Classroom Wars

War’s noble purpose?


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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. To millions of students, U.S. history ends up being — to modify the oft-repeated dictum — the story of one damned war after another. Even in my own classroom, the major events on the U.S. history timeline required for the final exam emphasize wars as highly significant for marking out and framing the study of the American story. Everything else, it seems, just falls less consequentially between.


History students love war, too. Some go for the stories of battle. One of my students, known school-wide for his obsession with all things WWII, was frequently found poring over picture books of tanks and weapons, reading the stories of soldiers and generals. Others go for the high morality of it — epics of slavery abolished, dictators vanquished, worlds made safe for democracy. And the tales of personal courage, bravery, and sacrifice do often inspire — the Glory of the 54th Massachusetts or the simple patriotism of Sergeant York.

So as a teacher of history, as a teacher of wars, imagine the knotting of stomach and tightening of chest that occurred when I encountered, seven years late, Drew Gilpin Faust’s article ‘“We should grow too fond of it’: why we love the Civil War.” Faust writes:

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. We as writers create that story; we remember that story; we provide the narrative that by its very existence defines war’s purpose and meaning. We love war because of these stories. But we should ask ourselves how in the construction of war’s stories we may be helping to construct war itself.

Amplified in her recent Jefferson Lecture and supplemented by her Bancroft Prize-winning This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, the last decade of Faust’s scholarship forces historians into the uncomfortable work of reassessing their assumptions about war, how war stories are told, and how the very study of war by a disproportionate number of historians may in fact serve to perpetuate it.

But surely historians aren’t the only ones at fault here. While Faust asks hard questions of her own profession, let me present the same fearful possibility to the teachers of America’s millions of primary and secondary school students. Have we — by the curricula we accept, the readings we assign, the stories we tell, the movies we show — glamorized war, infused it with meaning, and made it normal and respectable for future generations to wage?

By structuring curriculum in certain ways, we shape the next generation’s perception of past reality. Indeed, it is possible — likely, even — that for many in times and places past, war was a priority, so by making it a priority in our classrooms we simply reflect what once was. But I fear, with Faust, that our project is much more creative. That by making war a priority in our curriculum – organizing teaching units around it, surrounding ourselves with gripping stories about it – we actually make war a priority in ways that it wasn’t. We construct a past that never was, and in doing so construct a future that need not be: a world in which war is a constant presence, a fellow traveler. A world in which war is normal. Operating out of such a norm, might our students move on to build such a world themselves? “Our narratives are not just modeled from war,” Faust insists, “they become models for war.”

For many of my students, war is a video game, war is a Hollywood movie. Many boys, socialized neatly into aggression and weaponry just as society seems to have wanted it, use their video game experiences of war and combat to situate and understand their classroom study of war. Admittedly, this is often helpful. Students bring a sort of first-hand knowledge of the strategy and boots-on-the-ground experience of war that could hardly be possible without such innovative virtual tools. Even more, it’s worth noting that while video games are easy fodder for the declinists of each generation, there is still much disagreement about whether a person’s behavior in the virtual world of gaming encourages corresponding actions in real life. While several of my students seem to spend every waking weekend hour sniping Nazi zombies and other enemy combatants in the sprawling Call of Duty franchise, this has thankfully not caused any of them to actually become snipers, their non-virtual time much more innocuously spent debating new colors of skinny jeans or engaging in the hopelessly Darwinian struggle that is middle school lunch and recess.  

And yet I wonder. Faced with these very fears that Faust brings up, I endeavored to make my eighth graders’ study of the Civil War more reflective, with qualitative and quantitative data on the deadly costs of the war. Faust’s This Republic of Suffering helped here. Culling statistics and quotes from her book, I sought to confront my students with the terrible pain and suffering that accompanies war. The handout I eventually distributed — a proud achievement, I thought — included a quick-fire compendium of devastating statistics and provocative reflections from soldiers, the enslaved, and observers of all kinds, alongside several grim photographs of Civil War battlefield dead. At the end, I asked students to reflect: “Was the war worth it?” Forced to balance the overwhelming statistics of dead and wounded — of battlefields flowing with blood and piled with bodies — with the prospect of slavery abolished, most students seemed relatively unconflicted: the war was worth it.

It is a tough question. Had I hoped they would answer in the opposite? Perhaps, but I had really just hoped for some existential angst, a bit of tossing and turning or lost sleep. I hoped only that we might pause for a moment, overcome by the complexity of it all. In some sense, though, I was proud of the sophistication my students offered in response. Several students reasoned that the death, suffering, and torment of enslaved peoples across the centuries in America far outweighed any statistics that could be produced by just four years of war between North and South. It was, they seemed to argue, a small price to pay for the abolition of such a wicked institution.

Many even found solidarity in the words of Aunt Aggy, an African-American woman quoted by Faust through Union nurse Mary Livermore:

Aunt Aggy had waited through decades of cruelty to see “white folks’ blood…a-runnin’ on the ground like a riber.” But she had always had faith “it was a-comin. I allers ’spected to see white folks heaped up dead. An’ de Lor’, He’s keept His promise, an’ ’venged His people, jes’ as I knowed He would. I seed ’em dead on de field, Massa Linkum’s sojers an’ de Virginny sojers, all heaped togedder…Oh, de Lor’ He do jes’ right, if you only gib Him time enough to turn Hisself.”

Sure, the Civil War was bad, some of my students argued. But, as Aunt Aggy shows, it was the violence of a system finally coming home to roost.

I’m always startled by how easily some of my students dismiss the sheer violence and carnage of war in favor of higher moral purposes. Conversely, I’m frustrated by the seeming naiveté of those who rule out the use of arms in any circumstance, always wondering why the two sides couldn’t just “talk it out,” as if — to echo Obama’s Nobel speech skepticism — a nonviolent movement could have stopped Hitler’s advance. Perhaps, though, I’m not upset so much at the perspectives my students bring to these questions of war and peace, but that they have an answer and I don’t.

Inevitably, it seems, more voices in my classroom are willing to speak up for war’s noble purpose, its grand narrative, all-too-comfortably calculating away six- and seven-figure body counts, factoring away numerous tales of suffering, and rearranging variables to conclude that the end justifies the means, the sum is somehow greater than the piles of bodies and body parts. Out of violence comes redemption.

It’s a tempting storyline. So tempting, according to Walter Wink, that this “myth of redemptive violence” has been a structure in our collective stories at least since the Babylonians’ Enuma Elish. While it’s come in many forms since, it is always, Wink believes, “the conviction that only violence can save us.”  In his article on the subject in The Destructive Power of Religion, edited by J. Harold Ellens, Wink sketches the many ways that we impose this redemptive narrative on our world in ways that don’t just affect how we view the past, but how we act now. “No one, it seems,” according to Wink, “wishes to kill others and risk being killed themselves without justification by the highest authority in the universe.” War, then, is ultimately always religious if it is to be justified, “the offering up of human lives in a supreme sacrifice.”

Lincoln knew this well. Speaking on the fields of Gettysburg, where thousands had died just months before, the great emancipator took what otherwise might have passed as senseless violence and invested it with cosmic significance: “…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” What was previously carnage, or perhaps at most a fight against secessionist traitors, was now a fight for a new birth of freedom, for the noblest forms of human dignity and good governance.

And what about September 11? When brought into our own time, the issue becomes more tense, the implications hurt. But was George W. Bush busy with the same project in his speech on September 20, 2001, when he announced the U.S. response to the attacks that had killed thousands and traumatized a nation nine days before? Thousands of peaceful children, women, men, going about their lives one morning in New York City, and by day’s end their lives were inexplicably ended and their dearest loved ones left only to weep, to wonder, to mourn and to rage at the purposelessness of it all.  

What, then, must we do? Fearing that some evil is gratuitous, that everything might not happen for a reason, we seek to invest such events with meaning. But rarely does that meaning come from simple admiration for lives well lived. We must act in such a way, echoing Lincoln, that these dead shall not have died for nothing. “This is civilization’s fight. This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom,” Bush declared then. Mothers and fathers would send daughters and sons off to war, but these new deaths — indeed, all the deaths — would now be consecrated in higher purpose.

“Violence is the spirituality of our society,” Wink writes. “It has virtually been accorded the status of a religion.” He suggests, however, that few real religious systems have ever been as successful as the myth of redemptive violence “in its ability to catechize its young so totally.” And so we come back around to the work of history teachers, history students, and the war stories we tell.

Of all the epochs, events, and ideas we could study, war seems to grab a disproportionately large chunk of time in many classrooms around the country. If violence truly is the spirituality of our society, then, I fear that we as teachers and students of history have become its theologians. While Faust rightly questions historians’ love for imposing orderly and moral narratives on the violence of war, those of us who make these stories popular and available — news media, parents, classroom teachers — have the chance to stop accepting simple narratives and theological renderings of redemptive violence-as-history.

Indeed, it hardly seems possible to write about events of violence without giving them some organization and infusing them with some meaning. Historians and history teachers are in the business of corralling disparate facts into some sort of interpretive coherence. It’s not if we’re making meaning, then, but how. Must we always impose this myth, invest seemingly tragic and gratuitously violent events with metaphysical significance, theologize our way into “just war” and lives lost so “that nation might live?” Must the teachers be catechized into these simplistic mythic structures, and must we catechize the children as well?

I fear that those of us who stand up in front of America’s children every day have made a Faustian bargain. In accepting history courses shaped by war and structured around war, we allow our students to internalize war as normal, constant, at times attractive. In telling stories about war, we fall back on noble explanatory devices and encourage our students to appreciate high moral outcomes over bodies on the ground.

In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or 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. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

In how we teach war — indeed, in trying to justify our fascination with war — we have perhaps tried too hard to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. And if we insist on such narratives, is it any surprise that our students will grow up seeing the world through them, making decisions based on them, building a future that runs by the same storyline? • 27 July 2011