Teaching Costs of War: A Q&A With Dr. Natassja Gunasena
Why do you think teaching about the costs of the U.S. post-9/11 wars is important?
Like the thinkers on my syllabus, I’ll explain this through a story. In 2016, I was in graduate school teaching a class on race and immigration for which I developed a unit on the impact of 9/11 on U.S immigration policy. I explained how the ramifications of 9/11 were felt worldwide. How I was a seventh grader in the United Arab Emirates when the towers fell, how my parents (South Asian expatriates who comprise a huge portion of labor in the Gulf States, who have very little legal standing and no path to citizenship in any of these countries, countries which are U.S allies in the region) gathered our passports, birth certificates, and jewelry into a single folder that could be easily retrieved in case - in case of what we didn’t know, we only knew what had happened in the U.S would change all our lives, everywhere. I asked my students if they remembered where they were when they heard news of the attack. Their faces were blank and awkward until finally a student raised their hand and said, “Well, I was a newborn when it happened so...I don’t remember anything.” The realization floored me. None of those students were old enough to remember that day, to remember the protests against the invasion of Iraq, to remember those first, grainy news reels of U.S bombs in Iraqi skies, a time before TSA, a time when loved ones could walk with you all the way to the boarding gate. I experienced a similar crash of realization in the fall of 2021 when, during the disastrous U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan, a suicide attack at the airport in Kabul killed a number of U.S service members. Many of them were between nineteen or twenty five years old, the age of many of my students. None of them would have remembered 9/11. Some of them were born in the midst of the very wars that would take their lives. History is a tidal wave, or a juggernaut. I think of teaching about the costs of these wars as a small but necessary effort to swim against that current.
Your teaching makes many connections between issues that are often studied separately; in what ways do you relate themes of sexuality, race, gender, and nation-building to militarism and war in your classes?
Because my syllabus is built around narrative, we are able to discuss how the concept of nation - which is powerfully mobilized by warmongers all across the world - is itself a fiction, a narrative put in place by those in power that relies on archetypes, tropes, and exclusions in order to present the public with a compelling story. When you read the stories and experiences of women, children, and queer subjects who have experienced war, who were not quite safe in their homelands even before the advent of war, and whose voices and agency are never a part of the fiction of the nation, you begin to see how as long as nations rely on war to realize their fictions of self, women, children, and queer people will pay the price - with our happiness, our freedom, and even our lives. Understanding war with the goal of creating a world without war, to me, is also about creating a world of gender and sexual freedom.
Much of your research coalesces around people’s lived experiences, especially in the context of conflict, race, and sexuality. What do you find most valuable in teaching course material grounded in these lived experiences?
War shrinks the imagination. War demands absolute conformity, and punishes any deviation from the norm. On the other hand, even in times of so-called peace, women, children, and queer folks must turn to the imagination for play, for escape, and to envision realities where our bodies and desires aren’t surveilled and punished. Sometimes, the imagination is our only access to safety and joy. When we experience war through the eyes of people for whom, as Audre Lorde wrote, “poetry is not a luxury,” we begin to understand the kind of creative, imaginative will it takes to survive unthinkable violence with your humanity intact. Grounding this course in the lived experience of these groups - women, children, queer people - belies the seeming totality of war. There is life before war, there is life in the midst of war, there is life after war. And hopefully one day, life without war.
The majority of university students right now have grown up during the U.S. post-9/11 wars and are now witnessing the Russian invasion of Ukraine; how do you engage with this fact when teaching about militarism, conflict, and war?
By making connections that keep us from being swept up in that tidal wave of history. The U.S post 9/11 wars inherited a legacy of militarism and imperialism from U.S wars in Southeast Asia. The aftermath of the Vietnam War profoundly altered the landscape of U.S politics and, as Kathleen Belew’s work demonstrates, gave birth to a terrifying new chapter of white nationalism that surged to dangerous heights during the Trump years. There would be no Afghanistan and Iraq without Vietnam and Cambodia. We might even argue there would be no Trump without Vietnam.
I haven’t yet taught this class since Russia invaded Ukraine, so I am in the process of devising space for that discussion in my classroom. The difference in how the U.S and Western European powers have historically engaged with Slavic nations compared to their dealings with African and Asian nations is a difficult, uncomfortable truth we must sit with. We must also sit with how our dependence on fossil fuels (that drove U.S. military engagements in the Middle East) continues to hamper global efforts to end war and create more just and sustainable societies for everyone.
All people deserve to live free of war, and all refugees deserve safe asylum, and yet not all people are seen as worthy of safety, as the plight of Afghan, Libyan, Syrian, Iraqi, and other Middle-Eastern and African refugees in Europe attests. Many draconian immigration policies that were enacted with the goal of keeping these groups of people out of Europe, particularly in post-Brexit England, are now the same policies that are making it difficult for Ukrainian refugees to settle in the U.K. for example. Too, there are currently students from Nepal, Nigeria, India and other parts of Africa and Asia who were also displaced by the Russian invasion trying to seek asylum in places like Germany, who aren’t being considered for longer stays because they aren’t of Ukrainian nationality. I want to continue guiding students in holding all these complex truths simultaneously as we work towards building societies free of war.
We have included your syllabus, ‘War and the Asian Diaspora’ on our Classroom Resources page. Being a part of the Asian diaspora yourself, how does this positionality influence what you decide to teach and how?
I’m in diaspora because of war. I was a small child when the Sri Lankan Civil War, which became one of the longest conflicts in Southeast Asia, was breaking out. I remember how quickly an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty clouded our lives, and I especially remember the adults in my life being afraid, sad, angry, and helpless. I was also a girl, and a queer child, in a specific post-colonial South Asian society, and so literature became simultaneously a refuge and a pathway to future security, a source of comfort and a source of academic success. The novels I teach all pose this question in different ways: what does it mean to tell stories of children and women and queer people in wartime? What can storytelling offer us that politics and ideology fail to? And, at the same time, how do stories become enmeshed in politics and ideology? What does it mean to make connections across multiple sites of suffering and dispossession, without losing sight of where we’re rooted?
These are also questions I continue to grapple with on a scholarly as well as personal level, and bringing them to this course is my way of saying to students that while I might not have it all figured out, together we can parse what our experiences have taught us about the kinds of futures we do (and don’t) want to build. I invite students to sit at the table with me and the novels we’re reading as equal partners in creating knowledge.
What I remember most strongly about those early years in Sri Lanka is how small and helpless war and militarism can make us feel. This course is my way of telling students “What you have to say matters. What you think and imagine and understand about this war-torn historical moment we all occupy, matters. And how you imagine a different world, and who you do it with, matters.”
If and how do you teach about how U.S. wars and militarism abroad affect social inequities within the U.S.?
I was a fourth grader in Sri Lanka when our schools started running regular drills to prepare students for possible chemical attacks. We were all required, every day, to bring with us a slightly damp face towel to cover our nose and mouth in case of an attack. Looking back as an adult, that was probably what pushed my parents to finally leave the country (which wasn’t as difficult or traumatic for us, a middle-class Sinhala Buddhist family, as it was for the many Tamil families who were being displaced from Sri Lanka at the time) and I can understand why: how can you raise your children in a place where they can expect to be murdered at school? I now live and work in the United States, a country where there’s no official war, and yet massacres like Uvalde Elementary, Sandy Hook, and many, many others are part of the fabric of life. Transnational feminist scholars M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty once remarked that “there’s no such thing as imperialism abroad and democracy at home, there’s no such thing as war abroad and peace at home,” and I use their words to convey the interconnectedness between U.S. foreign policy and U.S domestic terrorism to my students. I don’t need to belabor the fact that the U.S. police carries military grade weapons, or the quotidian risk of gun violence we all navigate, or that alongside an overinvestment in military spending this country has tragically de-emphasized funding for education and social welfare - young people today are highly cognizant of these realities by the time they get to college, sometimes even before that. My role, as I see it, is to help them make connections between what happens here and what’s happening in the rest of the world, not in a way that feels overwhelming or defeatist, but through the language of human creativity and human resilience, which, as the novelists in my course so beautifully show, is our most powerful resource against war.