Teach the Children War

The National Museum of American History, and a billionaire who’s funded a permanent exhibit there, would like you to know that the United States is going to need more wars if we want freedom. Never mind that we seem to lose so many freedoms whenever we have wars. Never mind that so many nations have created more freedoms than we enjoy and have done so without wars. In our case, war is the price of freedom. Hence the exhibit: “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.”

The exhibit opens with these words: “Americans have gone to war to win their independence, expand their national boundaries, define their freedoms, and defend their interests around the globe.” (Those foolish Canadians. Why, oh why did they win their independence without a war? Think of all the people they might have killed!) The exhibit is surprisingly, if minimally, honest about imperialism, at least in the early wars. The aim of conquering Canada is included, along with bogus excuses, as one of the motivations for the War of 1812.

The most outrageous part of the opening lines of the exhibition, however, may be the second half: “… define their freedoms, and defend their interests around the globe.” The exhibition, to the extent that I’ve surveyed it, provides absolutely no indication of what in the world can be meant by a war being launched in order to “define our freedoms.” And, needless to say, it is the U.S. government, not “Americans,” that imagines it has interests around the globe that can and should be defended by launching wars.

The exhibit is an extravaganza of lies and deception. The U.S. Civil War is presented as “America’s bloodiest conflict.” Really? Because Filipinos don’t bleed? Vietnamese don’t bleed? Iraqis don’t bleed? We shouldn’t assume that our children aren’t taught that exact mindset. The Spanish-American War is presented as an effort to “free Cuba,” and so forth. But overwhelmingly the lying is done in this exhibit by omission. Bad excuses for wars are ignored, and the death and destruction is ignored or falsely reduced. Wars that are too recent for too much revisionist history are quickly passed over.

The Smithsonian’s exhibit helpfully provides a PDF teacher’s manual, wherein the entire coverage of the past twelve years of war making (which has involved the killing of as many as 1.4 million people in Iraq alone) consists of the events of 9/11, beginning with this:

September 11 was a modern-day tragedy of immense proportions. The devastating attacks by al Qaeda terrorists inside the United States killed some 3,000 people and sparked an American-led war on terrorism. The repercussions of that day will impact domestic and international political decisions for many years to come. At 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, a passenger jet flew into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. Fire and rescue crews rushed to the scene. As live TV coverage began, horrified viewers watched as a second plane slammed into the south tower at 9:03 a.m. Thirty-five minutes later a third airliner crashed into the Pentagon. Another jet bound for Washington, DC, crashed in Pennsylvania after its passengers challenged the hijackers. The nation reeled. But Americans resolved to fight back, inspired by the words of a passenger who helped foil the last attack: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.”

If you talk to non-sociopathic teachers, you discover that the sort of “teaching” our museums are engaging in has a horrible impact on students’ understanding. A new book edited by Jody Sokolower called Teaching About the Wars is a great place to start. It’s written by teachers who try to present their students with a more complete and honest understanding of war than what’s expected by common textbooks, many of which are far worse than the museum exhibit described above. These authors argue that when a teacher pretends to have no point of view, he or she teaches their students moral apathy. Pretending not to care about the world teaches children not to care about the world. Teachers should have a point of view but teach more than one perspective, teach critical thinking and analysis, teach skepticism, and teach respect for the opinions of others.

Students should not be taught, these teachers suggest, to reject all public claims as falsehoods and the truth as absolutely unknowable. Rather, they should be taught to critically evaluate claims and develop informed opinions. One of the collection’s contributors, Jessica Klonsky, writes:

One of the most successful media-related lessons involved an exercise comparing two media viewpoints. First I showed the first twenty minutes of Control Room, a documentary about Al Jazeera, the international Arabic-language television network headquartered in Doha, Qatar. Students were shocked by the dead bodies and destruction shown on Al Jazeera. For many it was the first time they realized that it wasn’t just soldiers who died in war.

U.S. soldiers were 0.3 percent of the dead in the 2003-2011 war in Iraq. These students had been unaware of the other 99.7 percent who died. Learning what war really looks like is perhaps the most important lesson missing from our usual approach.

Another important lesson is who engages in war and why. Bill Bigelow presents a model lesson through which teachers can present students with true situations, but with the names of the nations changed. They can discuss what the nations ought to have done, before learning that one of the nations was their own, and before learning what it actually did. Then they can discuss that reality. Bigelow also begins his teaching about the so-called War on Terror by asking students to work on defining “terrorism” beyond the idea that it’s someone attacking us.

One teacher ends such a lesson by asking: “What difference do you think it would make if students all over the country were having the discussion we’re having today?” Clearly, that question moves students toward becoming potential teachers, sharing their knowledge to a far greater extent than, say, trying to impress others by memorizing the dates of battles.

One chapter in Teaching About the Wars describes a project that connects students in the United States with students in Western Asia for discussions via live video. That kind of experience should be required in any young person’s education. I guarantee you that our government employs drone “pilots” to “connect” with foreign countries via live video who never had the chance to speak with foreign children when they were growing up.

Can good teaching compete with the Lockheed Martin-sponsored Air and Space Museum, the U.S. Army’s video games, film entertainment like Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, the slick lies of the recruiters, the Vietnam Commemoration Project, the flag waving of the television networks, and the fascistic pledges of allegiance every morning? Sometimes, yes. And the more it spreads and the better it’s done the better off our students will be.