“Throughout U.S. history, our military has been used not for moral purposes but to expand economic, political, and military power,” says a cartoon Howard Zinn in Mike Konopacki’s 273-page comic book A People’s History of American Empire. Written with Zinn and historian Paul Buhle, the book adapts Zinn’s pathbreaking history from below, A People’s History of the United States, and his autobiography You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train in a direct examination of the U.S. Imperium. Konopacki calls the book his “answer” to the textbooks of “the power structure.” (Explore highlights from the comic history here.)
Above, you can see a short video adaptation of some key text from A People’s History of American Empire. Narrated by Viggo Mortensen, the video gives us a nutshell version of Zinn’s cultural, political, and moral education—what the Germans used to call bildung—as he grows from a somewhat naive WWII bomber pilot, to a college student on the G.I. Bill, to a graduate student, then professor, of history. Along the way he notices that the map in every textbook labeled “Western Expansion” shows “the march across the continent as a natural, almost biological phenomenon”:
That huge acquisition of land called the Louisiana Purchase gave no hint of anything but vacant land acquired, no sense that this territory was occupied by hundreds of Indian tribes that would have to be annihilated or forced out of their homes in what we now call ethnic cleansing.
Zinn goes on to chart the rise of U.S. Imperialism into the twentieth century as the increasingly militarized nation seizes Mexican territory and invades Cuba and the Philippines. Then we come to the ostensibly anti-communist “police actions” in Korea and Vietnam, and Zinn’s highly influential 1967 book Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. When entrusted by Daniel Ellsberg with hundreds of pages of the Pentagon Papers, Zinn learns that the war in Vietnam is largely waged for the same reasons as our other imperialist moves abroad: the papers “spoke bluntly of the U.S. motives as a quest for tin, rubber, oil.”
But what of the war Zinn begins with, the war in which he fought? Near the end of the short film, he returns to his days as a WWII bomber, when he heard a fellow pilot argue that the U.S. was as “motivated by ambitions of control and conquest” as its enemies. He disagreed at the time, but in the intervening years came to see his fellow airman’s point. What we get with our idealism about any war, Zinn says, is a seeming “Imperialism lite,” whose motives are benign. Soft power, we’re told, wins the day now. But peel back the curtain on our actions in the world, and we will see the same atrocities, the same cruelties, and the same basic motivations as every other act of imperialist aggression.