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Ten Years After: How Not to Teach About the Iraq War


By Bill Bigelow, 

In 2006, with U.S. troops occupying Iraq, the great historian and humanitarian Howard Zinn expressed his desire for what the end of the war would bring: “My hope is that the memory of death and disgrace will be so intense that the people of the United States will be able to listen to a message that the rest of the world, sobered by wars without end, can also understand: that war itself is the enemy of the human race.”

At least in a formal sense, our country’s memories of war are to be found in school history textbooks. Exactly a decade after the U.S. invasion, those texts are indeed sending “messages” to young people about the meaning of the U.S. war in Iraq. But they are not the messages of peace that Howard Zinn proposed. Not even close.

Let me offer as Exhibit A the textbook adopted for global studies classes in Portland, Oregon, the district where I spent my career as a social studies teacher, and which is used in countless school districts across the country: Holt McDougal’s Modern World History.

The section in Modern World History on the U.S. war with Iraq might as well have been written by Pentagon propagandists. In an imitation of Fox News, the very first sentence of the Iraq war section places the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein side by side. The book presents the march to invasion as reasonable and inevitable, while acknowledging: “Some countries, such as France and Germany, called for letting the inspectors continue searching for weapons.” That’s the only hint of any anti-war sentiment. In fact, there was enormous popular opposition to the war, culminating on Feb. 15, 2003, a date that saw millions of people around the world demand that the United States not invade Iraq—if you’re keeping track, the largest protest in human history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. This, of course, is a pattern in corporate textbooks: Conflate governments with the people; ignore social movements.

Just as textbooks fail to begin the story of the Vietnam War in the 1940s (or before), so that students might have some context to evaluate later U.S. military intervention, today’s textbooks similarly ignore an earlier U.S. relationship with Iraq. For example, Modern World History says nothing about the role of the United States in aiding the Ba’ath party and Saddam Hussein for years, as they crushed all opposition and later waged war against Iran—a history summarized in a recent article by Iraqi sociologist Sami Ramadani, who fled Saddam Hussein’s repression in 1969. As Ramadani writes, “But when it was no longer in their interests to back him, the U.S. and U.K. drowned Iraq in blood.”

The official title of the U.S. invasion of Iraq was “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Modern World History uses this term without any discussion of the “freedom” that this invasion might offer. The section ends with the terse conclusion that “the coalition had won the war.” And what about that supposed freedom? Silence.

I’m reminded of the quote that begins The Freedom, a book about the U.S. war in Iraq by investigative journalist Christian Parenti. Parenti offers this sardonic observation from Akeel, a 26-year-old resident of Baghdad, about the supposed freedom brought by the U.S. invasion: “Ah, the freedom. Look, we have the gas-line freedom, the looting freedom, the killing freedom, the rape freedom, the hash-smoking freedom. I don’t know what to do with all this freedom.” 

After a quick and bloodless description of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the textbook’s final section is headlined “The Struggle Continues.” It begins: “Despite the coalition victory, much work remained in Iraq.” The only thing missing from this rah-rah section is the confetti: “With the help of U.S. officials, Iraqis began rebuilding their nation.”

No, that’s not what happened. What happened was privatization and ethnic cleansing. As Naomi Klein writes in her important book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Iraq “was transformed into a cutthroat capitalist laboratory—a system that pitted individuals and communities against each other, that eliminated hundreds of thousands of jobs and livelihoods and that replaced the quest for justice with rampant impunity for foreign occupiers.” This bland line in Modern World History about U.S. officials helping to rebuild Iraq seems less aimed at teaching students history than it is at underscoring a key textbook myth: The United States is a force for freedom and justice in the world.

Holt McDougal tells students that “numerous U.S. troops remained behind to help maintain order in Iraq and battle pockets of fighters loyal to Hussein.” The book adds that “Violence also increased due to growing opposition to the coalition’s presence.” Note the antiseptic “violence also increased,” the faceless “growing opposition,” and no mention of who is being violent or what this violence meant to actual human beings in Iraq—or, for that matter, to the U.S. and “coalition” troops who their governments put in the role of being occupation forces.

Indeed, Modern World History never uses the word “occupation.” No, much work remained, so the United States was rebuilding a nation, and troops remained behind to help maintain order. The book could offer voices of dissent on this alleged rebuilding effort. For example, this 2005 quote from a Guardian article written by Howard Zinn would be a perfect addition to a text that is supposed to help students think about their country’s role in world history:

Now we are the occupiers. True, we liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein, but not from us. Just as in 1898 we liberated Cuba from Spain, but not from us. Spanish tyranny was overthrown, but the U.S. established a military base in Cuba, as we are doing in Iraq. U.S. corporations moved into Cuba, just as Bechtel and Halliburton and the oil corporations are moving into Iraq. The U.S. framed and imposed, with support from local accomplices, the constitution that would govern Cuba, just as it has drawn up, with help from local political groups, a constitution for Iraq. Not a liberation. An occupation.

Significantly, there is no Iraqi quoted in Modern World History—that omission itself is a powerful statement. The section is a primer in the legitimation of imperialism: The violent and squabbling Third World others have no capacity to rule their own country; so we will decide what’s good for them. Modern World History gives the last word to President George W. Bush: “We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide. No act of the terrorists will change our purpose, or weaken our resolve, or alter their fate. Their cause is lost. Free nations will press on to victory.” All that is missing is the John Philip Sousa march music in the background.

In a mockery of the term “critical,” the chapter closes with four “Critical Thinking & Writing” exercises. Here is the sole “critical writing” activity: “Imagine you are a speechwriter for President Bush. Write the introductory paragraph of a speech to coalition forces after their victory in Iraq.” By what definition can this assignment be considered a “critical” anything? Of all the possible Imagine you ares, why just this one from the individual who launched the war?

Of course, the huge corporations that produce texts like Modern World History have no interest in nurturing the kind of critical thought that might generate questions about the interventionist policies of our government—or especially about today’s vast inequalities of wealth and power, which these interventionist policies are intended to further. Holt McDougal, the book’s publisher, is owned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a publishing behemoth, with annual sales of more than a billion dollars. Yes, billion, with a “b.”

This is why we need to search out—and to create—materials that help teachers not only “teach outside the textbook,” in the words of the Zinn Education Project, but teach against the textbook. (At the risk of sounding self-promotional, I recommend Teaching About the Wars, a collection of alternative resources published just this week by Rethinking Schools.) We need to invite dissident perspectives into the classroom: those that challenged the baseless connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attackers, those that question the military recruitment tactics that target our students, those that expose the reality of war with honesty and compassion, and those that pose fundamental questions about the roots of empire. Let’s not allow the Holt McDougals of the world to decide what our students will learn about war and peace.

This piece was written for the 'If We Knew Our History' series at the Zinn Education Project and is reprinted here with the author's permission.

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