Children of War-The War on Terror and the Battle for Young Minds

During a Veterans Day celebration in my small Maryland community, a teacher clicked through a slideshow of smiling men and women in military uniforms. “Girls and boys, can anyone tell me what courage is?” she asked the crowd, mostly children from local elementary schools, including my two young kids.

A boy raised his hand. “Not being scared?” he asked.

The teacher seized on his response: “Yes!” she exclaimed. “Not being scared.” She proceeded to discuss this country’s armed forces, highlighting how brave U.S. troops are because they fight to defend our way of life. Servicemembers and veterans in the crowd were encouraged to stand. My own children beamed, knowing that their father is just such a military officer. The veterans and troops present did indeed stand, but most of them stared at the ground. As a counselor who works with children, including those from local military families, I marveled that the teacher was asking the young audience to dismiss one of the most vulnerable emotions there is — fear — in the service of armed violence.

No mention was made of what war can do to those fighting it, not to speak of civilians caught in the crossfire, and how much money has left our country’s shores thanks to armed conflict. That’s especially true, given the scores of U.S.-led military operations still playing out globally as the Pentagon arms and trains local troops, runs intelligence operations, and conducts military exercises.

That week, my children and others in schools across the county spent hours in their classrooms celebrating Veterans Day through a range of activities meant to honor our armed forces. My kindergartener typically made a paper crown, with six colorful peaks for the six branches of service, that framed her little face. Kids in older grades wrote letters to soldiers thanking them for their service.

I have no doubt that if such schoolchildren were ever shown photos in class of what war actually does to kids their age, including of dead and wounded elementary school students and their parents and grandparents in Afghanistan and Iraq, there would be an uproar. And there would be another, of course, if they were told that “their” troops were more likely to be attacked (as in sexually assaulted) by one of their compatriots than by any imaginable enemy. I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the most progressive and highly educated counties in the country and even here, war, American-style, is painted as a sanitized event full of muscular young people, their emotions under control (until, of course, they aren’t).

Even here, few parents and teachers dare talk to young children about the atrocities committed by our military in our wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

Our Culture of Violence

I suspect that we don’t talk about war anymore or consider its still-reverberating consequences exactly because it still remains only half-visible everywhere in our all-American world. Nonetheless, armed violence over the more than two decades since the start of the disastrous post-9/11 “war on terror” has percolated, however indirectly, into what seems like just about every aspect of this country’s being — from violent video games to still-spiking mass shootings to local police forces armed with weapons of war (thanks to the Pentagon!) as if they were being sent on raids to kill Osama bin Laden.

As a society, it seems to me that we’ve come to view violence rather than other ways of solving problems (including critical thinking and honest conversation) as the new normal, however little we may admit to that reality. Have any of our leaders, for instance, seriously explored alternative responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — other, that is, than sending endless billions of dollars in arms to that country? Had we exhibited foresight — Russian designs on Ukraine were known for years — our government could have been working on a green-energy plan to help starve President Vladimir Putin from his post as war-criminal-in-chief long ago.

And mind you, there’s no need to look thousands of miles away to find people openly sanctioning fighting as a form of governance. After all, a significant number of Americans thought it was perfectly acceptable to use a violent coup to dispute the outcome of the last presidential election.

As anyone involved in school affairs has noticed by now, you don’t have to look far to notice an urge to do violence. It’s now remarkably common for school board members and educators to face threats from crazed parents when they try to deal with topics as basic and fundamental to our humanity as gender identities falling outside of cisgender “boy” or “girl,” or non-heterosexual relationships.

Just recently, I even found myself normalizing violence in my own fashion. As a friend’s transgender teen described a recent LGBTQ+ pride march in his community, that’s what immediately came to mind and so I asked, “Were there any angry protesters?” I was, of course, imagining armed militia members and the like, who have indeed appeared at similar marches around the country in recent years.

The kid looked at me with confusion. “You mean bigots?” he asked. I nodded and apologized. When did I start thinking of peaceful self-expression as an automatic provocation to violence? I suspect that violence has become so commonplace in our culture that such assumptions are now second nature for many of us.

The Underbelly of Relentless War

Most of the time though, I do notice that reality because I’m part of a culture that helps normalize it.  I’m a military spouse of 10 years and counting and I’ve enlisted my creativity, time, and money in figuring out how to move every two or three years with my young family as the Pentagon shuttles us from duty station to duty station. And I do, of course, benefit from the financial stability offered by a salary paid by a Department of Defense whose congressional monies go through the roof year after year.

Shortly before I met my husband in 2011, along with a group of social scientists at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, I co-founded the Costs of War Project. A multidisciplinary think tank, it now consists of more than 35 scholars, medical doctors, activists, and journalists who continue to document the never-ending costs of the U.S. decision to respond to the September 11, 2001, attacks by invading Afghanistan and then Iraq, while launching a global “war on terror” that spread across South Asia, the Greater Middle East, and Africa, and has yet to end.

While working on that project, I was struck by seldom-noticed ways that the war on terror continued to reverberate here at home. In that not-so-obvious category, for instance, were the things that simply didn’t get done here because of the time, energy, and taxpayer dollars (an estimated $8 trillion by the end of 2022) that have been swallowed up by our foreign wars. There were the roads and schools that didn’t get repaired or built, the teachers who didn’t get hired, and most notably (when I think about schools) the humanities classes that might have been but weren’t funded.

Today, when culture wars focused on our education system hit the headlines, it’s striking how little we talk about the ways war has altered what we teach our kids. As a start (and don’t be shocked!), in the years immediately after 9/11, the Department of Defense (DOD) became the third largest source of funding for research at American universities. The DOD and other military-related agencies like the Department of Homeland Security established laboratories and research centers at staggering numbers of (mostly state) universities to fund research into weapons and armor, military strategy, bioterrorism prevention, and intelligence-gathering.

And such military funding of university research only continues today, often — if you’ll excuse my using the word — trumping funding for human service-related fields. For example, the Pentagon invested $130.1 billion in university research centers in 2022. Compare that with the $353 million in funding from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality for university-based research into developing more equitable and affordable healthcare and you’ll know what we as a nation value most. Only $100 million went into university research aimed at improving educational outcomes. In other words, you don’t have to dig too deeply to grasp just where our national priorities lie.

Forced Military Coursework for Poor Teens

Still, I was unprepared when I recently read in the New York Times that the Pentagon, in collaboration with public high schools around the country, had started to force thousands of young teens in poor and minority communities into Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) classes without their consent. Those students are required to wear uniforms and obey orders from teachers. In one case, an instructor manhandled a “recruit.” Others have been yelled at, and some who didn’t want to be in JROTC were intimidated or simply barred from dropping the course.

As the Times reporters discovered, textbooks in these courses focus on ways in which government and military actions have benefited Americans from the dominant culture at the expense of people of color. For example, according to that reportone Marine Corps JROTC textbook discusses the Trail of Tears of the 1830s — the forced relocation of Native-American populations from their lands in the southeastern U.S. all the way across the Mississippi to present-day Oklahoma — without even bothering to mention the thousands of who died along the way.

Of course, such forced enlistment of children in the military is only possible thanks to the lack of resources kids from wealthier communities like my own take for granted. Several schools profiled in the Times enrolled students in JROTC because they couldn’t hire enough teachers. One Oklahoma high school, for instance, reported that all freshmen were enrolled in JROTC courses because it didn’t have enough physical-education teachers. It’s a bitter example of how war has come full circle in this country, as students lacking PE teachers are channeled into the same war-making machine that helped cause such deficits in the first place.

To be sure, a couple of teachers I’ve spoken to who live in heavily military communities view the idea of such mandatory service as an opportunity to build leadership skills, discipline, and good study habits in young people who may otherwise lack structure in their lives. But it says something about our moment that kids can’t enroll in programs reminiscent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps as an alternate pathway to public service and ideally (if taxpayers were willing), higher education. To echo the late physician-activist Paul Farmer in his moving profile of a family of Haitian refugees helped to gain their footing here through military enlistment, war eerily creates opportunities for poor and vulnerable families, even if the final prospects may be grim indeed.

The Hidden Costs

The costs of funneling kids into military careers are profound. International human rights law defines the minimum age for recruiting children into armed conflict as 18 and the International Criminal Court goes further, designating the recruitment of kids aged 14 or younger a war crime. At such an age, the connections between the parts of the brain that feel and think have yet to fully develop, making it more likely that they’ll act on fear, excitement, or some other overpowering emotion rather than rationally facing such decisions. (Though if kids learn to acknowledge those very emotions, that can at least help them somewhat in controlling their impulsive reactions.) In turn, trauma, which people who enter the military are more likely to experience than civilians, further stunts the ability to think critically.

Teenagers are also still forming a sense of identity vis-à-vis their peers and adult figures who (ideally) reflect their strengths and preferences back to them via praise, constructive criticism, and encouragement. A militarized curriculum runs counter to such an expansive view of human development.

On that note, I’m proud to say that my local school district is indeed trying to develop children’s worldviews in other ways. Recently, for example, our district introduced a modest collection of books to school classrooms and libraries with characters who are nonbinary, queer, transgender, gay, or lesbian. In a similar fashion, it’s collaborating with a local Jewish cultural organization to help students deal with both anti-Semitism and racism.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that even my community has witnessed some resistance, however mild, to the LGBTQ+ awareness project. A couple of parents raised their hands at information meetings, asking about the new readings with questions like, “If I had a friend who wanted to opt her kids out of this, could she?” As you may suspect, when it comes to subject matter about inclusion and openness to difference rather than militarism, heterosexuality, and conformity, the answer is still always: yes.

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