Teaching War

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.

12 thoughts on “Teaching War”

  1. Michael Walzer’s book Just and Unjust Wars was required reading when I was a cadet at West Point. Walzer posited six times when war would be just, and included pre-emptive war. For a leftie, he did pretty good, I think.


  2. “One of my major goals is to teach students to critically examine why nations decide to fight a war.”

    Nations do not make that decision, people do, and that methodology is as complex as the individual choices made over thousands of years.

    As for pro-war versus anti-war, what difference does it make? I am certainly not pro-volcano or anti-volcano, but accept the fact that they erupt from time to time and do my best to avoid streams of molten lava.

    I am no geologist, but I can tell you this, volcanoes do not care if you like them or not, they are what they are and they do what they do. They erupt all over the globe from time to time, the inevitable outcome of pressure and time, and they kill along their path.

    “In many ways our culture glorifies war.”

    I would agree. When you consider how many people (myself included) who are employed through our vast military industrial complex, it is only natural for the government to promote ideas that give the sacrifice meaning.

    “I once heard a student compare Saving Private Ryan to some video game he was playing.”

    No surprise. Several video games replicate the Normandy landing down to the most trivial of details.

    There are a lot of reasons for this.

    First and for most, the development costs of creating a modern video game have skyrocketed in the past 25 years. The advantage of military games is that war is in the public domain. You can depict whatever battle you like without regard to intellectual property rights. During the golden age of the arcades in the early 1980s, back when development costs were a fraction of what they are today, very few games had any sort of military themes. Today, Electronic Arts (EA Sports) had to pay the NFL an exorbitant amount to depict its likeness for Madden Football. For all of the military oriented video games on the market, the US Army gets nothing in return.

    I can go on and on for hours, but my point is that the decision to depict war on film or in video games is an economic decision make by executives at their respective companies. This by itself should not be used as an indication of the mood of society.


  3. I teach history to three different age groups in a homeschool co-op setting (please don’t kick me off your blog 🙂 Although my degree is in music ed, my second love is history and I hope some of my enthusiasm will rub off on my sometimes reluctant students. I share your goal to help my students understand the big ideas and the context of history over the trivia which is soon forgotten, and help them learn the critical thinking skills they’ll need to navigate the endless bombardment of information which they receive on a daily basis. I appreciate your thoughts on a “just war” and your sensitive and balanced approach in teaching current events. I look forward to reading more!


  4. i am a history teacher also. i think you have some really good ideas. right now in my american history classes we are studying WWII. we watched “saving private ryan”, “the band of brothers”, and right now we are currently watching “schindler’s list”. sometimes i think that students can learn the facts rather easily if they put them in a chronological order in their mind. but, i think students have a bigger problem walking in the people’s shoes who were involved in these conflicts. i don’t think i have a “pro-war” or “anti-war” sentiment in my instruction, but i do try to get students to analyze why certain nations get involved in war. i think after they can do that, then they can walk in the people’s shoes and truly realize that war is not some romantic journey of self-discovery. sometimes i feel that i teach more social skills than anything else. which is OK with me as long as i can mix in a little history.


  5. I’m not a history teacher. For the past 23 years I’ve made my living as a cameraman and editor. About 7 years ago a friend of mine, who is a Vietnam vet, asked me to shoot a presentation he and several others were giving at a local high school. A history teacher there had invited them to speak to her classes the year before and when they returned the following year, he asked me if I wanted to videotape it.
    I was sincerely moved by the impact of this meeting. It was cathartic for the 4 vets who presented to this group of students but I was particularly impressed by the response of the the students attending.

    That was the inspiration for a series of interviews that I did with veterans of that war. I decided that I wanted to do a documentary that could be used in classrooms. I’ve completed my work and am putting together a website to let teachers know about it. I’d appreciate any feedback from students and history teachers…Thanks.


  6. I think your approach is very deliberate and informed and would provide an excellent framework for teaching about war.

    I’m in my fifth year teaching AP US History and am married to a European History AP teacher and we often wrestle with how to teach a series of wars appropriately and efficiently.

    Using the Stanford Philosophy website and the concept of “just war” can clarify and streamline approaches to conflict in a way that lends itself to graphic organizers which break wars down by the most influential factors.

    For my less historically inclined students, that visual depiction of categorical reasons, coupled (perhaps) with a weighting system for each possible type of cause could serve as an excellent segue into essay questions which elicit more evidence-laden and focused responses from students–especially when covering a sequence of related conflicts such as the religious wars of the 15th and 16th centuries.


  7. I am studying at the moment to become a history teacher and I love war history. Unlike you, I am fascinated with the technological advances and the ingenious of new war tactics. Although our reasons are different in the pursuit of the history of war, we share common opinions and questions on how to teach such a touchy subject. I have come to the conclusion that it is not my role to indoctrinate students on the morality of war. I believe that a teacher of history is one that produces facts, a variety of opinions, and various view points. History is a subject that must be discussed in an open forum and it is my job as a history teacher to create an atmosphere where students feel free to discuss any and all points without being embarrassed for stating their ideas. You stated that you don’t believe that it is your role to teach facts as a teacher, but to stimulate thought. From this I would ask you if you feel it is necessary to have the facts when making decisions. This frightens me as an upcoming teacher that one would feel no obligations to teach the facts. Once again, is it not important to have the facts when making decisions? One of the major problems in society today is the idea that the facts do not matter. Students are making more and more decisions on what “feels good” instead of deciding on what the facts tell them. I am not stating that facts equal opinion. There are just some things that are fact regardless of opinion.


  8. I too am studying to be a History teacher, but I have to disagree with portions of Jordan’s reply. I don’t think that Dan was implying the absence of facts in his post, he actually makes the point of going through the causes of the war, the impact of the individual soldier and the results. Unfortunately, that is all a lot of history courses will go through. I have always been of the opinion, and it is stated by Dan, that if all we were to spew out was a myriad of facts our students would only be qualified to write encyclopedias or be on game shows. We must be able to stimulate critical thinking skills in our students about these issues later in life. In other words, they must learn what facts are facts, because everyone has a bias.
    Where I can agree with Jordan is that I do not feel it is my job to educate students on the morality of war. This is a decision that they have to arrive at in their own critical thinking. It is difficult to apply any current theory of morality to what the individuals of the early twentieth century felt were justifiable reasons to go to war. To do so is playing armchair quarterback. It would be more reasonable to openly discuss with students what they feel the reason for the war were, and let them try to reason through their justification, guiding them with the facts. Any other approach invites the suggestion of bias. The United Kingdom has some interesting guidelines to consider on this subject, (http://www.citizenshipfoundation.org.uk/lib_res_pdf/0118.pdf) such as;

    “• giving equal importance to conflicting views and opinions;
    • presenting all information and opinion as open to interpretation,
    qualification and contradiction;
    • establishing a classroom climate in which all pupils are free to express
    sincerely held views without fear.
    It also means teachers seeking to avoid unintentional bias by:
    • not presenting opinions as if they are facts;
    • not setting themselves up as the sole authority on a subject;
    • as far as possible, not giving their own accounts of the views of others,
    but, rather, letting the actual claims and assertions of protagonists speak
    for themselves;
    • not revealing their own preferences in unconscious ways, e.g., facial
    expressions, gestures or tone of voice”

    It seems to me that the trick is, and the point of Dan’s post, is not that the teaching of facts is ignored, but how to present the facts so as not to bias the student’s thought.


  9. You are so helpful to me right now as I struggle with a way to approach teaching WWI. I am a westerner teaching in Indonesia, and history, as you know, is always viewed through a certain cultural lens.
    I am just wondering if you have any ideas on how to teach WWI in the face of colonialism and it’s seeming effective results today (since England still remains at the center of world power).
    And, how do you keep kids from getting depressed by it all once you’ve made your point? What resolutions do you try to empower them with?


  10. History teachers have a responsibility to engage student’s cognitive processes. Students who are reading history for facts come away from the learning material with text at the very best. You as the history teacher can unravel the layers of text and teach (scaffold the information cohesively) the students how to read for context. When the students are guided properly, they understand greater context from the historical text they were reading, analyzing, and synthesizing into works, and then they will begin to understand the underlying subtext. Teaching a learner to be subjective is not an easy task. An approach that may help would be to teach the students in your class how to analyze their own learning processes and to implement cognitive strategies of their own conscious device (metacognition). Students who understand how they learn are more empowered to learn on their own. Blooms taxonomy (1956) is one good example of how to measure a student’s cognition: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Teaching students to teach themselves will help them see past the simpler aspects of historical context, learn to deconstruct the effects of differing cultural influences on history text, and attain an understand of humanity as a global construct. Your students can see that world history has winners and losers (be it imperialistic conquest or economic conquest), but as depressing as it may, every human you teach to see this global construct contributes to a more egalitarian world. And every person you enable to teach themselves can teach others. (BA history/minor English; and I am currently in a masters in teaching secondary education program; endorsements history, pursuing English).


  11. Scot,
    It has been 40 years since I have taken a history class and I still remember those history teachers who approached their subject matter in the way you suggest. Those teachers both inspired me to question and formulate my own ideas and to appreciate that process in other individuals. Thank you for your commitment to your profession


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s