This Memorial Day, 6 tricky lessons to convey to children about war

Devastation in Carentan, WWII.



For spring break, a friend and his wife took their three children to Honolulu. They planned to visit the USS Arizona Memorial, the commemorative site of the attack on Pearl Harbor.


Since I’ve interviewed veterans and written about WWII, they asked me for ideas about how to teach their children about war.


What would you say?


Educating the next generation about the atrocities of the adult world is never easy. Case in point: Washington Post reporter Brigit Schulte’s son asked her for a war-themed birthday party when he turned 8.


The boy had seen the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and wanted to reenact the Normandy landing with his third-grade friends. Mom said yes, passed out party invitations that said, “Bring your gun,” and then wrote an article about it.


A national debate erupted.


Supporters saw the birthday party as a springboard for healthy discussion, saying children need morality lessons, such as the way Star Wars prompts talks about good versus evil.


Detractors balked at the idea that war could mix with a birthday party. “Here’s a novel idea,” wrote one reader. “Say no. Tell him that war is sad and horrible and should never be cause for celebration.”


My wife and I wrestle with this, surely. Our baby and our kindergartener are too young yet to discuss the subject, but our fifth grader has already studied about WWII in school and understands its gravity.


“I could hardly bear to look at those pictures of the Holocaust,” our daughter told me. “I needed to turn the page quick.”


How should we educate the next generation about war?


Consider 6 lessons you may want to convey.



1.  To strive for peace with all your might.



Peace is not a given. Not on a child’s playground. Not in the arena of international politics. But if a conflict arises, peace always needs to be the first goal to strive for.


The first question to ask must be: is there a way to solve this dispute peacefully? Can we talk it out? How can we work toward mutual understanding?


Why? Because the sakes of war are huge. Deadly huge.


We must always teach children to strive for peace as hard as they can.



2.  Hostilities exist.



Hostilities exist. President F.D. Roosevelt spoke those two powerful words within his legendary “Day of Infamy” speech to Congress December 8, 1941, one day after Pearl Harbor. America rallied to arm itself, safeguard its citizens, and take action against the hostilities that threatened.


FDR’s words are as true today as 70 years ago. Hostilities exist. They just exist in different forms.


Whether it’s Kim Jong-un bragging about Pyongyang’s wish to develop a nuclear warhead that will hit the United States, or Iran’s overt support for rogue militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, the world is not a safe place, and children need to know that not everyone loves them.


Learning about war means children learn “stranger danger” in its ultimate form.





3.  Sometimes a country needs

to get involved in conflict.



“War is never the answer.”


We’ve all seen that slogan on bumper stickers, and it’s true in ultimate terms. But if one country rises up and attacks another, then national—and sometimes international—defense is a must.


To put it in terms a child will understand, ask this question: If two kids are fighting on the playground, then it’s best to stay out of it, yes. But what if one kid is being bullied? What would you do? Hopefully you’d either stop the bully yourself, or you’d call over the teacher and get him to intervene.


History has shown that on an international scale, the policies called isolationism and nonintervention, (basically that you shouldn’t get involved in other people’s battles), sometimes work and sometimes don’t.


After the First World War, much of America adopted a live and let live stance. We’d had enough. We weren’t going to get involved in a second international dispute, particularly when it didn’t directly affect us, so we hung back at the next war’s edges for a while.


But history has shown that isolationism actually prolonged WWII, causing more death and destruction than it prevented.


The WWII veterans I’ve talked to say that when they reached Europe and Australia, respectively, people responded with a loud, “What took you so long?”



4.  Never forget: war is war.



Iconic images of national triumph are not a bad thing.


The battle weary 82nd Airborne Division marching in a New York ticker tape parade on January 12, 1946 comes to mind, as does the nurse kissing a sailor in Times Square after Japan’s surrender.


But other images of war, the bloody and the ghoulish, continually need to be pushed to national consciousness.


As they’re able, children need to see those images too.


Picture U.S. Marine Dan Lawler wiping blood off a 5-year-old girl in Okinawa, her wrapping tiny arms around his neck, and him weeping at the injustice of civilians being caught in crossfire.


Picture U.S. paratrooper Joe Toye, a strong semi-pro athlete, writhing on the snowy ground during the battle of Bastogne, his leg blown off by an artillery blast.


Picture U.S. Marine Clarence Ray in a hospital on Guam after being wounded in the arm. Ray glances around the ward and sees a man with both legs amputated, another with his jaw shot off, and another burned so badly he doesn’t look human anymore.


We need to teach our children to never forget that war is war. Never, never forget.



5.  Unfortunately, it’s easy for lines

to become blurred.



Which country is right and which country is wrong?


This is a controversial point, I realize, yet empathy—the notion of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes—is a most vital lesson to teach.


We like to think of war in black and white terms, particularly WWII. America was attacked, after all.


But each side came up with justifications—and that proves messier to explain. Yet it’s necessary for children to wrestle with that concept.


Nazi Germany believed it was unjustly blamed for beginning the First World War. A second military offensive seemed the only way forward.


Imperial Japan, an island nation, had a growing population to feed on limited land. They believed pushing their boundaries into China was the best solution.


All wars, even the most justifiable, contain traces of gray even for the moral victors. Surely one of the most controversial decisions of WWII was for America to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wiping out many civilians.


Yet the Marines I’ve spoken with insist that the bomb was a necessary evil. A prohibition to surrender was deeply ingrained in the Japanese culture, and, without the bomb, the war would last indefinitely. A ground war in Japan would have resulted in even more deaths.



6.  Freedom means responsibility.



The veterans I’ve talk to describe how freedom came with a great price—not freedom to do whatever we want anytime we want, like people are apt to think. Rather, it’s freedom to do something worthwhile with our lives.


We are free from tyranny, and we’ve been given much opportunity. But securing freedom was neither easy nor cheap.


“I’ve been all over the world,” said WWII Marine Richard Greer, “and it’s worth doing everything you can do for it. When I finished working, I set about doing things for the nation. That was my definition of success—to keep serving.”


That’s perhaps the greatest lesson any parent can teach a child: if you live in a free country today, then you’ve been given a remarkable gift, one that came at a great price.


So it’s up to you to do something remarkable with your life.


Never take your freedom for granted.



Question: how would you educate the next generation about war?



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