture."
Worst of all, we let silent obedience run its course. This "habit of obedience," writes Zinn, is "the most powerful motive of all: the universal teaching of all cultures, not to get out of line, not even to think about that which one has not been assigned to think about, the negative motive of not having either a reason or a will to intercede." We always point to someone else as being responsible. And so Zinn concludes in the last sentence of this powerful essay: we must "act on what we feel and think, here, now, for human flesh and sense, against the abstractions of duty and obedience."