Learning War: An Educational Historian’s Perspective

Gunner fires during training exercise(Photo: LSIS Andrew Dakin/US Pacific Fleet; Edited: JR/TO)

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I was born during a war. During my 43 years, the United States has been engaged in congressionally sanctioned wars for more than half of my life, not including the various military actions not authorized by the US Congress, such as those in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989-1990) and Somalia (1992-1995), to name only a few.

As a historian of education, I am deeply interested in what children and adults learn from both formal and informal educational sites: schools, churches, peers, popular culture and the larger society. What people learn is not always directly taught, especially when folks try to make sense of and, thus, learn from historic events. This is what scholars often call the “hidden curriculum,” the things that are learned without being explicitly communicated. Below are some of the central “lessons” I have learned about war by experiencing and living on the “home front” during decades of US military engagement – in other words, by learning the United States’ hidden curriculum – and, most importantly, by studying the historical scholarship and literature related to war. These lessons are somewhat obvious, but they bear repeating.

War Is Grotesque

War is grotesque, in every sense of the word. The notion of war has been (and still is) distorted in ways that make it seem like a glorious undertaking, when in reality it is truly monstrous. Unlike the popular depictions of war as simplistically valorous – especially the Hollywood portrayals from a few generations ago – war is a complex and brutal endeavor. This should be self-evident, but the notion of the heroic “good guys” fighting the malevolent “bad guys” is deeply engrained in our national psyche.

War not only changes the larger society; it also changes its citizens.

The brutality and complexity of war becomes quite clear if one reads the firsthand accounts of soldiers as well as the realistic literature based on those accounts. These narratives – which depict soldiers as fully human, not just patriotic automatons – detail the fear and ambivalence soldiers felt about war, as well as all of the gruesome scenes witnessed during military engagements. In literature, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (Picador, 1948/1998) is a particularly salient example of the brutality and complexity of war. Mailer – who served in World War II, but saw little in the way of intense fighting – describes enlisted men who, rather than blindly serving their country, resist killing the “enemy” and merely wish to go home; some, in fact, tried to avoid the army all together. The act of killing another human being weighs heavily on many of Mailer’s characters. One, for example, “had been unable to rid himself of the expression on the face of the Japanese soldier he had killed” (p. 688). Yet, in some grotesque twist of war, ending a life became easier as the conflict continued. “The killing lost all dimension, bothered the men far less than discovering some ants in their bedding,” Mailer writes, so much so that “Americans … would finish off whatever wounded men were left, smashing their heads with rifle butts or shooting them point-blank” (pp. 718-719).

War Changes US Society

War changes US society, and not for the better. Although US wars are frequently sold to the population as a means of preserving democracy and freedom, they – in another example of the grotesque – often have the effect of limiting the liberties of US citizens. From the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 during a quasi-war with France, to the Sedition and Espionage Acts during World War I to the current Patriot and USA Freedom Acts, the US government regularly suppresses opposition to its wars and detains and monitors those suspected of being enemies of the state. During the Red Scare and McCarthyism of the Cold War, the United States, as I have written in Learning the Left (Information Age Publishing, 2015), essentially became a police state and “adopted and institutionalized the very tyranny it was attempting to fight” (p. 73).

The burden of war often falls on those with the least power in US society.

In 2002, my first scholarly article was published in the Indiana Magazine of History. Titled “The War Against German-American Culture,” the article examined the hatred of all things German that emerged in response to World War I, and it received a fair amount of attention (for a scholarly article) because readers noted the parallels between some citizens’ treatment of German immigrants during World War I and the treatment of Muslim Americans after September 11, 2001.

What readers recognized, of course, is that war not only changes the larger society; it also changes its citizens. From being inundated with pro-war propaganda – the federal government’s Committee on Public Information began during World War I to whip up support for, at the time, a relatively unpopular war – Americans often become warmongering zealots. As a consequence of war, whole groups of people are demonized, their humanity no longer recognizable, in the name of “patriotism.” In times of war, patriotism is often grotesquely transformed – as one of my historical sources noted (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010/2014) – from a “love” of fellow citizens into a “hatred toward other nations or the members of the other political party or sect” (pp. 61-62). As Albert Einstein wrote in a letter to Sigmund Freud – subsequently published as Why War? (League of Nations, 1933) – those in power who want war use the press, schools and churches to manipulate “the emotions of the masses” into “a lust for hatred and destruction” (p. 5).

The Burden of War Falls on Marginalized Populations

The burden of war often falls on those with the least power in US society, notably the young, the poor, people of color and women. Prior to World War I, wealthy white men could hire substitutes for their service in the military – a phenomenon that was particularly pronounced during the US Revolutionary War and Civil War. With the various incarnations of the Selective Service Act that began in 1917, all US men between certain ages (these varied over time) could be drafted. However, there were exceptions to the draft. During the Korean War and Vietnam War, for instance, college students – who, at that time, tended to come from middle-class and affluent families – could receive an educational deferment from active service.

What this means, of course, is that most US wars were fought by poor and working-class boys. Yet, because social class and ethnicity are intimately intertwined in the United States, many US soldiers, especially in recent decades, are African Americans. Today, the US military actively recruits in schools that primarily serve poor students and students of color; many willingly join the armed forces with the hope of being able to attend college after their service has ended. These low-income young men, often of color, are the ones who are disproportionately killed and wounded in US wars.

Wars that are waged against a poorly defined enemy, such as an ideology, have a tendency to become wars without a foreseeable end.

I purposely keep using the terms “young men” and “boys” because, by and large, US soldiers are young. In fact, prior to the 26th Amendment in 1971 – which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 – many drafted soldiers did not have the constitutional right to vote for the political leaders who were sending them to their untimely deaths. Senator and presidential candidate George McGovern’s well-known quip certainly rings true: “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

Like the young collegiate men, women were also exempt from the draft – which ended in the 1970s and, thus, made military service voluntary – but women always have suffered and sacrificed during wars. Of course, women have served in the military in various capacities since the nation’s founding, and many have fought and died. But, with much more regularity, women have been brutalized by war. Historically, for instance, the raping of women as armies advance into “enemy” lands has been a common occurrence. Women, therefore, were merely seen as part of the spoils of war.

Additionally, the sacrifices of women and girls on the home front have been extraordinary. During times of “total war” – in which all must contribute to the war effort – women have been expected to simultaneously fill the roles typically assigned to men (such as work in factories) and continue their more traditional duties as homemakers. Although there are numerous scholarly books that examine the impact of war on women, perhaps Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer-winning novel March sums up these sacrifices the best. Set during the Civil War, the protagonist’s wife states, “I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces. The broken cities, the burned barns, the innocent injured beasts, the ruined bodies of the boys we bore and the men we lay with” (p. 211).

War Is Big Business

Although wars can send nations into deep debt, for some private sector companies, war is big business. For corporations that produce weapons and equipment for the US military, war is a cash cow; according to USA Today’s Samuel Weigley, the top five companies with military contracts posted over $140 billion in arms sales in 2011. Of course, it is not just the military-industrial complex that benefits financially from war. In 1982, the punk band Fear forcefully (and cheekily) captured the profit-oriented aspect of war on its album “The Record” (Slash Records). “Let’s have a war,” Lee Ving sings, “Jack up the Dow Jones”; “Let’s have a war/Sell the rights to the networks.”

While war profiteering has a long and sordid past in the United States – Major General Smedley Butler detailed many instances in his 1935 War Is a Racket (Round Table Press) – perhaps the most egregious example comes from recent history: the Texas oil industry’s government contracts in Iraq. By 2013, the Houston-based corporation Halliburton, which Dick Cheney once headed, had received nearly $40 billion in contracts “without any bidding from competing firms,” according to Angelo Young of the International Business Times. Clearly, even today General Butler’s introductory words ring true: “War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious…. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

Wars Against Elusive Enemies Become Orwellian Perpetual Wars

Wars that are waged against a poorly defined enemy, such as an ideology, have a tendency to become wars without a foreseeable end, not unlike the perpetual wars in George Orwell’s 1984. The Cold War, which pitted the United States against ideologies opposed to capitalism, lasted for nearly half a century until the only communist superpowers either collapsed (the Soviet Union) or began to transition toward a free-market economy (China). On a much smaller scale, the Cold War, or at least a war against nation-states opposed to capitalist domination, continues into the present, notably through the United States’ opposition to (and possible covert military campaigns in) Venezuela after the late socialist president Hugo Chávez took office in 1999. Of course, the most recent global perpetual war is the “war on terror,” which, like the Cold War, has the United States situated for an endless war against ideologies that threaten many of its core values. Perpetual wars are fought domestically as well, notably the “war on drugs,” the modern incarnation of which began in the early 1970s (the war against drugs has a history dating back to the early 20th century). If the “war on drugs” were counted as a “real” war, which perhaps it should be with all of the bloodshed that has emanated from it, then the United States has been at war during the entirety of my life.

Can these wars ever be won? History – although by no means an accurate guide – certainly suggests otherwise. There have long been some segments of the population that want illicit drugs, and, as capitalism predicts, with demand there will be a supply. Moreover, there likely will never be nation-states or groups that do not oppose the excesses of free-market fundamentalism or some other facet of the United States’ ideology. If anything – and we seem to be witnessing it currently with the rise of ISIS – military intervention bolsters opposition to the United States and its values. With regard to perpetual wars, perhaps what Leonard Cohen sings on the title track of “The Future” (Columbia, 1992) is prescient: “I’ve seen the future brother/it is murder.”

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So what can be done about war? I certainly do not have the answers, but a few ideas do seem to flow logically from some of these “lessons.” To start with, the United States and its citizens should be honest about war. That is, we should stop romanticizing war and, instead, see it for what it really is: a grotesque and gruesome event that kills fellow human beings. We should also quit using the refrain “support our troops” to justify war. We all support our troops; the real question is whether or not we support the war they have been forced to fight.

Perhaps the best advice about war comes from Sigmund Freud. He notes in Why War? (League of Nations, 1933) that to end war “independent thinkers” need to be able to express their opposition without retribution (remember, the socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs was sent to prison for speaking out against World War I) and, most importantly, the dignity and humanity of all people should be acknowledged and cultivated. “All that produces ties of sentiment between man and man,” Freud writes, “must serve as war’s antidote” (p. 18).