Teaching About the Wars

Teaching About the Wars

Edited By Jody Sokolower

Table of Contents

As President Trump pushes the United States toward war with Iran, it is more important than ever to equip students to think deeply and critically about U.S. military interventions around the world.

Teaching About the Wars breaks the curricular silence on the U.S. military engagement in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Even though the United States has been at war continuously since just after 9/11, sometimes it seems that our schools have forgotten. This collection of articles and hands-on lessons shows how teachers prompt their students to think critically about big issues. Here is the best writing from Rethinking Schools magazine on war and peace in the 21st century.

We offer Teaching About the Wars free to Rethinking Schools readers. We hope that you will share it with colleagues and use it to generate curriculum about this latest crisis.

Also see our books Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World and A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis , which offer resources to teach about the colonial and environmental roots of today’s global crises.

Teaching About the Wars is divided into five chapters:

  1. Introduction: Breaking the Silence on War
  2. The Road to War
  3. The Human Face of War
  4. Military Recruitment
  5. Anti-War Resistance

Contributing authors include Bill Bigelow, Ann Pelo, Margot Pepper, Bob Peterson, Özlem Sensoy, and Howard Zinn.

Listen to an interview with editor Jody Sokolower about the book and why it's important we continue to discuss and teach about the wars.

Teaching About the Wars

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction
Breaking the Silence on War — 3
Jody Sokolower 

Teaching in a Time of War — 5
Rethinking Schools 

Learning From the Past, Talking About the Present — 8
Kelley Dawson Salas

A Revolution of Values — 10
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Christopher Columbus and the Iraq War — 12
Bill Bigelow

Test Prep and the War — 15
Jessica Klonsky

Chapter 2: The Road to War
Empire or Humanity — 23
Howard Zinn

Whose Terrorism? — 27
Bill Bigelow

Teaching Gulf War II — 42
Bill Bigelow

The U.S. and Iraq: Choices and Predictions — 46
Hyung Nam

Why Invade Iraq? — 56
Bill Bigelow

The War in Iraq and Daily Classroom Life — 61
Bob Peterson

Chapter 3: The Human Face of War
Save the Muslim Girl — 69
Özlem Sensoy and Elizabeth Marshall

Baghdad Burning Heats Up World History — 75
Jody Sokolower

Afghanistan’s Ghosts — 81
Ian McFeat

Portland to Palestine — 86
Ken Gadbow

Fahrenheit 9/11: Silent Discussion — 90
Julie O’Neill, Sandra Childs, and Bill Bigelow

Fahrenheit 9/11: Thinking in Pictures, Feeling in Words — 93
Julie O’Neill, Sandra Childs, and Bill Bigelow

Chapter 4: Military Recruitment
Early Childhood Military Education? — 103
Ann Pelo

The Recruitment Minefield — 105
Bill Bigelow

War Is Fun as Hell — 116
Sheldon Rampton

The Next Generation of Soldiers — 118
Eliza Leas

Chapter 5: Anti-War Resistance
TV Selfishness and Violence Explode During “War on Terror” — 121
Margot Pepper

Standing Up to Military Recruiters — 125
Arlene Inouye

Draft Resolution to End Military Recruitment Abuse — 129
Rethinking Schools

Regaining My Humanity — 131
Camilo Mejia

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:

  • War is endless and inescapable, part of the wallpaper of life.
  • The Middle East conflict is another one of those depressing subjects that is too complicated to understand, too impossible to change, and leading us toward an inevitable Armageddon.
  • War under Bush was a legitimate subject for debate and critique, but Obama symbolizes hope—after all, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. To question Obama is to embrace hopelessness.
  • Who are we to question, when textbooks bury our ongoing wars in a few comforting paragraphs? McDougal-Littell’s Modern World History titles its brief section on the Iraq War “The Struggle Continues” and offers this summary: “Despite the coalition victory, much work remained in Iraq. With the help of U.S. officials, Iraqis began rebuilding their nation.”

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.