The Challenge of Teaching War to Today's Students

Today’s youth aren’t interested in learning about the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts that have shaped recent history—but an Iraq war veteran-turned-teacher warns that the results of an uninformed generation could be dangerous.

A custom image of a face with glasses; an image of a classroom is seen in one lens, and of soldiers at war in the other.
Jacob Myrick

This is the first installment in our series of essays written by veterans. We asked service members to share how their time in uniform shaped their perspectives on American life.

The first time that I taught the Middle East to my high-school students, I expected questions on terrorism and the war in Iraq. My students knew that I was a Marine and a veteran of the war, and even though the history class concentrated on the advent of Islam and its expansion from the Arabian peninsula into Africa, Europe, and Asia, I prepared to use that context to form a discussion around the modern-day conflict. Considering today’s political landscape—and the fact that ISIS was at this point a focus in media discussions and presidential debates—I anticipated my students would be particularly curious about the relevance of the region’s history to their lives.

I knew they wouldn’t easily grasp the Middle East’s complexities over a month’s period of lessons, that drastic changes to their worldview wouldn’t occur. Some would simply be indifferent. Some would be hesitant to enter the discussion. Still, lessons on its history meant teaching them that its harsh political realities today—including terrorism—are more closely linked to European imperialism, modern strongmen, and foreign intervention than anything we were discussing concerning the early days of Islam. This class unit was, in my mind, the best opportunity for engaging students with those complexities.

Then nothing. After an initial inquiry about Islam and terrorism (and a short response) there were no more questions. I tried motivating them to ask questions or offer comments; I made it clear that the classroom was the place to talk about these things. Still nothing. So we moved on, and the rest of the year rolled by. Recently I started the Middle East unit with this year’s class. And again: nothing. The more I asked my students about their thoughts on the Middle East, the more I realized that it was not simply a matter of disinterest (although that is certainly a factor among some), but rather that the subject only existed to them in an abstract manner.

I wasn’t expecting teenage students to have a keen awareness of foreign affairs, but this surprised and saddened me. My high-school experience was shaped by 9/11, and I enlisted in the Marine Corps shortly after the towers fell. It wasn’t until after I returned from deployment to Iraq and entering college that I began to think more about what this war meant and how it has fundamentally changed American society. But for my students, this was a war that had existed for almost their entire lives: In fact, from the moment many of them were born, the U.S. has been engaged in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is not to mention the indelible mark that terrorism has left on Europe in recent years, or the very visible specter of ISIS operating within the Middle East and Africa today. How could there be no questions?

As a teacher, I wanted student engagement, but as a veteran of Iraq, I wanted something more. I wanted students to actively seek understanding of the region and the war that shaped a new generation of vets, including myself. I wanted to know that this history would not be lost, that a war costly in blood and treasure would not be forgotten; student detachment now would mean their detachment as they entered college and, ultimately, the “real world.” The consequences of a disinterested society are severe when considering the inevitability of future American military mobilization. Education serves as a powerful tool for encouraging debate around the merits of military engagement. In how many needless military campaigns will the U.S. engage if the public does not take part in open discourse?

I began to wonder if the disconnect is generational, whether today’s children are uniquely disconnected from the war that has shaped their lives. Consider the Vietnam War: The number of U.S. households owning a television increased by 75 percent between 1950 and 1960. By the time the Tet Offensive took place in 1968—a major turning point in the war—nearly 95 percent of households owned a TV. Images of the war were directly broadcast into the homes of millions of Americans via the big three networks, and, because journalists in Vietnam enjoyed open access to military officers and few restrictions on what they publicized, the coverage Americans consumed was unprecedented in its scope. If you had a TV, and it was turned on, you were going to see Vietnam.

Although statistics concerning the percentage of TV-news coverage that was devoted to Vietnam are limited, the fact that it was America’s first truly televised war speaks to its magnitude as a media event. Personal connections also rendered teenagers hyper-exposed to the war. Even though a minority of those who served in Vietnam were conscripted, the draft was still a salient aspect of the war, one of which families were all too aware. Many attempted to enlist in the National Guard simply to avoid the unknowns that came with conscription. By contrast, in 2010, when the war in Iraq reached its seven-year mark, just 1 percent of news coverage was dedicated to the conflict. And currently, the proportion of Americans having served in the U.S.’s longest-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stands at less than 1 percent of the total population, a proportion much smaller than previous conflicts, including Vietnam. Fewer families maintain connections to the military today than in previous eras, and this fact is especially pronounced among younger Americans; the younger you are, the less likely you are to know anyone who served in the armed forces.

Perhaps this means that war does not hold bearing on the lives of those young Americans who have not been touched by it in a personal, or at least visceral, manner. With no relatives or family friends having served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and with such little media exposure to the conflicts, many young people do not have any reference point for understanding the impact of war. Experts argue history education—let alone nuanced history education that encourages critical thinking—is a low priority for America’s public schools, and if that’s the case this flaw only exacerbates the problem. As does the reality, according to some critics, that many modern-day textbooks teach a highly biased account of the “War on Terror.”

What does this mean? America’s youth aren’t apathetic—rather, they’ve grown up during a war obscured by modern American culture. If one doesn’t care to look at the war, then he doesn’t have to. It’s easy to change the channel, skip over a Facebook post, or ignore a tweet. A person can support the troops without having to look at or contemplate the associated violence. It’s not indifference per se, but instead lack of context.

American society cannot continue to ignore the history of regions in which its military operates, or the outcomes of conflict itself. I want students to be engaged. I want them to understand that this event has far-reaching implications for their lives. If education is truly an investment in the future, then that education must involve addressing consequences of prolonged war. It is today’s students who will foot the bill for Iraq and Afghanistan when they become taxpayers. It is today’s students who are now—and will continue to be—exposed to an entirely new set of policies and institutions have been developed in the name of the “War on Terror.” Today’s students, for instance, will continue to grow up in an era of both ever-increasing electronic surveillance and reduction of privacy.

When I’ve taught about the Middle East and addressed the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have become frustrated, perhaps because I am too close to it. Students’ silence speaks to the need for American schools to address a growing divide between the military and the American public—to include as a core part of the curriculum lessons on this ill-defined war that has left societies in ruin and changed American politics. At some point, students must learn that it is their civic responsibility to understand and assess violence being waged in their name. They must understand that they, too, will have lives shaped by the consequences of war in the 21st century. Generational differences may make this a tough discussion to have, but it is a critical one nonetheless.