Peter Kirstein: Teaching the Iraq War





[Peter Kirstein is professor of history at Saint Xavier University. He won his university’s Teaching Excellence Award and is on the council of the Illinois state AAUP conference. Academe accepts submissions to this column. Write to academe@aaup.org for guidelines. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.]

Many conservatives such as David Horowitz, Laura Ingraham, Roger Kimble, and Sara Dogan assert that the academy is dominated by leftwing professors who indoctrinate students with antiwar advocacy. I debated Horowitz last March in Chicago on the topic of the Iraq war “in the classroom and beyond.” He charged not only that professors impose antiwar views on students, but also do so indiscriminately in courses unrelated to war. Tactically, Horowitz wants to confine critical thinking on the war to relatively few courses.

Horowitz created Students for Academic Freedom to monitor and sanction progressive professors who construe teaching as a moral act. The group has declared that only courses whose topics encompass “contemporary American presidents, presidential administrations, or some similar subject” can legitimately examine the Iraq war.

Academic freedom has application here. If a professor teaches the Iraq war, she need not justify it. The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure states that “teachers . . . should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” A 1970 “interpretive comment” on the statement clarifies, however, that “controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the statement is designed to foster. . . . [T]eachers [should] avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.” “Persistently intruding material” is imprecise, but I believe it means presenting unrelated course material with such frequency that the catalogue description of the class is marginalized. Yet many courses can legitimately cover the war.

In my Vietnam and America course, I compare the disastrous conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq. Both wars were initiated with distorted intelligence, such as the nonexistent attacks on the Maddox and Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin and the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Both conflicts became guerilla wars in which U.S. forces became mired in nonconventional conflict. Building viable nations and winning the hearts and minds of the people failed.

I offer a course on American protest music. I discuss antiwar songs and censorship, including the government’s blacklisting of Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson during the Cold War and the banning by commercial entities of Bob Dylan from the Ed Sullivan Show and of Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks from radio playlists.

An art history course could explore artistic representation of war from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as Soldier, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, and Fernando Botero’s images of U.S. torture of Iraqi prisoners of war. A sociology course on race, class, and gender in the U.S. military could investigate the relationship between social class and serving in Iraq. One may recall the poignant scene in Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 when army recruiters scoured the depressed area of Flint, Michigan.

A macroeconomics course on the Economics of Social Issues could assess the impact of Iraq war spending on the deficit, inflation, and social programs such as student loans.

A journalism course could evaluate wartime censorship of the Arabic language news network Al Jazeera and the impact of embedding reporters among soldiers on journalistic objectivity. The story of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller would be a valuable case study of biased, prowar reportage.

International law courses could cover the legality of the Iraq war with regard to the United Nations’ charter, which bans “the use of force against the territorial integrity” of member states, and the seminal 1997 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

War is a transformative event and an essential component of many disciplines. Professors must be free to educate students on multiple dimensions of war without coercion or intimidation. Teaching the Iraq war is consistent with the magisterial Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948: Education should “strengthen . . . respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance, and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.”

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