Sunday, August 13, 2006

A Rumor of War - What a Difference 5 Years Makes

The last time I used A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo in the classroom was during the Fall of 2001. It was on my syllabus before the attack on the World Trade Center. I have assigned it again this year - not so much because I have any ideological message to send out, but more because I rotate the primary source books I assign my survey students and it is Caputo's turn again.

As I looked over the book questions that I will ask the class, however, I am struck by just how differently these question sound today than they did five years ago. For example, one of the questions that I asked them had to do with how in the midst of conflict men could lose control - burn down a village, kill civilians, etc. - given these circumstances I wanted them to consider whether or not soldiers should ever be tried for murder. My students had good, if a little dispassionate, answers five years ago. When I ask that question this fall in the light of Haditha and Abu Ghraib will they think that I am making some political commentary? Will they wonder if I am anti-war?

The last question I asked my students five years ago was: "Considering the savagery and blind destruction described by Caputo, is there any justification for fighting wars to defend abstract political ideologies?" At the time I thinking about the ideological fight between capitalism and communism. If I asked that question today, I bet my students would think about the struggle between democracy and totalitarianism. Or some might just be offended that I am suggesting that the war is ideological and not in our best interest for national security.

I am probably going to drop the question completely. I most likely will ask instead: "What are the most significant similarities and differences between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War?" I can't help but wonder, however, if I am switching questions based solely on intellectual merit. Changing the question is a way of acknowledging the new context that I am asking my class to review the Vietnam War in. At the same time it seems a bit cowardly. If it was a legitimate question five years ago, is it still not legitimate today?

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