How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War - Pacific Standard

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.
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A U.S. Marine moves a Viet Cong suspect, 1965. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Marine Corps)

A U.S. Marine moves a Viet Cong suspect, 1965. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Marine Corps)

The content of children’s textbooks is often a cultural flashpoint, with conservatives and liberals battling it out over who’s indoctrinating whom with biased views. Local news often centers on the public review process of a state’s chosen textbooks, and whetherornot parents deserve more time to raise objections.

With all the hand-wringing over what students are reading in textbooks, there have been few systematic reviews of textbook content, particularly on the controversial topic of the Vietnam War. Previous criticisms have gone so far as to suggest there was a “hidden curriculum” in textbooks that fosters militarism and nationalistic attitudes by emphasizing the heroism and glory of war.

"A total of 12 books for WWII and 8 books for Vietnam make no mention of casualties whatsoever." Most of the offending books were published before 1982.

A new analysis shows that the simplistic depiction of war as a glorious, patriotic endeavor has, in fact, dampened in recent years, at least in relation to the Vietnam War and World War II. Still, contemporary textbooks rarely offer explicit criticisms of American foreign policy, nor do they depict the suffering inflicted upon America’s enemies.

In a paper published in the current issue of Sociology of Education, researchers at University at Albany-SUNY analyzed 102 textbooks published from 1970 to 2009.

The researchers found that the number of references (text, photos, and exercises) to death and casualties in both wars rose over the decades, as did mentions of the anti-war movement for Vietnam. “The rate of change for Vietnam was much greater than for World War II,” they note. One mind-boggling finding: “A total of 12 books for WWII and 8 books for Vietnam make no mention of casualties whatsoever.” Most of the offending books were published before 1982.

The descriptions of the casualties also changed over time. For World War II, mentions of casualties in a glorious light and impersonal terms (deaths as strategic results of war, no focus on soldiers) increased slightly. The percentage of items that describe World War II in personal (focusing on soldiers and families suffering) and hellish (cruel, gruesome, senseless) terms almost doubled.

“The change was greater, and different, for Vietnam. The number of items that present Vietnam in glorious and impersonal terms fell from 5 percent in 1970 to close to 0 percent by the 1990s, where it has remained,” researchers note. “In other words, while textbooks’ coverage of World War II remained mixed ... textbooks’ coverage of Vietnam has become unrelievedly bleak.”

The authors note that the analysis does not show why this shift has occurred. They offer a few hypotheses: The counterculture of the Vietnam years caused a general distaste for war and allowed for a more critical review of both World War II and the Vietnam War. Or, the growing influence of our individualist culture has shifted the focus away from a country’s geopolitical goals and toward the personal suffering of citizens.

Regardless, the lack of explicit critique of United States foreign policy and the absence of personal stories about enemy soldiers remain an issue for textbook makers, the researchers write: “Based on the evidence of the textbooks examined, legitimation of the identities and rights of individuals stops at the water’s edge.”

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