Like many of my 15 year old students, I am fascinated by war, but for entirely different reasons. I am not a military historian. The details of each battle and the weaponry used have never been something with which I’ve been obsessed. I have always been more interested in two other elements of war, the politics of war and the plight of the individuals who do the fighting. As a result, I find myself looking critically at the reasons wars are fought, the tactics used, and the results. As a history teacher, I have always tried to find an appropriate balance in how I teach units dealing with war. I want students to be able to critically analyze a conflict and make a reasonable assessment. All without trying to sound like a hawk or a dove.
This obviously requires some balance, especially in today’s political climate. When I first started teaching World War I in my world history classes eight years ago, the emphasis was centered upon the causes of the war, the impact on the individual soldier, and the results. While it was certainly pro-soldier, the tone of the unit had an anti-war feeling to it. Years ago I even had one student who requested a transfer to another teacher (it was denied) because this approach offended her beliefs. I went on to create an activity that centered around the Just War Theory which uses a number of factors to determine if a war is justified. Early versions of the theory date back to Classical Greece and were later refined during the European Middle Ages to help balance Christianity with the need to fight wars. The items to consider include:
- Comparative justice: While there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to override the presumption against the use of force, the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other;
- Legitimate authority: Only duly constituted public authorities may use deadly force or wage war;
- Right intention: Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose—correcting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not.
- Probability of success: Arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success;
- Proportionality: The overall destruction expected from the use of force must be outweighed by the good to be achieved.
- Last resort: Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted.
(From Wikipedia, 12/20/06)
World War I fails most of these elements and then when you take into account the devastating effects of the Versailles Treaty it is difficult for any student or historian to argue the merits of the Great War. The Allied efforts in World War II obviously are a different story. During that unit, the tone shifts completely.
One of my major goals is to teach students to critically examine why nations decide to fight a war. The current conflict certainly complicates this approach. Many Americans, including myself, have reservations about the justifications for the war and the manner in which it has been executed. However, in the years since the Iraq War began, I have seen a shift in my students’ opinions. Initially in the build up and the first year, perceptions were very positive. I felt that I had to walk a very thin line. While I tried to get them to look at the conflict as a historian might, many only heard the arguments provided by the government. In the last couple years, my students (generally) have been much more critical of the war. It is still very far removed from our immediate lives and only a minority of us actually have a friend or family member serving overseas. Despite this change in opinion, that line still needs to be watched. My role is not to influence their political beliefs, but to create an academic environment in which they can figure it all out.
In many ways our culture glorifies war. I hear my students talking how great the latest war movie was or discuss staying up all night playing first-person shooters (many with a military theme). I once heard a student compare Saving Private Ryan to some video game he was playing. In further conversations with the student, I discovered that he had missed the point of the movie and only thought the special effects were “sick.” This over-exposure to the violence of war has created a disconnect between the popular imagery of war and the reality of war.
I don’t believe my role as a history teacher, or more generally – just a teacher, is to teach a series of facts. Let’s be serious, other than an appearance on a game show, most of the small detailed facts will do little to actually help students later in life – if they even remember them beyond the test. The conceptual and big picture ideas define my class. If a student leaves my class with an understanding of the world, I have done my part on leading them towards becoming a citizen of this great nation. The skills (critical thinking, assessing for bias, information management, etc.) they hopefully develop while learning about history are as important as the actual content.