Let's Teach About War

At what age are young people emotionally mature enough to discuss war as more than an abstract historical event? Eight? Fifteen? Twenty-one?

I teach at a small community college, where the number of student veterans is seemingly increasing at a steady rate. Because of the papers they write and the conversations I have had with them, I decided two years ago to implement a unit on war in my Advanced Composition class. For two weeks of each 16-week semester, we focus on the writings of soldiers from Vietnam to the present.

I tell the students we aren't going to talk about the politics of war. It doesn't matter if they prefer Obama or Bush. What matters is that we are reading about war as it relates to being human. Are the reasons for war worthy of the sacrifices we ask of our soldiers?

Some students enter the unit with trepidation, afraid they will be asked to read works depicting violence. But most, probably 90 percent, are grateful. Comments I get back range from "Thank you. I never understood my father before" to "I just never knew . . . " to "We never get to talk about this kind of thing in other classes."

The vets say it's a step toward being understood, toward not appearing so foreign in their own country. And, ultimately, this is the point of literature, to share other people's narratives, to understand their stories. It is a way to become more compassionate to our fellow beings, even if they are different from ourselves. These are the reasons for the unit.

However, there are differing opinions. I was once asked by my administrators if I really thought the students were emotionally mature enough to be discussing war at this level. The question took me aback. We were in a college setting. Recruiters were positioned weekly in the lobbies of our campus buildings. And, most important, soldiers the ages of our students were at that moment dying in a war zone in a foreign country. Shouldn't their peers know something of what they were experiencing?

Tobias Wolff 's observation in the documentary "Operation Homecoming" -- that it is a "decadent civilization" that sends its soldiers to war with no awareness of them or what they suffer -- became our writing assignment for the unit. Is America one of those decadent civilizations?

The students did well in their discussions, pulling from both personal observation and societal examples. But now I wonder if the question shouldn't be asked of our educators.

The quality of college education has become an inflammatory debate, and one of the keystones of that debate is whether or not students are asked to think as opposed to memorize information for tests. Being an instructor, I have felt the sting of that debate: Are classes requiring a standard of excellence from students that will allow them to be active, thinking participants in our global community? And if instructors set standards too high and students fail, how are those standards justified to institutions that rely on positive statistics for support?

We are a world of confrontation and war. In his book, "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning," Chris Hedges reflects on calculations by historian Will Durant indicating that there have been only 29 years in human history when there has not been a war somewhere. If this is the case, then why shouldn't students be asked to consider the human consequences of war?

Thanks to the GI Bill and emerging programs by colleges that actively welcome veterans, the average American student will likely be sitting next to someone who has recently returned from a war zone. Why shouldn't they be exposed to voices that can help them comprehend that experience -- even if on the most minute comparative scale?

Students have been willing to put aside their fears and enter this field of discussion. Perhaps administrators should be willing to do the same.

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