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VVAW Catalyzes Teach-In

By Janet Curry

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With school year 2002-03 less than two days old, St. Louis-area high school history teachers Rebecca Taylor and myself stole a moment from the all-school introductory assembly. We must have Barry Romo (VVAW extended-family member and campus sponsor of Amnesty International), I insisted, and Taylor knew that we must take a day before the 11 September anniversary if we wanted in any way to frame student space for asking questions. Together with art teacher Chris Vodicka, campus sponsor of Gay Straight Alliance, and with clear support from the principal, the Teach-In plans were underway.

In addition to Romo, participants included two Iraqi speakers, both born and raised in or very near Baghdad; and Larry Baker of the high school's history department. Close to five hundred students and faculty attended, with such resounding faculty responses as: "One of the best assemblies I have ever attended," "You are awesome; thanks for organizing," and, "There are times that Clayton doesn't feel like the average high school and, thanks to you, today was one of those days!" Student reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with many paper topic commitments born that day, and with extra attention paid to the breaking news on George W.'s phone solicitations to French, Chinese, and Russian heads of state.

Essential to this effect were the authentic Iraqi voices. Both speakers laid out compelling descriptions of Hussein's persecution of the Kurds, the deeply impoverishing consequences of the sanctions for the people of the country, and the tight hold Hussein has over the media. Beyond this point, however, both speakers urged that U.S. bombing of Iraq would deepen the people's misery, that war is not a computer game, and that civilian casualties would be brutal and enormous in number.

Larry Baker supplied certain textbook points regarding Bismark's rules of engagement, the artificiality of certain national boundaries in the Middle East due to British imperialism, whether war can be considered an extension of diplomacy, and such American options as containment, coalitionism,and confrontationism. Interestingly, Baker's comments slid to the left with each new hour of presentation. He was certainly listening as well as presenting. As he processed the U.S. sneak-attack bombing of Vietnam with 150 B-52s per day, delayed-fuse bombing of hospitals, the 50,000 Vietnamese children born with massive birth defects since the war (due to U.S. defoliant sprays), the Iraqi speakers' experiences of containment as squeezing the heart and life from the people, not the leaders, Baker spent less and less time exploring the alternative of war.

It was Romo's contribution, though, which combined the most gripping accounts of war on the ground, the most comprehensive and incisive analysis of U.S. military extensions of power over the past 40 years, and completely on-target answers to student and faculty questions. For many who came to the event dominated by the fear of Hussein's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons capabilities, it was worth hearing Romo's point that the only time Hussein had ever used weapons of mass destruction was as a U.S. ally against Iran.

Barry led rapt listeners through accounts of Vietnam and the war's aftermath of veteran suicides, through Colombia, and through Afghanistan. He stated that the number of civilian casualties to U.S. bombing in Afghanistan had by December 2001 surpassed the number of Americans who died on September 11.

At least one history teacher was not catching the connections. "See what you can do to keep the Vietnam speaker on Iraq," she said to Curry, "because that's what the kids are interested in." Romo's response: Bush is now pursuing Iraq for reasons that do not include his compassion for the Iraqi people; few military experts other than the Viagra Generation's chickenhawks are advocating U.S. mobilization because we lack the necessary allies; and the United Nations is the path to resolution of this issue. Question the media, because no one is objective: each of us has to dig deeper for the truth. Look for the attempts to dehumanize people that any U.S. administration happens to dislike at the moment - the dehumanization that young people are taught in military training. Look for it, and don't fall for it.

As September 11 arrived, the school had arrived at a format for its recognition: a moment of silence in honor of the 9/11 dead, the Pledge of Allegiance, twenty minutes of discussion of such questions as "How has 9/11 changed the country?" "What has been done to make sure terrorism does not strike again?" and "Are you willing to give up civil liberties in exchange for added security?" Two students who had attended the teach-in convinced the principal to broaden the moment of silence to include recognition of those who have died around the globe this year in violent and preventable ways. These students are preparing a counter-essay to those read at school on 9/11 claiming a new unity within the United States. They will be citing Amnesty International's condemnation of U.S. cluster bombing in Afghanistan, and they will recognize Afghan civilian deaths and the number of kids this year murdered in St. Louis as lives no less precious than those who died in New York, Washington, or Pennsylvania.

Zoe Curry, my third-grade daughter, spoke up for the Afghan people in her own classroom's 9/11 observance. She must have been listening to all this preparation, if not to direct instructions regarding cleaning up her room. She has good priorities. It is a good time to be a VVAW extended family member.


Janet B. Curry is a high school history teacher in the St. Louis area.

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