Teaching Costs of War: A Q&A With Professor David Vine
Why do you think this teaching initiative is important?
The Costs of War teaching initiative is incredibly important because I think teachers at all levels, myself included, have to embrace a greater sense of urgency in teaching about war. Given the death, injury, and destruction that 20 years of endless U.S. wars have inflicted, shouldn’t we all ask ourselves if we have taught about the wars broadly enough, consistently enough, and with enough urgency? While the wars in Afghanistan and, for the most part, Iraq are over, the endless wars in Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and elsewhere are continuing. We must end all the Endless Wars and ensure there are no future U.S. wars, which could be even more catastrophic; we should do everything in our power to stop the very real possibility of what should be an unthinkable U.S. war with China. With so little media coverage of the ongoing wars and the damage wreaked by 20 years of war, teachers can play an important role in building opposition to war and support for national policies that truly protect the security and wellbeing of people in the United States and around the world. The teaching initiative is important because it provides a platform for teachers to come together and share pedagogical resources and inspiration, while encouraging others to join them.
How have the resources provided by Costs of War helped you engage students?
Costs of War data and reports about the human and financial costs of the "War on Terror" have been excellent teaching materials for undergraduate and graduate students alike. Students are rarely exposed to the information provided by Costs of War, and most are shocked to learn about the damage inflicted by the last 20 years of U.S. wars.
How has mass media coverage of the post-9/11 wars affected your approach to teaching?
There has been so little mass media coverage of the last 20 years of U.S. war. The little mainstream media coverage available has often regurgitated government talking points. Meanwhile most movies and other forms of pop culture have tended to uncritically celebrate U.S. militarism. This means that I assume that people know little about the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, and far beyond. I assume that most know even less about the history and forces that shaped the 9/11 attacks. I assume that the education most have received on these subjects likely has come from nationalist media accounts, government propaganda, and movies, video games, and TV like Zero Dark Thirty, American Sniper, and 24.
I also assume prior misinformation. I assume, for example, that most will think Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had a role in 9/11. This isn’t their fault. Government officials and some media accounts suggested as much. In historical terms, the U.S. invasion of Iraq followed so soon after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan that many people assume a causal link. Many assume the wars were inevitable rather than a choice. I expect that most won’t be able to distinguish al Qaeda from the Islamic State, let alone how the U.S. government fueled both groups.
What is the role of educators in creating awareness?
War and the political, economic, and sociocultural processes that make U.S. wars possible have become invisible to most people here in the United States. Because war and militarization are, as anthropologist [and Costs of War co-director] Catherine Lutz says, “hidden in plain sight,” educators can help make war visible and provide tools to help people — ourselves included — identify the many ways that warmaking shapes lives in the U.S. and worldwide. Helping make war and war's effects visible can thus be an important contribution to movements to end wars. So too can encouraging people to consider the responsibility of leaders, other societal actors, and ourselves for U.S. wars.
Ultimately, however, it seems to me that we need to go beyond analysis and reflection to encourage people to take action on the basis of new ways of seeing the world. When so many are dying and when so many more could die in future U.S. wars, don't we have an urgent responsibility to do more than create awareness?
What has been the most exciting response that you’ve received from students you’ve taught about the costs of militarism?
I feel deeply grateful to the many students who have taught me and helped me to understand the role that the last 20 years of war have played in their lives. Some — including veterans, the children of military personnel, and people who grew up in the Middle East — have been touched intimately and often painfully by the wars. Others, I've come to see, have no memory of a time when the United States wasn’t at war and have experienced the wars as distant, with little relevance in their lives. I realize this isn’t their fault. There is no draft. Taxes have not gone up. Government officials and journalists have mostly hidden the wars and their effects. Understanding these varied experiences has been extremely helpful to my teaching, scholarship, and anti-war work.
What’s been your most helpful resource?
The key figures detailing the deaths, displacement, financial costs, and carbon footprint of the post-9/11 wars have been extremely helpful to introduce students to wars that have been part of most of their lives since birth, but that have often faded into the background of their lives, like easily ignored wallpaper, due to the lack of public education and mass media coverage of the wars. Although it makes difficult viewing, the Wikileaks "Collateral Murder" video is an important and powerful tool to spur conversation and reflection about the wars' human damage. Sadly, statistics like 929,000 dead and 38 million displaced can be numbing. Any complementary materials that help people in our classes connect with a single death, a single displaced refuge — or with death and displacement in their own lives and family histories — are extremely helpful.
Students today are linking climate justice/social justice/racial justice with militarism. Are you encouraged by what you’re seeing?
I'm very encouraged by the activist impulse and desire to create progressive social change among so many students today. Students' ability to identify the connections between and among climate justice, racial justice, and militarism is inspiring and pushes the quality of my teaching, scholarship, and anti-war work. Students are leading the way in building movements that see the necessity of working on these and related issues simultaneously rather than as separate causes.