"A true war story is never moral."
August 1, 2011 7:18 PM   Subscribe

Classroom Wars: a middle-school history teacher on the seductive stories of mankind's battles.
posted by brundlefly (19 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Great read. Cheers.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:26 PM on August 1, 2011


It's seemed to me, coming to the USA, that the prevailing public attitude towards war here is far, far more favourable to war than elsewhere, and that a big reason for this is the local narrative (from birth) that war results in good things (such as the USA, or abolishment of slavery, etc).

Elsewhere, war isn't so frequently seen as achieving anything of value, let alone anything worth the costs. There is less to point to. Did war achieve Hitler's ends? No, it just massacred a generation. Did vietnam achieve anything? No. WW1? Stupid and nasty bloody waste of a generation.

But here in the USA, war is how you build a better tomorrow.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:41 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


But here in the USA, war is how you build a better tomorrow.

There may be something to that, but consider the USA has been the defacto defensive department for a large portion of Europe, the world, since the end of WWII. It's easy to reject war when your not responsible for it.
posted by stbalbach at 7:52 PM on August 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


So much to say as a history teacher here, but...yeah.

Two years ago I was teaching English Language Learners (turns out I also teach English) in a very diverse district. LOTS of genuine lived-in-camps-for-years refugees. I told my students that I had been in the Coast Guard.

One of my Turkish Russian boys got all excited, asked if I had ever killed anyone. I immediately and firmly explained that this wasn't the sort of thing you asked, because it's just plain not pleasant for anyone. Had I killed? No. Do I have friends who have? Yes. They aren't proud of it at all.

He continued on, saying with a big smile that he wanted to join the Army and become a sniper because shooting people would be bad ass. No sarcasm. No irony.

The class had a handful of girls who had grown up in Mogadishu. The looks on their face were of indescribable disgust and rage. That was, um...that was day two of that class.

Fun fun.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:08 PM on August 1, 2011 [9 favorites]


Three thoughts:
1) Tim O'Brien's quote, which includes if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie is key, although most of my students who have read The Things They Carried
do not read it as an anti-war novel. They are asked if it is an anti-war novel. They are correct in that it is not an anti-war polemic, although this one quote seems to belie that position. Read the book. The quote is an obvious reference to the most intense anti-war poem around: Dulce et Decorum Est.
2) Howard Zinn's Peoples' History of the United States offers and entirely different narrative, and is used in the very few schools where it is permitted as a textbook.
3) Implied in this post is the story of the USA as a story of a country where many cultures and their arts and stories are still alive. Long live this vision, and good luck to those teachers who try to keep this vision alive, despite the bureaucratic impetus to water down our collective stories and reduce education to test scores.

Power to the People.
posted by kozad at 8:37 PM on August 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


A+
posted by kprincehouse at 8:47 PM on August 1, 2011


There may be something to that, but consider the USA has been the defacto defensive department for a large portion of Europe, the world, since the end of WWII. It's easy to reject war when your not responsible for it.

Bear in mind that this is at the demand of the USA. Whenever Europe looks like they might get serious about their military, the USA pulls out all the stops to do whatever convincing, threatening, and bullying is needed to prevent that happening. (A recent example is the butchered Galileo project - the original design was a fantastic approach to making a reliable GPS, highly resistant to foreign sabotage or jamming. The USA went apeshit over that, twisted arms, and Europe was forced to comply, changing the clever design to a crappy one to make it vulnerable to US jamming, so that the USA would let them have it.

It's easy to dismiss people for not having and using their own massive war machine, but when the USA insists on creating and maintaining that status quo, by whatever means necessary, I don't really see that as a mark against the Europeans when it comes to views on the usefulness of war.

But that aside, it's not so much that the Europeans that don't hold war in as grand a light as the USA, it's that very few places (other than totalitarian shitholes) do. ie it seems to me that the USA is an outlier.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:00 PM on August 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Great piece, thanks.
posted by odinsdream at 9:10 PM on August 1, 2011


But that aside, it's not so much that the Europeans that don't hold war in as grand a light as the USA, it's that very few places (other than totalitarian shitholes) do. ie it seems to me that the USA is an outlier.

One imagines you have not been held captive by any old English gents at a pub, waxing eloquent about the glory days of the Spitfire or the Maxim gun...
posted by madajb at 10:43 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's unfortunate that military history seems to become the de facto "history" that people become familiar with, but the USA's relationship with warfare is far from unique based on its recent history. Of course nothing we do now even comes close to the military hero worship of the classical world, but you don't have to look too far back to remember the days when the glories of imperial expansion were all the rage across Europe and Asia.

Europeans and Japanese are the same as pretty much everyone in that they generally believe that they are the standard of everything civilized. When they were cruising around the world on gunboats it was clearly because they were more civilized than everyone else. Once many of these countries had their military capacity exhausted or destroyed it isn't terribly surprising that their people suddenly decided that military stuff isn't so great after all. After all, civilized people don't worry about that kind of thing so much.

It's quite untrue to suggest that the US military is keeping a thumb on French military spending or something like that though. The policy is the same as it ever was, allies should be stronger while potential enemies should be weaker. This is why every year the guys out east make a little noise about how Japan should scrap article 9 (military prohibition) while simultaneously decrying Chinese expansion as a threat to peace. The Galileo thing was always going to be opposed by the US military because they currently have a monopoly on that kind of technology so obviously the idea of the EU making it available to everyone else didn't sit well with them.

I wish social movements were more a focus of history classes. They seem more interesting and marginally less predictable.
posted by Winnemac at 11:18 PM on August 1, 2011


Howard Gardner:
Most five-year-olds have developed a Star Wars script. Life consists of a struggle between Good and Bad forces, with the Good generally triumphant. Many movies and television programs, and a few events in real life, can adequately be described in terms of such a script. Most historical events or works of literature, however, prove far more complex; to understand the causes of World War I or the U.S. Civil War, or to grasp the thrust of a novel by Hawthorne or Austen, one must weigh and integrate multiple factors and nuances. Students learn in class to give more complex explanations for such historical or literary events. Yet, when they are confronted with new and unfamiliar materials--say, a story from another culture, or a war in an unfamiliar part of the world-- even capable students lapse to an elemental way of thinking. The Star Wars "good guy-bad guy" script is often invoked in such situations, even when it is manifestly inappropriate.
What I've tried to teach our kids (currently 7 and 9):

War happens when both sides want the same thing (usually a piece of territory). One side has it, the other side wants it--and neither side is willing to give it up. Usually you only get a war when both sides think they can win (like in poker, when two players each think they have the winning hand).

Both sides always think that they're the good guys and the other side are the bad guys. It's human nature; it makes it easier to kill the enemy, and it makes you confident that your side is going to win.

War is extremely destructive. But the objective of fighting a war isn't to physically destroy the other side (which is why nuclear weapons aren't as useful as they seem). It's psychological, to convince the other side to give up.

The example I tell them about is the Korean War, where North Korea invaded South Korea and conquered nearly the entire peninsula; then the US and its allies pushed North Korea back to the Yalu; then China came in and pushed the US back down to a stalemate in the middle. Animated map.

Unfortunately, I think war is an inescapable part of human nature. Did you know that slugs are territorial?
posted by russilwvong at 11:32 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's quite untrue to suggest that the US military is keeping a thumb on French military spending or something like that though. The policy is the same as it ever was, allies should be stronger while potential enemies should be weaker.

You haven't been paying close enough attention. The actual policy - same as it ever was - is "allies should be strong, but never stronger than us". I only mentioned the Galileo example because its been in the news recently. There is no shortage of other examples of the USA keeping a thumb on the military power of allies when they accidentally wander too close to a potential for strongest of all instead of merely stronger than before. Even when elements in the EU were proposing a massive multi-national unified EU military - pretty unlikely to happen - the USA still put a stop to that upstart nonsense pretty quick.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:02 AM on August 2, 2011


(It's also the case that the USA isn't a monolithic entity. I'm sure there are US government departments that cajole allies to increase military spending, right down the hall from US government departments freaking out about how to contain military technological advances developed by the military spending of those same allies. I bet lunch in the cafeteria of that building is fun :-))
posted by -harlequin- at 12:16 AM on August 2, 2011


The Galileo thing was always going to be opposed by the US military because they currently have a monopoly on that kind of technology so obviously the idea of the EU making it available to everyone else didn't sit well with them.

Incidentally, this isn't true. Russia has had a GPS system for a long time. There is no monopoly. What freaked out the USA about Galileo was that its clever design rendered everyone - including the USA - powerless to unilaterally shut it down.

"Was" being the operative word. :-/
posted by -harlequin- at 12:26 AM on August 2, 2011


Thanks for this. The more I read about history, the more horrible and pointless war seems to me. Of course, every time you bring up the subject, someone's bound to say "But what about Hitler? Don't you think we should have fought Hitler??" That was one of the questions I had to be prepared for when preparing my conscientious objector application forty years ago; one of the many bad results of Hitler's existence was the degradation of the discourse of war and pacifism, not to mention the inevitable comparison of every tinpot dictator and enemy-of-the-month to Hitler by warmongers trying to justify their mongering of war.

> Unfortunately, I think war is an inescapable part of human nature.

Maybe, maybe not. Seems like a good idea to try to escape it, just in case, though.

It would be great if we could have this discussion without turning it into a back-and-forth about how much America sucks, but as an American who acknowledges and deplores his country's history of militarism, let me recommend The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000, by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton. No matter how much you think you know about American history, you'll learn something from this book.
posted by languagehat at 9:27 AM on August 2, 2011 [5 favorites]



While I am sympathetic to the author's desire to de-emphasize war in teaching history, I think he's going about it the wrong way.
War is, by its very definition, a story. War imposes an orderly narrative on what without its definition of purpose and structure would be simply violence.
This seems to imply that because wars are stories, they are the only story, and the only possible organizing principle for teaching history.

But wars are often crises (in the original sense, "turning points" or "deflection points") in larger stories. They are the moment when other means failed.

For example, instead of starting with the Civil War and working backwards to its causes, why not start with the what the real conflict was -- slavery, and the devil's bargain the founders made with it in order to secure ratification of the Constitution -- and show how the failure of successive generations of leaders led to the ultimate expression of their failure -- a civil war that killled nearly a million Americans by the hands of their neighbors and cousins. Was it inevitable? Who should have acted differently, and in what way?

The other advantage of this method is that it shows how relatively weak the 'civil war was about states' rights' argument is.

Another suggestion is to stop teaching wars as a play-by-play sporting events. I know far more details about specific battles and players and what their jersey numbers were in these wars than is strictly speaking necessary to understand why the wars were fought and what they meant. Instead of wasting time and space on details that can be looked up online or at the library, give students more about the ideas and actions that brought about the conflict and those that resulted afterwards.

Not all grand historical narratives reach their climax in wars. Not all wars represent a climax of historical narratives. The writer's own data support this:
History teachers love war. Our classes are filled with it. The Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War II, Vietnam War are musts. Others we shove into the second tier: 1812, Mexican, Spanish-American, World War I, Korea.
Well, yeah! Because the first three actually resovled something. The second tier did not. (I am not going to touch Viet Nam here, that's a little more complicated case.)

Those 'second tier' wars are such because the real confict continued. But they are important chapters in larger stories that don't fit neatly between the first shot fired and the signing of the peace treaty.

Tell those stories, too.
posted by Herodios at 11:32 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]




Way to go languagehat, that was your 10,000th comment. (Glad you're on the blue).
posted by nickyskye at 7:42 PM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


"It is hard to overestimate the extent to which millions in our day feed upon violence and the threat of violence for their emotional nourishment. Magazines, newspapers, movies, and television afford a kind of vicarious satisfaction of this appetite. And potential violence is apparent everywhere in relations of parents and children, of workers and their employers, of racial minorities and majorities within society, and many others. Though organized state violence, which is the definition of war, is different from these, they are hardly separable, for without the secret love of violence and the accustoming of the psyche to it, which daily experience provides, effective fighting in war would unthinkable."

-J Glenn Gray, The Warriors.

posted by clavdivs at 2:57 AM on August 5, 2011


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