Pre-empting recruitment debate with war education

Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2007

In the week following the national holiday in which we honor America's veterans, it may seem poor timing to add to the debate about military recruitment at the high school. Yet the very notion that there is a right and wrong time is often the first step in censorship. Avoidance of the subject never leads to healing the anxiety caused by controversy.

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I've never served in the U.S. armed forces, although I'm somewhat sensitized by the bookends to my family life. My father spent most of his 18th year in Europe near the end of World War II. And my son, Michael, is on active duty at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks after serving three tours in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. Between them is a peacenik mobilized to activism because of the Iraq War.

Michael enlisted in the fall of 1998, at the start of his senior year at Juneau-Douglas High School. I supported his decision without offering any parental counseling to seek alternatives. Those days preceded the counter-recruitment effort by private citizens. America wasn't at war either. What would I do today if I had another son or daughter in high school contemplating military enlistment?

The war and parental values collide in the high school classroom in a manner not unlike sex education. Moral ideals about the war may seem less of a private or religious nature. Nevertheless, nationalism parallels religion along the lines of loyalty to higher authority. Allegiance to one's country in a time of war amplifies this like no other time.

The war adds urgency to the missions of the two players on this public stage. The Associated Press recently reported the Army recruitment effort has recently hit an all-time low. And high among the counter-recruiter's "10 things to consider before enlisting" is for students to examine their "moral feelings about going to war."

Military service during war is very likely to place a young soldier in a kill-or-be-killed dilemma. How and when do we expose this cold hard reality to our children? Does the public school system have a role here?

Generally, students learn about past wars through the insights historians. Their testimony is a professional judgment almost always formed without any direct involvement in the conflict. The idealism, land and resources at stake mold a plot of dates and places of strategic battles to accompany stories of war's heroes and villains. Tallies of the dead leave a statistical imprint that reveals the meaning of sacrifice on a national scale.

Missing are the consequences of war as seen through the eyes of its victims, friend or foe, armed combatant or civilian. Modern warfare kills and maims as many or more civilians than soldiers, and this is part of the horror and cruelty that wrecks havoc in the life of the survivors. Americans have been fortunate not to witness this firsthand. But that shouldn't excuse us from examining the searing lessons of human trauma and tragedy. Imagining conflict through the eyes of victims is how we expand our sense of compassion, which in turn instills a desire to be better people and citizens.

Education isn't just about preparing our youth for a future in the workplace. We are supposed to be teaching them to sustain our civil society and the democratic principals we so highly value. An integral part of any education must be about the search for understanding and truth, neither of which are found in selective historical accounts that stoke national pride.

The tragic irony is that our personal and societal anxieties in the face of controversy cause us to abandon our children to repeat our history. With war, we too easily give into the resignation that it is inevitable. But if we as a nation sincerely profess a goal of world peace, then we should be willing to face the most difficult truths for the sake of tomorrow's generations.

Do we dare wonder if our children might have the capacity to imagine or even lead a world without war? If they do, the recruitment debate would fade into a relic of a smaller history.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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