Teaching children war
Last week, just before Veterans Day, my seven-year-old son, a second grader at a public school on Kauai, brought home an issue of Scholastic News.
The cover of the four-page kid's newspaper pictured a German shepherd wearing a black military vest as it bounded through churning water. The headline read "Soldiers Make a Splash."
The accompanying mini-feature explained how Veterans Day is when we “honor our armed forces [and the dogs that protect them].” The story showed a dog in mid-air harnessed to a paratrooper with the caption: “Parachuting dogs aren’t scared of heights. They just enjoy the ride.” The story said that dogs can also be soldiers and carry cameras to take secret photos.
One of the other two stories told of young girls who hug and cuddle “Daddy Dolls” when they miss their father, a helicopter pilot, who “went to war last year” and “had to be away from his family for a long time.” The other story was a lesson about tying yellow ribbons.
This material taught my son learned that soldiers go overseas to fight wars, dogs like jumping out of airplanes as well as new vocabulary like "stealth," "military," and "abroad."
With teaching materials like this, is it any wonder the U.S. is full of people who tacitly, if not enthusiastically, support American global militarism and waging wars in foreign countries? Many Americans might ask, "what's wrong with teaching children about a U.S. holiday like Veterans Day?"
I suggest that this is just one example of how our society, often in subtle and seemingly benign ways, "soft-primes" children into a culture that glorifies and institutionalizes war as a pillar of patriotism, worthy of pride and respect, while ignoring, or sensationalizing the inevitable violence in ways utterly divorced from reality.
Inculcating our children with this kind of "teaching material" is why ours is a nation of people who like to watch war movies, play video games like Call of Duty MW3 or read "terror thrillers" that feed fantasies and grossly manipulate fears, presenting made-for-Hollywood war narratives as “education” or “entertainment.”
It’s why cable news and other media have gotten away with playing the role of 24/7 cheerleaders for war and why we have a political system where the military policy differences of the “left” and the “right” are but in name only.
It’s why a supposedly “far-left socialist-leaning” president can announce a major escalation of ground forces in Afghanistan the same week he is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and why a “liberal” senior Congresswoman from Hawaii can vote in favor of spending $725 billion for the military even as domestic social programs, basic education and other societal safety nets are eviscerated or outright eliminated.
It's the reason why, a few months ago, while at my son's school cafeteria during a book fair, I found a book about the Iraq war which appeared to be aimed at fourth or fifth grade readers. When I randomly opened it, the first passage read (in effect) "...how are the bombs able to hit just where the bad guys are?"
It's the same reason my son's kindergarten class was visited by National Guardsmen for his first-ever career day and was told "we only kill bad people" just days before a deranged U.S. Army major killed and wounded over 40 fellow soldiers at Ft. Hood. It's why they handed out Army National Guard 6-inch plastic rulers to kindergarteners and why I was roundly (and anonymously) criticized in the local newspaper after I wrote about the utter perversity of sending the National Guard to pitch to 5-year-olds.
It's also the reason why not two weeks ago my son came home from this year's career day talking about the police who came to his class and how they told him that they use pepper spray and have "extra bullets in their pockets." And it's why another second-grader told his parents he wanted to become a computer programmer so he could “shoot missiles” after a career day talk by someone from Kauai's Pacific Missile Range Facility.
I would guess that most Americans don't see anything wrong with this. They probably have no problem coaxing their own kids into a culture that is awash with militarism and institutionalized violence in a society where warfare (always far from home) is a normal state of affairs.
This criticism is not about a teacher, a school or the material produced by Scholastic Publishing. It’s a recognition that our society is saturated in an undercurrent of militarism and weaponry, both domestically and internationally, a phenomenon which permeates our national character deeper than mere mind-set or philosophy. It is who we are and what we turn our children into.
But really, is this the best we can offer them?
About the author: Jon Letman is a freelance writer on Kauai.