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What’s Not Being Taught About The Iraq War

As America’s war in Iraq passes from “current events” into history, we must ask what are our children being taught in schools about the conflict?

Upon the 10th anniversary of America’s war in Iraq, a critical question with serious ramifications has been little explored: What are our children being taught in schools about the conflict, as it passes from “current events” into history?

To answer this question, one obvious place to start is school textbooks. I looked at several of them, and was happily surprised. The books present a fairly complex and balanced view of the war in Iraq, avoiding the falsehoods and sugarcoating that has so often marred American history instruction. But textbooks only tell part of the story.

Just as important is what is actually emphasized in the classrooms, and the ability of teachers to engage in real inquiry. Unfortunately, a combination of school policies and judicial decisions have made it so that many kids learn little or nothing about what we have done in Iraq, or why we have done it.

I’m a professor of education and history, and wrote a book examining conflicts over history in American public schools. But for me, this probe is more than theoretical: My daughter is an 11th grader in a suburban public high school, where she takes Advanced Placement U.S. History.

Her textbook, “The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People,” has a 2009 edition that carefully examines the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It includes lengthy passages about controversial issues, including prisoner abuse overseas and domestic surveillance at home. Ditto for the 2009 edition of another textbook, “Out of Many: A History of the American People,” co-authored by Yale’s John Mack Faragher, which is also used in many high schools around the country. Its new section on the Iraq War leads off with a picture of George W. Bush’s now-infamous “Mission Accomplished” photo op in May of 2003, when Bush declared that “the United States and our allies have prevailed.” But they hadn’t, of course, and the book pulls no punches about that. Parts of Iraq “plunged into chaos” after the U.S. invasion, which “strengthened a new generation of terror networks now drawn to do battle with American forces,” the book declares.

It also disputes American claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, citing critics who charged that Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had “manipulated Pentagon intelligence estimates, selectively emphasizing data based on ideology rather than dispassionate analysis.” The section concludes with a long passage about prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib. Although Bush expressed “deep disgust” at photos of the abuse, the book notes, White House memoranda revealed that legal counsel Alberto Gonzales had urged Bush to declare the treatment of suspected terrorists exempt from Geneva Convention accords on war prisoners.

So our textbooks aren’t simply spouting pro-American propaganda, like they once did, and that’s certainly reassuring. But Cheney et al. needn’t worry about a new generation of protesters (who also get an approving nod in Faragher’s book) streaming out of American high schools. You wouldn’t sense much controversy about America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan if you walked through the halls of my daughter’s school, or if you sat in on her classes. Indeed, you might not know we’re at war at all.

That’s partly because these conflicts have gone on so long. She was 5 years old when we attacked Afghanistan (which is described at the end of her textbook). Now she’s 17, and we’re still there. How can you take note of something that’s always been around you? It’s all the kids know, which means they often know next to nothing about it.

Then there’s the absence of conscription, which means that almost none of these kids will go abroad to fight. In America, we leave that to the lower-middle-class and the poor. In a few inner-city high schools, teachers have raised hackles about military recruiters and have invited “counter-recruiters” to visit.  Overall, though, there’s often even less critique of the wars in our poorer school districts than there is in our wealthier ones. The teachers have their hands full already, keeping order in overcrowded classrooms, and the kids often see the military as their only route into the middle class.