We do not teach nuclear war, but we need to.
Make no mistake, the invasion of Ukraine is a nuclear-fueled conflict and students are ill-prepared to understand it. We need to be clear about this. Any military intervention by a nuclear power is a nuclear conflict. Russia threatened a nuclear retaliation if the United States became directly involved in the invasion of Ukraine; Sweden and Norway have asked for and been granted entrance into NATO placing increased pressure on Russia; and the New York Times reported that Russia is advancing on a nuclear reactor in Ukraine. It is a nuclear conflict.
If we want our children to grow into strong participants in our democracy and thoughtful stewards of our world, students need to be made aware of the world-ending disaster that could be just around the corner.
The horror of nuclear war, an analysis of a country’s nuclear strategies and policies, nor the immediate and active resistance to the creation, positioning and use of nuclear weapons is taught. Content standards, guidelines and textbooks discuss nuclear weapons little if at all. They typically describe the dropping of the two atomic bombs framing them as the only reasonable conclusion to World War II. Students have little background and understanding of nuclear weapons, their proliferation, or how they are used as threat and bargaining chip in every conflict and war since their introduction to the field of combat. During recent interviews several students indicated they were shocked when North Korea’s leader Kim Jung Un indicated that he was going to hit Guam with a missile strike. They had an assumption that nuclear strike capabilities were something from a time long ago. Students were also disturbed when President Trump threatened North Korea with total annihilation from a U.S. missile strike. The students shared that they had a vague sense that other countries had nuclear weapons but indicated that they only time nuclear weaponry, tactics, or strategy were shared was as part of a short lesson focused on the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Several students indicated that they were confused as they had thought there was only one atomic bomb dropped not two.
Though it may not seem like it, the teaching of war is a controversial topic in American classrooms. This is shocking as it is overwhelmingly the main topic in social studies standards, curriculum, and testing. War is often taught as something which occurred, is over, as something bad but necessary and is too often taught as parables of heroics by reluctant Americans. Little time is typically spent on the messy beginnings and endings of wars, examining the morality of them, or discussing the choices and decisions made by leaders and soldiers, and even more rarely, the actions of the always present anti-war movements. As the students suggested, nuclear war is taught even less. Often in a one-day lesson on the actions of the Enola Gay and Boxcar, the planes that dropped the two bombs or as background, almost a white noise to briefly learning about the Cold War.
There are several reasons for this. Teachers report feeling lack of support in the teaching of complex things. Teachers indicate that they feel enormous community pressure to not teach a more thorough, honest, and critical examination of war. Some teachers say that to critique a war in the past is to critique a war in the present and the soldiers involved. If they do this, they fear accusations of indoctrination and anti-American sentiment. This is mostly from more conservative ideological and political spaces, but teachers also report feeling a different form of pressure from schools situated in more left-leaning spaces. These parents do not want their children exposed to the horror of war even in high school. They seem to fear this examination of historical reality could damage or traumatize their children. This pressure to fail to offer robust examinations became ever more exacerbated during the polarization and America First approach of the Trump administration. Things which had not been seen as controversial have become controversial. As Diana Hess has pointed out (2009) things are not controversial on their own, but rather they become controversial because of time and community context and community interpretation of the issues.
Some if not much of our history is disturbing. This is particularly true of war. Much of the anti-Critical Race Theory legislation passing through state legislatures makes the argument that no student should be made to feel bad while learning history or studying literature. This is impossible without shading or obfuscating the truth or just outright lying to children. An authentic examination of our past will lead to students feeling things, likely bad over the enormity of what has been done. In the hands of thoughtful, capable teachers’ students can experience history honestly, have time to thoughtfully discuss, examine documents, and investigate, thinking about what happened and what could have happened. Also understanding that there has been and always will be resistance to the use of and expansion of nuclear weapons.
Fear of traumatizing students is a concern surfaced by teachers who choose to not teach honestly. This is a legitimate concern. With the rise of our awareness and understanding of trauma and generational trauma and how it affects our youth teachers are right to be concerned. Too often, this concern leads to avoidance which in turn leads to not teaching necessary topics. If we want our children to grow into strong participants in our democracy and thoughtful stewards of our world students need to be made aware of the world-ending disaster that could be just around the corner. As the Los Angeles Times reported American weaponry has been given to Ukraine under the rules that it be used to repel Russian forces in Ukraine, but not to attack Russian forces on Russian soil. The reason for this is clear. Use of American equipment in attacks on Russia would be seen by Russa as aggressive acts directly supported by the United States. Which could in turn lead to direct military involvement in the war by the United States. Though nuclear missiles might not be used if this conflict were to occur it would absolutely be a nuclear war.
Any conflict or military action by a nuclear power has the potential to quickly escalate and spiral into a nuclear conflict. Our children do not understand this fully and they will not understand it if we continue to avoid the topic. The only way to prevent this is for thoughtful teachers to educate their students slowly and honestly about the history of our nuclear past, including our use of the atomic bombs at the end of World War II. The alienation between the United States and the Soviet Union in the post-War World II era must be studied. So must the history of atomic weapons and the development of more advanced systems that continues to this day.
Students need to understand the aging and deteriorating state of the missiles and safety measures the United States and Russia have and the consequence of an accidental launch. Likewise, students need to understand the litany of nuclear treaties, non-proliferation pacts, and the deep history of citizen resistance groups that have and continue to resist the possession, testing of, and continued development of nuclear weapons. This knowledge, this understanding, when taught well, over time, through discussion and inquiry, in the hands of a thoughtful teacher can help empower rather than overwhelm students. Knowledge and understanding help dispel feelings of fear, more importantly it can help students at a young age begin to develop ways out and solutions for a more peaceful world.
The mission of most schools includes the creation of active and engaged humans prepared to help guide and change the world. This is as it should be. Part of this is honest and authentic examinations of our past and possible futures. This will allow students to develop into thoughtful adults who can make educated decisions about warfare, foreign policy, and nuclear war. It is absolutely necessary.
Brian Gibbs is an assistant professor in the College of Education at California State University, Los Angeles. This oped is republished from Common Dreams under a Creative Commons license.
Read More Commentary: ELSEMANARIO.US
- How a Bilingual School Counselor in Adams 14 Helps Students and Families - February 3, 2023
- Debbie Ortega: Working To Be Denver’s Next Mayor - February 3, 2023
- Announcement Marks the Beginning of Tax Season - February 3, 2023