American Empire

A People’s History of American Empire (a graphic adaptation)

by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, Paul Buhle

I just finished re-reading this great graphic novel, written with Zinn as the prominent narrator, and other historical figures telling their stories in their own words. The story is told through a combination of drawings, photographs and other visual documents from the time.
As a means of learning, I found it incredibly powerful. The combination
of primary sources, from the words of survivors to photographs and political cartoons, the horrors that Zinn is talking about are smashed into my brain they way they might not be if it were just words on a page.
Zinn is famous for his A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980. Prior to his book, American history was glorious and focused primarily on the conquest and the conquerors – forgetting the conquered. Zinn changed this and forced Americans to come face-to-face with the atrocities they and their government have committed. He is a (self-confessed) radical who focuses on grassroots history and, in my opinion, forgets that there are other elements to certain historical events.
Even so, I think everyone should read his work. It might be incomplete, but he doesn’t need to show the whole story because everyone has been learning the other side their whole lives. His book(s) are about revealing the sordid facts that we didn’t learn. He is a much-needed hammer that forces people to see that there are two sides to every story, and his argument that the government should not be trusted as a moral institution, is a valid one to consider.
Zinn’s own background growing up as a part of the oppressed lower class and as a bomber pilot in WWI whose plane dropped “sticky fire” on the French village of Royan, ( a test run for a new weapon later called napalm) gives great credibility to his radical leanings.

I cried through many different parts of this novel. The stories of labour struggles, of the oppression of Latin American countries, the (various) struggles of the American Indians. Reading about Wounded Knee makes me want to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.
I fully appreciate all the primary voices used in this novel – they pack the punch of much needed reality. It is not made up and it should not be forgotten. It needs to be acknowledged, and as Zinn ends the book, answering the question “is there any hope for change?”
“My hope is that you will not be too discouraged by the way the world looks at the moment. It’s easy to be discouraged, because our nation is at war – still another war, war after war – and our government seems determined to expand its empire even if it costs the lives of tens of thousands of human beings. But let me tell you why, in spite of what I have just described, you must not be discouraged.
(…)
There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions… by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected rebellion against tyrannies… by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we remember those times and places, and there are so many where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act. Hope is the energy for change.
The future is an infinite succession of presents and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of the worst of everything around us, is a marvelous victory.” – Howard Zinn (emphasis original)
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