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VVAW Catalyzes Teach-In
By Janet Curry
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
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.