Photo credit: World Beyond War
This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: McCorkle, W. (2017). Problematizing war: reviving the historical focus of peace education. Journal of Peace Education, 14(3), 261-281.
- One of the valuable ways peace educators can use history as a tool to problematize war is to highlight the common “war-centered” narratives used to frame historical events.
- History is often “war-centered,” meaning that the build-up, culmination, and aftermath of war are depicted as “interesting,” while the peaceful periods in between are viewed as “unremarkable.”
- Issues of militarism and violence should remain central to peace education, so that militarism and war do not go unquestioned.
Since the 1980s, peace education has broadened its original focus on international peace and war prevention to include social justice, environmental education, human rights, multiculturalism, and various other issues. Though these subjects are important additions to the field, the author argues that we cannot ignore the actual problem of war and militarism in our effort to understand the structural issues of conflict. Therefore, problematizing war should once again play a more central role in peace education.
Preventing war and violence was once the central aim of peace education. As with most fields of study, however, focuses shift, definitions change, and the number of subjects originally covered by a field may broaden. In order to redirect the field’s attention back to problematizing war, the author suggests using our history classrooms as the focal point for students’ peace education.
Today’s peace educators and students learn a lot about war prevention from historians who have documented peace movements, analyzed past conflicts, and deconstructed militaristic narratives. One of the valuable ways peace educators can use history as a tool to problematize war is to highlight the common “war-centered” narratives used to frame historical events. We often mark historical milestones or eras by the major wars of the time, such as pre-war Europe or post-war America. Also, historical narratives often frame wars as inevitable, “as if fate or unstoppable forces cause the conflict and not the decisions of actual humans.” Although educators may not intentionally frame history to promote militarism, students are still led to understand the “interesting” parts of history as the build-up, culmination, and aftermath of war. The peaceful periods in between are viewed as “unremarkable.” By employing an alternate historical framework, peace educators can help deconstruct the nationalism, war myths, and militaristic narratives that influence national identities and shape policy and public opinion on war.
Doing so is especially important in countries like the U.S., where politics, foreign policy, and culture are often intertwined with militaristic narratives. In light of the size of the U.S. military budget and the prominence of U.S. militarism, the way U.S. citizens contemplate problems of war and peace takes on enormous significance. How and what U.S. students learn about past conflicts will directly correspond with how they will view future conflicts as voting citizens.
The author concludes by stating the goal is not to replace the multifaceted nature of modern peace education with a more traditional, globalist perspective but rather to “ensure that the critique of war once again plays a central role in the field of peace education.” The author does not suggest that structural issues that lead to conflict are not worth considering. He insists instead that the issue of war and conflict remain central so that militarism and war do not unquestioned.
Emphasizing a historical lens in peace education can prevent the common pattern of fabricating positive outcomes of war before it begins, only to look back on the conflict with despair and regret. History offers many examples of “just” wars: WWI was promised to be the war to end all wars; WWII was a fight between good and evil; in Vietnam, the U.S. was supposed to win an easy victory over communism; and, more recently, the Iraq War promised to take weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of a dictator and usher in a thriving democracy. In all of these conflicts, and many others, the end result of war was far from what was expected or promised. WWI left over 18 million dead and paved the way to an even larger WWII. The fight over the pernicious spread of communism cost the lives of more than 60 million people and led to the Cold War, including its nuclear arms race and many proxy wars. The Vietnam War was not an “easy victory” and killed almost 3 million people. In Iraq, no weapons of mass destruction were found, and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and foreign occupation caused metastasizing conflict with ever greater violence.
Despite the many examples and lessons from history, we collectively look at past wars with regret but allow for the next war to remain a viable option such as the conflict with Iran or North Korea. In the context of the U.S., the president’s approval rating can spike after dropping the “mother of all bombs,” nuclear weapons are considered a viable option on the Korean Peninsula, and proven diplomacy preventing a nuclear-armed Iran is considered weak and unfair. For these reasons and many more, it is crucial to consider the role peace education can play in transforming this culture of acceptance at its root: our children’s history classrooms.
A focus on preventing war and violent conflict is especially important in countries like the U.S., where politics, foreign policy, and culture are often intertwined with militaristic narratives. Considering the vastly disproportionate defense budget of the U.S. compared to the rest of the world, and the fact that the U.S. has over 800 military bases around the world, the way the United States contemplates problems of war and peace has far greater global significance than such contemplation by other countries with less dominant militaries. The task is daunting, however, as the mentality of Americans is more militaristic than the rest of the world. A 2016 poll showed that 58% of Americans believe torture is justified if it can reveal information on future terror attacks; a 2011 poll showed 49% of Americans believe attacks on civilians are sometimes justified; and, to the shock of many, a poll taken in 2015 revealed that 57% of Americans still believe the nuclear attacks on Japan were justified. In nearly all of these polls, American responses were 2-3 times more supportive of military responses or hostility towards civilians than the responses from people of other countries.
How and what U.S. students learn about past conflicts will directly correspond to how they will view future conflicts as voting citizens. If education is informed by the history, science, and pedagogy of peace, their decisions on war will be informed by the actual consequences of and alternatives to violence, rather than by the idealized benefits or goals of war that never come to fruition. Peace educator Darren Reilley sums up it nicely: “The assumption that war is a natural and necessary force of human progress is deeply ingrained and continues to be reinforced by the way we teach history. In the U.S., the content standards for teaching American History go like this: “Cause and consequences of the American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression (and how World War II ended it), Civil Rights, war, war, war.” Taught this way, war becomes the unquestioned driver of social change, but it is an assumption that needs to be challenged, or students will take it for the truth”.
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance? By Patrick Hiller of the War Prevention Initiative. 2017. http://warpreventioninitiative.org/?p=3201
Study War No More: A Concerned Citizen’s Study & Action Guide for “A Global Security System: An Alternative to War“ By World Beyond War and Global Campaign for Peace Education. 2017. http://globalsecurity.worldbeyondwar.org
Global Campaign for Peace Education: http://www.peace-ed-campaign.org/
Keywords: history, militarism, peace education, United States, war
 Winke, Richard. 2016. “Global Opinion Varies Widely on Use of Torture against Suspected Terrorists.” Pew Research Center.
 Gallup Abu Dhabi Center.2011. Views of Violence.
 Stokes, Bruce. 2015. “70 Years after Hiroshima, Opinions Have Shifted on Use of Atomic Bomb.” Pew Research Center.
This analysis is from Volume 3, Issue 1 of the Peace Science Digest.