Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Drawing by a Laotian boy of his experience during the US bombing campaign

"Why?" he asks, over and over, as I attempt to narrate a series of historical events. I'm not prepared for these questions and I'm surprised, and a little disappointed in myself, that I was caught off guard.

But who has adequate answers to the "Why?" questions when you're trying to teach children about the horrors that have been perpetrated on innocent humans? Who is able to sufficiently explain war?

My son learning about the U.S. bombing of Laos (1964-1973).

Credit: Elena Aguilar

Laos

I'm in northern Laos with my husband and nine-year-old son. We're in the small city of Luang Prabang, the UNESCO-preserved, ancient royal capital, a city surrounded by mountains and nestled between two rivers and said to house 30 Buddhist temples and over 1000 monks. We wake up at dawn every day to watch the alms procession: hundreds of monks silently make their rounds through the city, clad in saffron robes, receiving food from the locals. Boys younger than my son are amongst these monks, many of whom join the temples as a way to get a free education.

Laos is the poorest country in Southeast Asia, with the average annual income about $1000. When I share that statistic with my son, he responds with a barrage of "Why?" questions. How do you explain poverty to a nine-year-old? And yet, this is what I want him to ask.

"It's the history," I start with. "You can't understand why people are so poor without understanding the history." I'd become a history teacher because of how strongly I believe in this -- can't understand the present without understanding the complicated, messy past.

And so I begin with colonialism and attempt to explain how it was that a few European powers came to dominate most of Africa, Latin America and Asia. I'm doing okay with the "Why?" questions at this point even though this series of events is still hard for me to digest.

Shocking Facts

It all falls apart when we get to the U.S. government's secret bombing of Laos. Here are the facts, in case you don't know them:

  • From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos, equal to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.
  • Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.
  • During those years, countless villages were destroyed as well as fields and livestock, and hundreds of thousands of Lao people were displaced. The number of dead was difficult to determine.
  • The war and destruction and suffering didn't end after 1973. One-third of the bombs did not explode, and so, for over 35 years, the Lao people continue to be maimed and killed from unexploded ordnance.

I want my son to know this history, so we visit the Unexploded Ordnance Centre in Luang Prabang. Here he sees dozens of these devices that had caused so much destruction, as well as photos of maimed children.

Displays in the Centre for Unexploded Ordnance, Laos

Credit: Elena Aguilar

I try explaining about the Cold War and how the U.S. government felt that if Vietnam "fell" to the communists, all of Southeast Asia would crumble, and then the entire developing world, and then the Soviets would take over the U.S. I try to explain about the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the North Vietnamese Army and so on.

My son gives me blank looks. This explanation sounds hollow and absurd as we stand in front of images of children maimed by U.S. bombs. We're also struck by the contrast of this brutality from the most powerful nation on earth upon a country of Buddhist monks, peasants and weavers. The Laotians we meet every day are kind, quiet, gentle and gracious. At breakfast on our first morning, the young man serving us in the small hotel where we're staying says, "Please if you would like anything else, please ask. We are very kind people." I can't imagine how indiscriminate bombing could have ever made sense, and even though I have a deep understanding of the history and geopolitical landscape of the 1960s, it still seems absurd.

Why is Laos the poorest country in Southeast Asia? We watch a movie about the bombing -- it is graphic and disturbing, and I cry. And the movie explains how fields were destroyed during the nine years of war, and how for the last 35 years the Laotians have struggled to plant and grow food, fearing the detonation of unexploded ordnance that fell on their land decades ago.

My son keeps asking questions for days, "Why?" questions that I can't answer sufficiently. But these are the unanswerable questions, aren't they? A series of historical and political events can't explain human cruelty, which is what this feels like, here in northern Laos.

Images in the Centre for Unexploded Ordnance, Luang Prabang, Laos. (Click to enlarge.)

Credit: Elena Aguilar


Back to the Classroom

I am never able to turn off my teacher-brain, so during this visit to Laos, I keep thinking about how teachers teach history to other people's children. I realize how, as a history teacher, my instruction was deeply infused with my own morals and values -- that killing is wrong, that the dominance of one political power over others is unfair. I realize how strongly I feel about being the one who provides these lessons to my child -- I want to be the one to supply a moral context for the history of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. And I question my own role as a history teacher -- what right do I have to provide the moral context for the history I teach to my students? How do we navigate this terrain in our public schools where we don't have shared moral and ethical codes?

Perhaps we provide a balanced perspective and try to explain the Cold War from the perspective of Henry Kissinger or the American politician who said he wanted to "bomb Laos back to the Stone Age." But no, I can't do that, unless I can also communicate the experience of the hundreds of thousands of Laotians who were affected by the war. Questions of power arise, and who has access to communicating their beliefs and experiences.

It feels complicated and impossible to answer the "Why?" questions. It also seems so clear and simple: dropping millions of tons of bombs on people is wrong. The ethical questions that arise are ones that societies have been trying to answer for millennia. We'll have to join the ranks of our many ancestors in finding ways to understand human cruelty.

Comments (13)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger 2014

Thanks, Julie! Thank you for reminding me to talk to him about what we can do and not only why things happened the way they did. I really appreciate this comment!

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger 2014

[quote]I don't understand how you can teach facts of war without moral or ethical discussions. Great blog![/quote]

I completely agree, Erika! Thank you for your comment!

donna sides's picture
donna sides
Grade 4 teacher NC

Elena,
This is my first time on Edutopia,com. I just came back from Asia and upon visiting Cambodia with the mine victims and poor drinking water, my class is now reading A Long Walk to Water. The Lost Boys follow-up will also explain how hope can arise after the brutality of war. I hope to give a victim's point of view to help students get a grasp as they study other wars involving North Carolina. Also, I hope to integrate the uplift that clean water brings to the poor communities. Love your blog!

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger 2014

Donna, thank you so much for commenting on my blog. I'm excited to here about what you'll be teaching this year! What grade do you teach? And what part of NC are you in? I'll be in Charlotte in October!

[quote]Elena,

This is my first time on Edutopia,com. I just came back from Asia and upon visiting Cambodia with the mine victims and poor drinking water, my class is now reading A Long Walk to Water. The Lost Boys follow-up will also explain how hope can arise after the brutality of war. I hope to give a victim's point of view to help students get a grasp as they study other wars involving North Carolina. Also, I hope to integrate the uplift that clean water brings to the poor communities. Love your blog![/quote]

donna sides's picture
donna sides
Grade 4 teacher NC

Oops, I hope I didn't just post a partial comment by accident. Elena, thank you for your kind reply. I am at a year round school in Raleigh. We are a VIF global school working with the VIF group in Chapel Hill. My 4th grade team is concentrating on Asia this year and the 5th grade team is working on Africa. Our project learning will concentrate on brutality of wars and clean water's impact on these continents. We are working toward purchasing a well for a community in one of these areas. Two weeks into our studies, the students are fascinated!

Rick Gunn's picture

Hi Elena.
I was doing a simple search on the complex issue of explaining war to children. You see I will be traveling to Iran in December to do a joint peace based art project with an Iranian friend in which we will talk to young students in America and Iran about the idea or war, and of our friendship despite both countries labeling the other "enemy." We will also speak of conflict resolution through understanding, then request that create art and or writing from whatever ideas arise to displayed across Iran. Certainly your ideas and input would help tremendously. I look forward to your reply.
Rick Gunn

www.soulcycler.com

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Staff

Rick, do you know the story of Israel Loves Iran? Here's the description from Ronny Edry's TED talk:

When war between Israel and Iran seemed imminent, Israeli graphic designer Ronny Edry shared a poster on Facebook of himself and his daughter with a bold message: "Iranians ... we [heart] you." Other Israelis quickly created their own posters with the same message -- and Iranians responded in kind. The simple act of communication inspired surprising Facebook communities like "Israel loves Iran," "Iran loves Israel" and even "Palestine loves Israel."

http://www.ted.com/talks/israel_and_iran_a_love_story.html

Seems to me that asking students to create art like this can be a powerful transformative process for exploring the relationship between the two countries.

Rick Gunn's picture

Hi Samer.
Yes, I deeply admire Ronnie, and I've contacted him and we've tentatively agreed to talk after I finish this project, so that we might join forces to perhaps create a project in Israel. He has been one of my heroes and it just goes to show that one person can make a difference.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

There are so many things that come to mind after reading this important post. First, thank you for sharing it. Second, I wonder if anyone has used resources from Rethinking Schools in teaching about this and other related topics? (http://www.rethinkingschools.org ) They have a number of really wonderful resources for helping students to see history- and the world- from all kinds of perspectives.

I guess the last thing in my head (and heart) is a reminder that teaching about war (like any important topic) needs to be really carefully grounded in what is developmentally appropriate for the age group. For example, when talking about violence in any setting with smaller children, we focus on the people who help- the Danes who all pinned Stars of David to their chests rather than go along with the Nazis plans, the police, firefighters and aid workers who come to the assistance of those who are cold, hungry, frightened and alone. Not to gloss over the horrors, but to help them see that hope and human kindness exist in even the most awful situations.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Staff

I came back to this post because Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday, and it occurred to me that you can't talk about a public figure's greatness without also addressing the brutal challenges that they often face, including civil strife, oppression, and injustice.

Although, I agree with Laura in that it has to be grounded in what is developmentally appropriate for the age group.

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.