The promise

May 30,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I'm teaching one of my favorite classes to teach this summer--an interdisciplinary liberal studies course entitled "War and Culture." The course is purely my own, and I've worked hard on it over the years--tweaking it here and there, adding readings, and updating the content to reflect all the changes that go on in the world around us. Students usually panic a little when they come to class on the first day and discover that the theme for the course is war and culture. They brace themselves, expecting that I'll spend the course pulling out a parade of dates and facts and statistics. Instead, I hope they get what it really is about--how war has shaped our culture and vice versa; I hope the class is a starting point for them to think about how we have come to treat war like a commodity, a huge money-making industry from which television, the media, the music industry, writers, artists of all kinds, all feed off of continuously as we try desperately to make sense of it all. We profit from it--whether we want to or not, because doing so gives us some tangible way to measure what it does to individuals, to society, to the world--maybe it makes us feel better, too, in some strange and counter-intuitive way?

In my class we explore social-psychological theories of war, and game theory, and theories of conflict resolution and negotiation. We look at the sweeping cultural/political/social changes war always seems to bring. We read war poetry, and war diaries, and listen to music, and watch war movies, and episodes from television series that reflect the cultural products of war, and the reactions to it. In all the semesters I've taught this class, I have never ever had any young person in the class stand up and defend the existence of war. I have had some students with different political views from others, and I've had some students reason and defend certain conflicts (especially the current one), but no one has ever stood up to defend the existence of war. I've had young men and women in the ROTC program, or in the National Guard share emotional and compelling stories about why they are serving, or hoping to serve, and who they have lost in the line of duty, but no one ever says they support war because they want it, or because they want to kill others, or because they want to die themselves. 

It's difficult as a parent to talk about war with your children. War goes against what we try so hard to instill in our kids: principles of sharing, kind words, rule-following, generous actions, solving problems with "words" and not shoves and physical force, compassion, empathy, love for all. Instead war sets up a model that is quite the opposite, in which force is an acceptable solution to a problem, no matter who ends up as collateral damage, and we have "enemies" who are other, and who threaten us. War teaches us that differences are dangerous, and that the world is an uncertain place where rules don't count.

Dying in battle isn't noble or glorious, but it's tragically necessary, and amazing, noble, brave, selfless, beautiful sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, husbands, wives, partners, and children do it all the time, all over the world. We have to remember them, and thank them. But we also have to make a promise to each and every one of them, too: that we will work as hard as humanly possible to bring an end to war, so that we can create a celebration day of peace, instead; a day in which we no longer need to read out loud all the new names of servicemen/women added to the lists of those who have died. We have to make that promise to them, and to all of our children, too.