Why We Need to Study War More

In his recent Humanist column (“Ain’t Going to Study War No More”), Tim Neumann of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA) wonders why so many Americans place so much attention on “studying” war. Rightly, he questions what we gain from this. Is this fascination a form of glorification, or even warmongering? Might humankind be better off if we decided that we “ain’t going to study war no more?”

At folk concerts, I’ve sung along to the refrain quoted above, from the great African American gospel song “Down by the Riverside.” Still, I answer “no” to that last question. I believe Americans should study war more than most presently do. Furthermore, I think the humanities can play a useful role in that study.

Working for nearly two decades with the Amherst-based Veterans Education Project (VEP) I’ve helped veterans of WW2, Vietnam through to the present to share their wartime experiences in local schools and at public events. I’ve learned that to study war does not mean one necessarily promotes it (as I believe the gospel song implies). Studying war does mean, hopefully, that one better comprehends its complex realties and implications.

I’ve also learned that studying implies more than reading about a particular war (such as Iraq or Afghanistan), weighing justifications and goals, and examining economic, political and human costs. These are key considerations, but there is another dimension, beyond such quantifiable factors. Oral histories of war veterans also offer vital perspective, as do literature and poetry (starting with Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey) about war, its aftermath, and the long journey home many veterans face. The spoken and written word also offer insight into the past, and explore the cultures and mores of the soldiers and civilians who faced the complex issues and challenges of wartime. Viewing history through this kind of humanities lens adds vital context to a “student” of war’s study guide. Tim Neumann’s article’s reference to PVMA’s nuanced tercentennial examination of the political and multi-cultural issues underlying the Deerfield Massacre of 1704 is but one example.

There are others. Two years ago PVMA asked the VEP to collaborate on a project supported by Mass Humanities that studied World War II. We did so primarily through the experiences, writing and recorded oral histories of African American and Jewish American veterans and home front workers. The war in their narratives was a backdrop to the equally-important struggles of these local men and women, against discrimination and for racial equality, women’s rights and social change. You can listen to their voices on the PVMA website and link to other informative resources.

This academic year, VEP and PVMA have been collaborating on the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Big Read” project, focusing on the themes of the Big Read book-of-the-year, Tim O’Brien’s classic novel of the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried. Book groups, photography exhibits, classroom visits by local Vietnam veterans, public presentations and other events are deepening audiences’ perspectives on the Vietnam War and the men and women who served there. More than that, O’Brien’s characters and their words, illuminated by his personal wartime experiences in Vietnam’s jungles and rice paddies 40 years ago, are revealing the sometimes contradictory and often difficult realities of going to war anywhere, including the deserts of Iraq or the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. In the author’s words: “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”

Finally, this spring VEP is planning a series of events and activities to turn our group’s ongoing study of war into a broader public dialogue about it. Programs will encourage local Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and military family members to share their oral histories and write about their war experiences. Our belief is that these men and women– many of whom have told us they know they have a story, but are uncertain how to share it– will add a rich literary voice to the exploration of war’s realities and costs. The Pioneer Valley Veterans Writers Project and related events are funded, in part, by Mass Humanities. The Daily Hampshire Gazette, a co-sponsor, will publish some of the writing produced through the writing workshops.

I believe that the events planned around this expanded study of war will give our veterans and military family members a visibility that few feel they have. Their voices and experiences, in addition to the established writers and scholars participating in the project, will engage and educate the public. This is a time of extreme political polarization and divisive debate about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other issues. We believe, however, we can attract politically and culturally diverse audiences who will learn, engage in dialogue, and come to a common ground of understanding about war, veterans and military families that all can share.

Tim Neumann suggests at the conclusion of his article that our world might be better off if we spent more time “studying” the peacemakers instead of war. As he defines studying war as “commemorating, reenacting, [and] celebrating,” I’d have to agree. However, applying a more conventional definition of study— that it means to learn and seek understanding— I’d say we’d be wise to study war, as well.

Rob Wilson is Executive Director of the Amherst-based Veterans Education Project. He can be reached at: vep@crocker.com

Photo: Veteran Ray Elliott shares his story of serving in the segregated World War Two Army Air Corps, speaking at West Springfield High School in 2008. Ray’s oral histories about his war experiences offer audiences insight into the struggles and modest victories against racism of the 1940s that grew into the formitable and successful civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. He speaks to high school and college literature classes on occasion, using his war stories to illuminate the study of literary classics such as “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Part of his story can be heard at the PVMA American Centuries website.

Author: Robert M. Wilson

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