“Dear Bisbee Observer,
I am a Bisbee High student and I would like you to inform you that the students at Bisbee High School are very curious on what is going on with WW III.”
Dear Bisbee Observer, I would like to you to know that, like one of my history students on the Monday we returned from Winter Break, “For me, World War III was really unexpected.”
I’d also like you to know that I intended this month’s column to be about school shootings but changed my mind when I learned we were at war. I knew this to be true because too many of my students inundated me with questions such as, “Polley, are we all going die?” “Polley, how old do you have to be to be drafted?” “Polley, what disqualifies you for the draft?”
During my winter break, I paid a little attention to the news and knew we had targeted and killed an important Iranian general. But I didn’t think much of it. The War on Terror has changed the game of warfare as has the technology at its disposal. Our country can order blatant attacks on sovereign nations and military actors and do so under the guise of making us safe from terror. There are few, if any, ground rules anymore. So, it’s no wonder that my students, vulnerable as they are to the swarms of digital information out there, can interpret reports of violence and their accompanying images in a myriad of ways. Make no mistake, our young people are particularly susceptible to what comes at them through social media: “Dear Bisbee Observer, Honestly, I wouldn’t have known about all this WWIII thing if it hadn’t been for social media.”
Once I realized that our time on this planet was limited due to the coming onslaught of nuclear war, I asked all my tenth and eleventh graders to help me with what would be my last column before the Big One. I asked them to simply start their writing with, “Dear Bisbee Observer, …” To a student they cooperated and gave me anywhere from a quarter page to a page and a half of what they were thinking. One student wondered out loud if I had plans to share the stipend I receive for my column. I said yes, I would spend it on candy for them. Another student offered this, “Dear Bisbee Observer, I don’t really care about what we are talking about.”
Actually, most of my students didn’t think the end was all that near and more than a few thought that all things were being blown out of proportion. But enough registered their fear and deep concern about their safety and that of their loved ones that I thought I would write my column about it. Even though student stated that “He [Trump] must have had a good reason,” to take out the general, the solid majority of my students expressed little support for President Trump, characterizing his decision to drone out the Iranian general as ‘stupid.’ Another student wrote that Trump, “Should destroy Iran…if I was Trump, I would have blown them up already.” Most of the aspiring columnists thought that going to war, even though our strong military that would dominate and win a conflict, was a bad idea.
That social media has this kind of effect in the lives of the young people I know gives me great pause. Plenty of research suggests that youth (adults as well I think) are not all that discerning about what they see on Facebook and Snap chat and any number of social media outlets. The ease by which an individual or group can create and post a clever and shiny message announcing, questioning, or threatening just about anything has changed the way information is delivered and digested in our society. The ease by which a young person can appropriate that information as defacto truth has some unsettling possibilities.
I have the benefit of some years, an only moderate facility with things digital and internet, and a decent education that helps me put wars and rumors of war in the larger perspective. When I learned, from a trustworthy media source, that Trump had targeted fifty-two sites in Iran as possible targets, I made the connection between the number of targets and the number of people taken hostage in Iran in 1979. I took the opportunity to explain that event to my charges and pointed out we have had long-term geopolitical tension (my students would call it ‘drama’) with Iran. I wanted them to see the strike not as the precipitate to Armageddon but the latest exchange in a difficult relationship we have with an enemy.
A few young people I teach suggested that targeting the general and the ensuing drama was Donald Trump’s attempt to divert attention from his own drama: his impeachment. I didn’t disabuse them of that notion especially since I offered it as one possibility that explains Trump’s actions.
It’s a curious thing. Education all over the country favors and resources so-called STEM subjects- science, technology, engineering, math. Our Bisbee High students have to take far more math and science to graduate than I did when I finished high school in 1980. As a history instructor at a public high school I see first-hand the priority STEM subjects receive at the expense of courses like history, economics, and government as well as the arts and other creative disciplines. We are training a new generation how to design, manufacture, and pilot drones and other military technology but not doing enough to develop in this generation the historical perspective and moral reasoning skills to question the use of that technology.
My students seem to understand how technical modern warfare is. But do they understand that warfare is always a human endeavor? Do they understand that the humans who lead us into war often sell the war to us first? Do my students at Bisbee High-and students all over this great country- understand that their own responsibility as US citizens is not to scare easily and run for cover. Their responsibility is to hold government and the military it serves accountable to the people who empower it.