War is Hell, Happy Easter and Pesach Sameach Edition

I got an email from one of the high school teachers I work with the other day entitled “Bomb.”  It was about the frenzied excitement with which some of his students greeted the news that we dropped the “MOAB” on Afghanistan. The teacher was worried that, for a generation raised on violent warlike video games, real war had lost its horror. He planned to show them his selective service registration card to remind them that this is something real that could affect them.

I am not sure this is a just an artifact of the video game generation. I remember the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, when I was in grad school and working as an Associate Instructor in an Intro American Politics class (the class I am teaching now.)  I have a vivid and visceral memory of talking about Iran in discussion section one day, and my students consensus position on the appropriate remedy was “nuke ’em til they glow.”  My stomach still clenches when I type that.

War is Hell

My generation was less blood thirsty, perhaps because it was personal.  The draft concentrated our minds on the atrocity of war with a vengeance. Was it all self interest?  Probably not entirley. Vietnam was pretty appalling from a number of angles and it came in a context in which we were already so engaged on race, gender, and the environment that we were primed for active resistance anyway. An entire popular culture had grown to support it.

But, if middle class college kids had been exempt from forced participation in the war (or at least forced efforts to avoid it) would the anti-war movement have changed American politics and culture in the ways it did?

I am not an International Relations scholar. I don’t view war as a specialist so I don’t know any other way to teach it except as a breakdown of the usual tools of politics.

Politics, I tell my students, is what separates us from most other animals, driven to survive and pass on our genes. It allows us to divvy up power by means of bargaining, cooperating, compromising, making trade offs, wheeling, dealing, bribing, and other “civilized” ways of talking our way out of trouble.

In that sense politics, for all its bad rep, is our saving grace. Literally, it saves our lives and spares us from Hobbes’s war of all against all. When words fail, when the tool box is empty, when rational people figure they have more to gain by violence than politics, or when people are irrational, war results.

Yes, I know that’s a gross oversimplification. But you have to start somewhere, especially with people barely or not even out of high school.

And yes, I know, you can have strategic strikes to say that your words mean business, or to reinforce political solutions, but we all know what happens when you play with fire.

And yes, I know that there are actors who don’t play by the rules, and that perhaps you can’t stop a Saddam or an Assad without getting their attention, but getting their attention with bombs has consequences too.

And yes, I know, obviously, that war is a complex business. I am not even all that dovish. As a smart man once said, “I am not against all war, I am against dumb wars.”

But, but, but — any discussion of war has to begin with what it is. I showed an excellent animated infographic  from the Lincoln Library in my class the other day — The Civil War in Four Minutes (trailer here). As its name suggests, it is short, light years shorter than the devastating war it documents. But in four minutes you see the boundary lines of the Republic and the Confederacy ebb and flow against each other. You see the battles, flaring, burning parts of the south to the ground. And to the mournful notes of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” you see the casualties mount in a counter in the lower right corner of the screen. American lives, lost to each other’s guns, accumulating faster and faster as the war rages on until the numbers spin so fast you only know they are large and getting larger.

No real people appear in the video but the sense of loss is palpable. But that was our country. It was our loss.

Foreign war is harder to convey to a generation of young immortals who are sure it will not touch their lives. Maybe that is a failure of the way we teach history.

But maybe it is also our failure to teach ethics and values and morality — I don’t mean dictating answers to complex questions but teaching them to ask, grapple with, and answer the questions themselves.

I am not a church-goer and I don’t know how well churches, mosques and synagogues do this job. I know sometimes in all religions the impulse toward righteous vengeance and compassion can be at loggerheads.  Peter Wehner, is spot on in a piece in the New York Times this morning where he argues that that the most important thing religion can teach us is humility.  In any case, many of us don’t attend services to get the religious grounding in humility, compassion and empathy that would allow us to make a teachable moment out of dropping the “mother of all bombs.”

But that’s the foundation on which public morality and ethics begin. Seeing ourselves as parts of multiple communities to which we have obligations and duties as the price of our peaceful existence. If nothing else, understanding that we are not the sun around which the planets revolve and appreciating the consequences for our own lives in recognizing the suffering and despair reflected  in the eyes of others.

This morning I read an essay by a rabbi writing in the Times of Israel about how much more incensed Americans were over the obscene removal of Dr. Dao from his United flight here in the US than we are at mass atrocities far away. He mentions the relative Twitter coverage of the United fiasco and the barely covered bombing of the Coptic Church in Egypt.

He says, “While we should be appalled by what happened on United Airlines flight 3411, we need to be equally, and arguably more, outraged by the other examples of atrocities and injustice around the world.”

And he finds an answer in the story of Passover. “Pesach is a call to see ourselves in all of these stories of suffering. We know the heart of the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. It is not enough to tweet about it, though it’s a start. It is our obligation as Jews to do something about it. For without being a part of redemption, how can we be worthy of revelation?”

I am not Jewish myself, but the connection from empathy and compassion to public action resonates deeply across many faiths.

Here it is from Matthew Dowd, a conservative Christian and former Republican who worked for Bush (now an Independent.)


And here it is from a motivational Muslim speaker from Zimbabwe.


Increasingly college students are skipping the religious studies, philosophy, ethics, and history classes that provide this ground. Forsaking a liberal arts education for a sexy degree in public management, accounting or marketing can seem like a savvy economic trade-off and a shortcut over pesky liberal arts requirements like learning a foreign language.

But also increasingly, it puts the burden of challenging students to think about the link from self interest to empathy to compassion to the fate of the world  in the hands of the few of us who teach classes on the ways we organize our collective lives.

With strikes in Syria and Afghanistan and threatened pre-emptive (and possible cyber) activity in North Korea just in the last week or so, these are not merely academic questions.  What are we doing to help students answer them?

Pesach Sameach
Happy Easter
As-salāmu ʿalaykum

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    While I appreciate your opinion, I find that this article seems to contradict itself. You begin by condemning military action in the Middle East, but then you go on to wonder why Americans could possibly feel more outrage at the United Airlines debacle than at the atrocious bombing of the Coptic Church in Egypt. ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombing, and ISIS militants were the target of American military action. I do not understand the logic of defying both sides of the conflict. I agree that the terror attacks in Egypt are awful and deserve our utmost disgust, but what is the solution, if not action? War is a horrible thing, but it can unfortunately become necessary when negotiation fails. Should we stand back and watch, outraged as militants bomb and murder and massacre? No matter how we condemn radical militants with our words, they will never stop the terror without our action. Apathy is not the answer. Only action can serve to halt the violence.
    “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. ”
    -John Stuart Mill

    On a different note, I would also like to point out one final misconception. In your article, you said, “Yes, I know that’s a gross oversimplification. But you have to start somewhere, especially with people barely or not even out of high school.” People, especially students, will rise to your expectations. If you hold low expectations, students will not rise. When authority figures equate youth and inexperience to a lack of knowledge and understanding, it is then and only then that these youth will reject intellect and knowledge. Treat students as intelligent adults, and they will rise to that standard. Explain your opinion fully, regardless of the audience, because your “gross oversimplification” is riddled with logical fallacies. Perhaps if you held students at some level of confidence, you may be able to present a coherent opinion. However, as of now, this article lacks logic and consistency.
    Peace to you, and Boiler Up.


    1. christine says:

      Hi Anonymous,

      Comments on this site are moderated and I am glad to allow your response, but for the future, my policy is not to post anonymous comments. I can see who you are from your email address, but please identify yourself. Better for civil debate! 🙂

      I have read your comment several times. I think first I would ask you to go back and read my post carefully. I do not condemn military action in the middle east or anywhere; my argument is that I think it needs to be approached with caution and humility. As Matthew Dowd said in the tweet I printed, “going to war should be done with great sorrow and sadness, not glee.” I began with a statement of concern about the reaction of a student who thought that the dropping of a bomb is an exciting thing. It is not and it never will be. War is hell and if distance from it allows us to think anything else, than we teachers are failing to teach students how to think critically about it.

      The whole point of this post was whether we in liberal arts education are giving students the right tools to deal with the ethical questions that war gives rise to. It was not my intention to say anything one way or another about the appropriateness of any military action but how we as human beings deal with it. Yes, sometimes war is necessary and sometimes it is effective in achieving our goals but it should always be accompanied by debate and awareness of what it costs us, not just in gold and treasure but in our humanity. With several potential military conflicts on the horizon, that lends urgency to the job of thinking about this as an ethical issue.

      Because this post had a pretty narrow focus — how can we teach empathy and compassion so we understand the real costs of war — I really don’t want to argue with you about whether we should use military action or not. I think it is always dependent on the context, the alternatives, the facts on the ground, etc.

      But because I am a teacher, I will point out that you set up a false dichotomy. It is not clear that the opposite of apathy is war, as you seem to think, and in fact we have a lot of tools in our tool box besides the use of weapons to impact the behavior of others. War should always be a last resort. It is also not clear that the role of the US is to go to war with everyone who may be a threat. Sometimes war makes things worse. It’s clear you have very strong views about this, but they are pretty black and white and reality is always more complex than that. For instance, much terrorism is designed to get us to respond violently in return, to demonize our culture for the terrorists’ own purposes. Do we want to walk into that trap? Perhaps there are more sophisticated and effective ways to respond.

      However, that was not the point of my post so your comments are pretty much miss the mark.

      As far as expecting a lot from my students, I expect a great deal from them. Year of teaching have taught me that you need to meet students where they are and give them the tools to get them to where you need them to be intellectually. Nothing I said indicated that I had low expectations of my students – in fact I expect them to lasso the moon. However I would be a very bad teacher if I didn’t prepare them to do that. Freshmen, not all but many, tend to see the world in black and white terms. Things are cut and dried to them. Your confident attitude in your response pretty much illustrates that approach.

      However my job is to shake up that confidence that the answers are simple, get students to question what they know and to expose them to new ideas and paradigms. It’s to make them feel uncomfortable and doubtful and then to give them tools to rebuild what they know on a more solid foundation.

      Be clear — I am not saying it is my job to change minds — it is not. But it IS my job to teach critical thinking so that the reasons you hold your views are strong, consistent, logical, and backed up by empirical evidence. And believe me, that is hard work — for both me and my students. But I have great respect for them and I believe they will get there, and I believe you will too!

      You might begin by going back and reading what I actually wrote. I would be interested in your thoughts about why empathy and compassion are important and why they are relevant to public action. Why does the rabbi I cite suggest that we learn to see ourselves in the suffering of others? Why does Dowd say that we should never approach war with glee? What are these folks worried about that causes them to issue such cautions?

      If you read the post I actually wrote, we can have an interesting conversation.

      Prof. Barbour


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