Teaching the History of All Wars
I didn't get into teaching to save the world. I got into it
by default. I wanted to get away from the nine-to-five world and
take some time to study great novelists and write a novel myself.
The best way I could find to do this was to get a Master's degree.
The only way I could afford to get the degree was by teaching at
the university while working on the Master's, so I became a teacher.
My initial goal was to do as little teaching as possible and focus
all of my creative energy on writing. This plan self-destructed
almost immediately. I was twenty-four years old. Most of my students
were only a few years younger. They were my peers. I couldn't bullshit
them, and when I tried, I felt like I was betraying myself as much
as I was betraying them. So I decided to take the job seriously.
The first step was to ditch the dry, dull textbook that I was required
to teach and instead bring in something interesting for them to
read. In one of my classes, I developed a section that was all
about the history of wars. On the first day of that section, my
class got pretty heated up. Students who would barely glance at
previous assignments were suddenly very passionate about what they'd
read. One student, a blond suburban girl named Carrie, finally
stopped taking notes when others spoke and joined in on the discussion.
More than that, she argued against the text. I was proud of her.
I didn't agree with a word she said, but I had to agree with her
dissent. Apparently her father had been a veteran, and the idea
of an unjust war didn't sit well with her. She'd been talking for
a while when I noticed Eric, a Navajo student, getting jittery.
He tucked his hair behind his ears five times in the matter of
a minute, and I knew he wanted to speak. When Carrie paused, I
called on Eric.
"Of course the history of all wars is written by the winners," Eric
"That's why you don't even think about where you are right
"What's that supposed to mean?" Carrie asked.
"Exactly," Eric said.
I wasn't going to let him off the hook that easily. I'd been trying
to get him to speak up during a discussion all semester, and he
finally had. And, just as I'd suspected, he had something intelligent
to say. And Carrie, who was kind of a naïve girl, was clearly
ready to learn. My class seemed to be coming together.
I knew what Eric was talking about when he mentioned where we
were. I'd thought a lot about where we were. I actually wanted
to talk about it, but I wanted to see if I could draw it out of
Eric first. I figured a few questions would get us right where
we needed to be, so I said, "Humor us, Eric. Where are we?"
"Flagstaff," he said.
"Where's that?" I asked, hoping like hell he wouldn't
"In the San Francisco Mountains."
"What's the significance of the mountains?"
"It's a sacred place for the Navajos."
"And what does this have to do with the history of wars being
written by the victors?"
"Because the victors are sitting in this classroom right
now and don't even think about how they got here. Because the United
States took Mexico's land and didn't even consider that Mexico
took it from the Navajos, didn't even consider giving it back when
the US decided they could make more money logging and mining it.
And because no one ever teaches that part of the story."
The rest of the class was silent. Even I was silent. Eric had
gotten to his point a few questions sooner than I'd expected him
to. He'd said more than anyone had expected him to. And when a
Navajo guy says something like this to a room full of white people,
suddenly, no one has anything to say.
Before the silence reached its full effect, Mike, another kid
who was quiet and intelligent and never seemed to have much to
say, asked Eric, "What war did the Navajos win to get this
mountain? What history are they rewriting?" Mike wasn't Hopi
or a member of any of the eleven other indigenous tribes who consider
the San Francisco Mountain a sacred place, but apparently he had
put some thought into the history of where he was. And now he was
ready to talk about it.
I smiled. Finally, my time spent teaching felt worthwhile.
The whole discussion spawned from an essay on the Vietnam War.
The essay was written by a Vietnamese woman. Though her tone was
calm, the essay was unsettling in its subtleties the way
she referred to the "American War," her casual reference
to the two million Vietnamese killed in the war, her mention of
the American land mines that still occasionally maim a Vietnamese
farmer even though the war supposedly ended 20 years ago, and her
offhand way of saying things like "Most Vietnamese people
no longer resent Americans," or "we understand the importance
of distinguishing between the American people and the American
government. This is what allows us to forgive the people."
My purpose in teaching this essay this whole session was
to get the students thinking about history in a larger context.
I wanted them to understand that history is by no means an exact
science. History is a transitory. The history you learn depends
as much upon who is in power in the present as it depends upon
what actually occurred in the past. The Vietnam War is a good example
of this because it's an ugly event in our very recent history and
it simply cannot be taught as what it was essentially an
act of aggression driven by American corporate greed for oil, tin,
and rubber because acts of aggression driven by corporate
greed are still pretty much the current government policy. So I
decided to teach about the war as an act of aggression, then take
the time, with my class, to compare this with what they had previously
been taught about the war, and try to understand the various perspectives
that make up the history of any one event. This didn't seem, to
me anyway, to be all that radical or controversial. It seemed like
something that should go on in a college class. We were simply
trying to translate facts into knowledge. That's what learning
I should probably also mention that the class I taught wasn't
a History class. It was a sophomore level English class called "Reading
and Writing for the University Community." It was geared to
teach students how to analyze the stuff they were reading in college,
how to extract the main point from texts so that they could write
research papers, that kind of thing. That's why I decided to include
the section on the Vietnam War. I figured that, if they were taking
History courses, it would be good for them to think about who writes
the history. And though the Vietnam War section wasn't part of
the textbook that I was supposed to be teaching, my class found
it very interesting. The two weeks we spent analyzing these essays
were the best two weeks of the course. The papers my students wrote
on the Vietnam War were their best essays. Everyone was happy.
Before the next semester started, I attended a meeting of English
teachers chaired by the English Department head, who was also my
boss, a guy named Geoff Chase. Geoff was an ambitious ex-hippie
who was trying to climb the ladder to president of the university.
He wasn't a bad guy, just a guy who'd compromised his values so
many times that he'd forgotten what his values were. I knew this.
Still, it surprised me when he said, "It's come to our attention
that some of the English 205 instructors are covering the Vietnam
War. We discussed this in the last faculty meeting and decided
that the subject was too controversial, so we're not going to teach
I felt suckerpunched. I was amazed that Geoff would recoil from
allowing me to teach about the Vietnam War when he himself had
protested against it. I understood that he was on a career path
to the university presidency and any controversy could kick him
right off that path, but, for christ's sake, this was the same
guy who'd taught a class on labor movements and included the Wobblies.
How could he say something like this?
I was also struck by the very calculated passive aggression of
his remark, because 1. "instructors" weren't covering
the Vietnam War. I was. Just me. No one else. 2. He didn't even
look at me when he said this. For a long time I stared at the flecks
of grey in his thick beard and at his dark, calm eyes. He never
once cast a glance in my direction. 3. I wasn't in the faculty
meeting that decided the subject was too controversial. I didn't
decide that. Most importantly, I hadn't stirred up any controversy.
And 4. the very use of the word faculty was a sneaky thing, because
I wasn't "faculty." I was "staff." The main
difference between the two being about thirty thousand dollars
a year. So I kept staring at Geoff and Geoff kept avoiding my glance.
I wondered what to do about the situation.
That afternoon, I did a lot of thinking. I paced around my apartment,
looking at the brown renter's carpet, the kind that's designed
to absorb bongwater stains. I sat and picked at the loose foam
in a chair that another graduate student had rescued from the curb,
then gave to me. I noticed that all the other furniture and really
everything else in the apartment, including the food in the refrigerator,
belonged to my roommate. I felt suddenly poor. I knew I was poor.
It just usually didn't bug me. But on this afternoon, it definitely
bugged me. I grabbed my bike and went for a ride.
I peddled down to campus, then around it for a bit. I rode past
Old Main (the administration building) and Taylor Hall (a dorm),
both of which had been built before this was a university and before
Arizona was a state. No one knew what they were going to do with
these two buildings when they built them. More than anything, the
buildings were originally just a sign saying, "We own Flagstaff.
It's a mining and logging and railroad town and we own it." I
rode all around campus thinking about this, thinking about what
the administration building said to me now. Then, I turned north,
up the mountain and back towards home.
The whole time I peddled up the mountain, I stared at the peak
looming over me. The afternoon sun cast long shadows across the
barren snow line. I thought about winter time, when the peak would
be covered in snow and the north side of the mountain would be
full of skiers. Skiing on a sacred mountain. I thought back to
my first year as an undergraduate and how excited I'd been that
finally, after thirteen years of public schools, someone was finally
teaching me something. I finally had teachers who challenged me
and encouraged me to think for myself and encouraged me to disagree,
as long as I could explain why. And, of course, I thought of my
Vietnam War section being stripped from me. I felt like someone
was skiing on my sacred mountain. I made my decision.
I decided that my teaching job didn't mean anything to me. I wasn't
even considered a teacher, per se. I was a graduate assistant though
I assisted no one. I taught the classes myself. I developed the
syllabus (well, I wasn't supposed to develop the syllabus. I just
did). I created the lesson plans. I made up the assignments. I
gave the grades. I was the teacher. The title "graduate assistant" was
nothing more than an excuse to pay me less than a living wage for
the work I did. I decided that, if the school wasn't paying me
a living wage, then they weren't really paying me at all. And if
I wasn't really getting paid, then the only compensation I could
find out of the whole scenario was to teach something I found stimulating.
The Vietnam War section had to stay.
Next, I decided that I had to figure out how to go about teaching
it. I could present my argument to Geoff, explain to him that,
if I'm not challenging my students and I'm not teaching something
I'm passionate about, then I'm wasting everyone's time. Make him
understand that every major concept that we now consider the foundation
of our belief systems, from the idea that the world is round to
the notion that the history of war is written by the victor, was
at one point controversial. So I outlined the entire argument in
my head, practiced it again and again, and decided to just teach
whatever the hell I wanted and not tell anyone. Fight passive aggression
with passive aggression.
Plan B worked swimmingly. I learned how to become a teacher who
was anonymous to the rest of the faculty and who was completely
radical in the classroom. I figured, why stop at the Vietnam War.
I taught articles on Henry Ford's funding of Hitler's campaign;
on fourth amendment rights and how they relate to drug laws; on
Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement; on the US Army
School of the Americas; on US foreign policy in Central America
during the eighties; and on whatever else I was reading and found
interesting. My classes loved it, by and large. They saw that I
was enthusiastic, so they became enthusiastic. They read what I
assigned them. They participated in class discussion. To keep them
a little happier, I assigned less actual writing. I figured, why
make them write nine essays a semester when I only have to hand
three essays in to the department? So they only wrote three essays.
My time spent grading papers was reduced two-thirds. Also, to cover
my ass, I gave a lot of A's. I decided that grades are counter-productive
to learning anyway, and if you did the work and put actual effort
into it, that's all I could ask. And I know that my students learned
more that semester than they would've if I'd condemned them to
the typical mindless drudgery of writing dry essays about dry essays.
In fact, I'd say they learned a hell of a lot. Except for one kid.
Jason was a parentally funded slacker dwelling in college so that
he wouldn't have to get a real job. He rarely showed up to class
and didn't put any effort into it when he did. Occasionally, I'd
ask him to join in on a class discussion and he'd respond by saying
something like, "I didn't read the assignment."
"Well, go home and read it," I'd usually say. "Come
back when you know what we're talking about." Because this
was college. I wasn't his baby sitter. No truant officer was going
to hunt him down. Besides, it bummed me out to have a class of
nineteen excited students who were happy to have a teacher who
finally challenged them and gave them good shit to read, and one
guy moping because he knew he couldn't pass the class by buying
essays off his frat brothers.
By the end of the semester, Jason had handed in only one of the
three essays. It was the one on the Vietnam War. I should've failed
him, but, because I didn't want any trouble, I gave him a D.
Jason protested the grade.
When I got back to school after Christmas break, but before the
semester started, Geoff called me into his office. He asked me
about Jason and about the grade. I shrugged. "He only handed
in one assignment all semester. I should've failed him."
Geoff opened a manila folder and pulled out some papers. "I
know," he said. "He wrote the other two over the break." Geoff
held the papers out to me. I didn't reach for them. Geoff's small
hand lingered for a second: the papers rigid, his hand steady.
Then, he put them back in the manila folder. "I'm not going
to accept them. I'm going to let the grade stand."
All right, I thought. Finally, a little evidence that my boss had a backbone.
I smiled and nodded. Then I wondered to myself, so why did he call me in here?
Geoff answered that right away. "I did read the essay he
wrote. It was on the Vietnam War."
"Yes," I said. I hadn't really invited this confrontation,
but I was ready for it. I still had all my reasons, and after putting
them to the test, I was even more prepared to lay them all on the
Before I could start, though, Geoff said, "He also wants me to refund
his money for the textbook. He says that you didn't teach anything out of it.
Is that true?"
"Yes it is," I said. "You see
"It's okay. I just needed to know."
"But I want to explain, Geoff. I want you to understand."
"No need," Geoff said. He stood up and started to walk
towards the door. I stayed seated and tried again to explain. Geoff
said that it wasn't necessary, that he was sure I was busy getting
ready for the semester and that he'd already taken up enough of
my time. I really had no choice but to leave.
The next day, Geoff refunded Jason's money and cancelled the section
of English 205 that I was scheduled to teach. I was reassigned
to the university writing center, where I'd have to sit out the
last semester of my contract as a tutor. I was still able to teach
my freshman English class, though.
Strangely enough, a couple of months later, I was nominated for
a teaching award something about being an outstanding graduate
assistant. Apparently, another faculty member knew about the whole
Vietnam War situation and nominated me. That, coupled with my extremely
positive student evaluations (in one class, every single student
had given me the highest instructor rating possible), made me a
shoe-in to win. Of course, I didn't win the award. I needed a letter
of recommendation from Geoff to win it and he wouldn't write the
letter. But it didn't matter. I knew that teaching had as little
to do with awards as learning had to with grades.
I have gone on and done some teaching since then, mostly at the
college level. I still get into it by default. Two community colleges
call me before every fall and spring semester, and if I really
need the money, I'll pick up a class or two. When I do teach, I
still bring in the texts, and though I don't think what I teach
is radical, I know most people do. I've learned from that first
instance, though. I've learned to gradually introduce concepts,
so that when I'm teaching something about the Vietnam War, my students
have already read something like Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant," and
have already been introduced to concepts like imperialism and revisionist
history. I've learned to stay anonymous to my boss. I currently
have three former employers who consistently give me glowing recommendations,
but probably couldn't pick me out of a police line up. I've also
learned to give A's to any students who show up and do their work.
Happy students tend to keep radical professors from getting into
too much trouble. Most importantly, I've learned that a job teaching
is never as important as the act of teaching. And even though every
level of education, from nursery school to the university, will
frown upon controversy and dissent, they are essential stages of
the learning process. As revisionist historian Howard Zinn says,
it's "the most important principle in education: that all
premises must be examined."