Teaching About the Wars: Introduction

Breaking the Silence on War: Today in classrooms, as in the streets, there is too much silence

by Jody Sokolower

This collection of articles is a call to action. As the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have morphed into endless war in the Middle East, we believe there is an urgent need to bring serious study and discussion of the issues into the classroom.

When the World Trade Center was attacked, the international crisis reverberated in schools all over the United States. In kindergarten through high school classrooms, teachers struggled to figure out age-appropriate ways to talk about the violence. Then, in that endless month leading up to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and during the contentious months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the worldwide debate about the war was echoed in classrooms. Teachers searched for curriculum as students expressed fears for relatives in the military and worried about the possibility of a renewed draft. A month before the invasion of Iraq, the New York Times declared that global antiwar protests were “a new power in the streets.” After the invasion, at first there were demonstrations every day in major cities, then every month, then once a year. There was a flurry of political activity as the first high school alumni were killed, as military recruiters swarmed onto high school campuses.

Today in classrooms, as in the streets, there is too much silence.

Rethinking Schools first published a collection of articles on teaching about the Iraq War in 2005. Inspired by teachers’ many requests for materials, it was titled Whose Wars? Teaching About the Iraq War and the War on Terrorism. As the time approached to revise and reprint, we were in a quandary. We kept hoping that the wars would be over; that Bush would be defeated and U.S. foreign policy would move in a less bellicose direction. Instead, under Obama, the war in Iraq continues, the war in Afghanistan has expanded, there is a growing U.S. incursion into Pakistan, and the United States continues to bankroll and defend Israel’s war against the Palestinians. We could delay no longer.

We know that it has become even more difficult to bring U.S. military strategy into the classroom. These wars are rarely on the front page or the nightly news. For most students, they are just a fact of life; for children in elementary school and middle school, the United States has always been at war. As attacks on teachers, teachers’ unions, and tenure escalate, the job risk of venturing into controversial territory can seem too great. And it takes thought and sensitivity to effectively raise questions when many students have relatives who are fighting or who have been injured or killed.

It has never been easy to integrate “current events” into the curriculum. In many high school history classes, the current world doesn’t show up until the last few weeks of the year, if it makes it at all. In elementary and middle schools, social studies has been squeezed out of classrooms by the NCLB-fostered obsession with testing. Figuring out how to have your class read a whole book or sneaking in a field trip are enormous feats. In this context, teaching kids about the ever-expanding landscape of war from Africa through Asia seems too much to ask.

So the silence in classrooms about the wars isn’t surprising. But what does that silence tell our kids?

In 1992, just as the first U.S. war against Iraq ended and the embargo that would result in the death of a half million Iraqi children began, the feminist philosopher Susan Griffin published A Chorus of Stones. In this remarkable book, she explores the relationship between conspiracies of silence in families about incest or alcoholism and conspiracies of silence in countries about what happens in the name of war—her examples include the German extermination of Jews and the Allied bombing of Dresden. Griffin says:

The troubling nature of censorship is clearer when it falls on the very young. A certain kind of silence, that which comes from holding back the truth, is abusive in itself to a child. The soul has a natural movement toward knowledge, so that not to know can be to despair.

Silence in our classrooms about the war is heavy with potential meaning:

We have to break this silence, no matter what the pressure of tests or workload. The conflicts expanding out from the Middle East are among the most significant events happening in the world. They are creating the history of tomorrow.

As the U.S. military’s demand for soldiers expands, our high schools and middle schools have turned into recruiting grounds. There are more than 3,200 junior ROTC units in our children’s schools, with about half a million students taking part. As the economic situation deteriorates, the racial and class discrimination of the poverty draft becomes more acute, for many of our young people feel they have no alternative to military enlistment. Recruiters flood our schools and stalk the malls. The Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force exceeded their recruitment goals for the 2009 fiscal year, sending 169,000 active duty recruits to training. As high school and even middle school teachers, we have a responsibility to support our students in analyzing recruitment documents and thinking critically about the short- and long-term effects of military service.

Central to popular education—social justice education— is connecting personal experience to knowledge to collective action. This means we need to create the space for students to share their own experience of and questions about the wars, particularly when those students have family members who have died, been injured, or are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This collection is offered in that spirit. The articles and activities are drawn from our work over the past decade. There are areas that need updating and others that are incomplete (there is a particular need for more materials on Palestine and Pakistan). We hope that you will find useful materials and be inspired to adapt, update, and create new curriculum. When you do, please send it to us. In that way, you will be adding to an ongoing source for teachers committed to providing diverse sources of information to compare with the textbook and mainstream media version of the wars, as well as seriously studying the history and current strategies of antiwar activism, with a particular focus on the role that young people have played.

We want to empower our students and encourage them to act on their beliefs. We envision breaking the silences in our classrooms as part of an international effort to save our youth (all our youth—here in the United States, in the Middle East, all over the world) from war and more war.