Thursday, January 27, 2011


[B]reaking the social stalemate... means acting on what we feel and think, here, now, for human flesh and sense, against the abstractions of duty and obedience.
--Howard Zinn, from “The Bombing of Royan,” in The Politics of History (1990)

A year ago today, Howard Zinn--famed author of A People’s History of the United States--died of a heart attack while swimming laps in a Santa Monica hotel pool. He was 88. A former solider and bombardier, turned anti-war philosopher, social critic, and historian, Zinn challenged the notion that history can only be written by the victors. He put history back in the hands of the common folk. Zinn’s life serves as a promontory from which to regard Pflichtbewusstsein (say it: FLISHT-buh-voose-ZEIN)--the Prussian virtue of Dutifulness.

First, the Prussian virtues. Prussia of course was once its own nation before becoming the northern part of Germany, containing within it the cities of Potsdam and Berlin. The uncharitable, when they hear “Prussian,” think “Nazi.” There’s a certain truth to it; much of the power of the German military machine capitalized on the strengths of the Prussian people: Discipline, Self-control, Punctuality, Thriftiness, Service, and Hard Work. Hitler himself proclaimed the Third Reich from the grave of Frederick the Great, who presided over Prussia’s acme during the mid-18th century. (More than one patriotic Prussian has pointed out that Hitler himself was not Prussian, but Bavarian.)

In 2001, the German government proclaimed a “Prussian year,” with celebrations of Prussian heritage. German President Johannes Rau defended all that was good with Prussia and pointed to “attitudes that are worth highlighting and rediscovering: Tolerance, Reform, Selflessness and Modesty, the nation-state and Law and Order.” This is not just revisionism: At their height, the Prussian people emancipated Jewish citizens (in 1812); eliminated feudalism and serfdom; encouraged immigration; celebrated the arts and sciences; and made routine education of the young available and mandatory.

My own family, mostly on the side of my mother, Big Tree, hails from Prussia; somewhere there’s still a picture of our great-great-grandpa sitting in his Prussian military garb, on a white horse, his spiked helmet bestrewn with ostrich feathers. Mom’s compulsive Cleanliness and Orderliness I embrace as additional examples of positive Prussian virtues that I, too, esteem (even if I still can’t manage hospital corners when I make up my bed).

Pflichtbewusstsein, yet another of these core values, one can translate as “Conscientiousness” or “Sense of Duty.” Yet it has a Shadow, this virtue...

Howard Zinn understood duty. Growing up in Brooklyn of immigrant Jewish parents, he eagerly joined the Army Air Force during World War II. As part of the 490th Bombardment Group, he participated in bombing runs on Berlin, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. In April 1945, at the very end of the war in Europe, he participated in an early military use of napalm, which took place in Royan, western France.

In the mid-1950s and 60s, Zinn returned to the small but ancient city, thoroughly researching the circumstances of the bombing raid. Things on the ground looked different than they had at 15,000 feet. Zinn discovered that the officers who ordered the bombing of Royan did so more for career advancement than for legitimate military goals. By doing his duty, Zinn had burned to death more than 1000 French citizens--all supposedly allies of America.

As he wrote later in The Politics of History:

One can see in the destruction of Royan that infinite chain of causes, that infinite dispersion of responsibility, which can give infinite work to historical scholarship and sociological speculation, and bring an infinitely pleasurable paralysis of the will. What a complex of motives!... And among all participants, high and low, French and American, the most powerful motive of all: The habit of obedience, the universal teaching of all cultures, not to get out of line, not to even 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.

Zinn’s reconsideration of the events of his military service transformed him into a critic of the military-industrial complex and a tireless advocate for voices buried by abuses of power. He marched for civil rights, fought against the wars in Vietnam and later Iraq, and sought to expose hegemony and encourage average citizens to claim their destinies. And yet, while on his many campaigns, our Howard Zinn was no stern-faced, unsmiling Prussian general. A colleague at Boston University noted: "He had a deep sense of fairness and justice for the underdog. But he always kept his sense of humor. He was a happy warrior."  

I was recently introduced to the Parable of Aggasiz and the fish (which for some inexplicable reason seems to be very popular among students of the Christian Bible). The message of the story is that we sometimes tell ourselves that we know what we’re looking at, who we are, what we’re doing, when in fact, we don’t, and we need to keep looking until we really see. Zinn’s journey to Royan was like staring at the fish, and, in time, he did start to learn something about himself.

His life reminds us we must not lose our Conscience in Conscientiousness. At the end of the day, our duty belongs first and foremost to our own Discernment. We are the masters of our fate, the captains of our souls. Through a process of Masá'il, of Questioning, Howard Zinn transformed his world and reclaimed his Self-Possession. Then, and only then, did he discover his true Pflichtbewusstsein.

To what habits, patterns, or beliefs have you surrendered your allegiance? Do they deserve it? Is it time to do some revision of your personal historiography? What does your “human sense and flesh,” here, now, tell you? What terrain are you claiming? And are you a "happy warrior"?

May we see the gates of Pflichtbewusstsein, and perhaps make a home there.

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