An Introduction to Our Topic: Teaching War/Waging Peace

This fourth issue of Inspire Solutions brings up a central question – how can we talk about war in a way that promotes the goal of peace? By asking this, we are implying that our discussions in both our classrooms and the larger public domain often serve more to legitimize war than promote real questioning. This is a topic that has particular relevance for me given my academic background in political science – a field that, while playing a founding role within peace education, has also launched the careers of far too many military strategists and reinforced a view of human nature and our world that views violence and war as inevitable. It was some years after graduating that I realized that, while studying many important aspects of war and international conflict, I had never been asked to think about the suffering that war engendered. 


On occasion, I came across shocking statistics on war’s costs, but statistics are abstractions and, while they can awaken our outrage, they can also all too often leave us unmoved.  Philosopher Phillip Hallie has suggested that, when studying the horrors of our world, we must always remember “particular people at particular times” (1997:6). He cautions us about the value in academia of “objectivity”, stating that when he studied the Holocaust from this perspective, this simply led him to become cold – to become, as he put it, “another monster who could look upon the maiming of a child with an indifferent eye” (17). In a powerful video within this issue, Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi woman who experienced the intense bombings of the 1991 Gulf War, urges us to examine war’s full costs by looking at the two sides of war, and consider the heroism of ordinary people, often women, who keep life going during war. She passionately calls on us to stop “treat(ing) casualties so casually” – a phrase that rings all too true, and can be inadvertently encouraged by us in the classroom when we pay passing homage to war’s victims merely as statistics.


Even many peace educators prefer to avoid dealing explicitly with human suffering. Indeed they raise an important concern: the worst of humanity receives far too much attention in our culture, and all too often hides our genuine capacity to nurture and love others and even reconcile with our enemies. But examining violence and war can remind us that the potential for cruelty exists within us all, while finding stories of human compassion and caring in the midst of war actually offer us a compelling basis for hope.  Moreover, there remains much ambivalence in our thinking about violence and war, and we can all too quickly be persuaded that the use of violence at this time against those people is needed. Thus, an education for peace needs to remind us of what is at stake in war, but it must also address the difficult political questions and the fact that, as ethicist and philosopher of education Nel Noddings puts it, the histories of all societies are “enormously complicated” and “morally uneven” (2012: 61 ). 


German writer Klaus Theweleit has provocatively suggested that the only good war is a lost war that is remembered as such (1993). At first glance, this sounds absurd as who could advocate losing against a threatening enemy; few of us would want to even think about what might have happened had we lost our “good war” to the Nazis. But there is some value in Theweleit’s conclusion. Wars are huge events, which cause massive destruction, while impacting societies in some worrisome ways:  human needs are devalued; nonviolent methods of conflict resolution become viewed as weakness; and democratic values are undermined as secrecy and the silencing of dissent are deemed essential. These tendencies can remain long after war’s end.    


After victories, populations simply want to move on after celebrating the exploits of their heroic warriors. Rarely is there a desire to look deeper. We go on with a renewed faith in the potential of military force to solve complex problems and we don’t really want to hear about what our soldiers have seen and done, or of the traumas that they have brought back home. We also don’t want to think about the suffering of those on the other side – our moral certainty and our victory must not be tarnished in any way. Even in Canada, nearly 70 years after the war ended, the ethical controversy around our participation in the aerial bombing of cities in WWII remains an extremely sensitive topic. Understandably, we do not want to dishonour those who risked their lives in the name of our country, but our silence has contributed to the normalization of a way of war that caused in the 20th century the death of millions.


In contrast, societies that lose wars often want to find a way to gain victory, either by starting a new one or redefining the lost one. Theweleit’s most well-known work is his study of the letters, novels and autobiographies of the Freikorps, a group of embittered WWI officers who played a central role in bringing Hitler to power. The writings – filled with a love of violence – reflect a deep desire that resonated with many Germans who viewed WWII as an opportunity to wipe out the defeat of WWI. Losses in war are deeply traumatic and the legacy endures for years. In the case of the United States’ defeat in Vietnam, history needed to be rewritten:  the dominant explanation in the immediate aftermath that the war should never have been launched eventually shifted to the view that the leadership at the time simply did not use enough firepower to win. Significantly, every subsequent use of force abroad by the United States would bring up numerous comments about whether the country had finally “erased the ghosts of Vietnam”. 


The lessons for educators is to remind us that we need to teach war in its complexities and to find ways to carefully raise the tough questions that are easier to ignore. What is the impact of war on soldiers, civilians, societies, and our environment? What would be an ethical war and have we ever fought one? What can the use of military power actually accomplish? Can foreign soldiers really change the “hearts and minds” of the local population?  And, perhaps, most provocatively, does anyone really win a war? Nel Noddings, who has agreed to allow Inspire Solutions to use her article, “War, Critical Thinking and Self Understanding”, asks us to think about what educating seriously for peace would entail. She also reminds us that to teach our students to think critically we need to engage them on controversial issues, but always with care and attention to the powerful emotions that may be raised.   


The wonderful articles in this issue of Inspire Solutions seek to do just this.  You will find a well-considered essay by Joseph Rosen that asks how educators can contribute to the building of peace in a seemingly intractable conflict.  Wendy Eberle-Sinatra offers us ideas on how we can examine some of the darkest of times, while encouraging our students to engage with their own personal traumas and reflect on our responsibilities towards others, Vanessa Gordon reflects on her experiences of studying peace and conflict in the midst of a war zone. We also conclude with a sampling of poignant personal stories from Inspire Solutions’ Dawson-wide peace project, War Stories, which remind us of the long legacy of war and “particular people at particular times” and with a poem from Kerry-Lee Powell, an award-winning Montreal poet, whose recent book, Inheritance, looks at the traumatic impact of war on her father, a WWII veteran.


Pat Romano

Humanities, Dawson College




Selected Works Cited

Hallie, Philip. “From Cruelty to Goodness.” Vice and Virtue in Everday Life. Eds. Christina Sommers and Fred Sommers. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1997. 5-19.

Noddings, Nel. Peace Education: How We Come to Love and Hate War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Theweleit, Klaus. “The Bomb’s Womb and the Genders of War.” Gendering War Talk. Eds. Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. 283-315.

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