When I asked my 9th-grade modern world history classes to write a list of what they knew about the war in Iraq, Liza's response was typical: “I'm ashamed to say this, but I literally know very little to nothing.” I had taught about the war for several years, but this was the first time that more than half of my students claimed to know “little to nothing” when we started the unit. Now that U.S. troops have been pulled out, news coverage of Iraq has all but disappeared from the mainstream media and, consequently, from the minds of most high school students, including the ones I teach at Madison High School in northeast Portland, Oregon.
The war in Iraq spanned most of my adult life. The largest protests I have attended were against the war in Iraq. The war shaped my political life and changed many in my generation. But for my students, the war was history—history that they had never learned.
Of course, like every war, there is a battle over what version of that history is passed on. My school district's adopted textbook is Holt McDougal's Modern World History. As Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow pointed out in a Zinn Education Project column, the section on the U.S. war in Iraq “might as well have been written by Pentagon propagandists.” Modern World History presents the Iraq invasion as reasonable and inevitable, repeats the Bush administration's lies about weapons of mass destruction and September 11th, and ignores the antiwar movement and all Iraqi voices. The section's only “critical writing” activity asks students to write a victory speech for then-President George W. Bush.
Perhaps the most insidious statement made in Modern World History is this one: “After less than four weeks of fighting, the coalition had won the war. Despite the coalition victory, much work remained in Iraq. With the help of U.S. officials, Iraqis began rebuilding their nation.”