Thursday, August 22, 2013

Back to School (All Quiet On the Western Front)

"You are the iron men . . . !"
Kids return to school in Chicago next week, and I've been reading up a storm, thinking about how we can counter the message of militarism and imperialism that more and more of our students are exposed to.

In Chicago, in particular, we're struggling to prevent another of our schools from being turned into a military academy, as well as engaging in a broader effort to overcome the influence of the military recruiters who have been given unbridled access to so many CPS schools. This has led me to think about how we can make use of the upcoming release of the film Ender's Game to provoke a discussion about war and the immorality of recruiting kids.

Two other developments are tied closely to this issue. First, in Chicago, as in many other big American cities, we are working hard to find a remedy for the violence that our young people encounter, particularly during the summer. But how can we hope to convince them that "violence isn't the answer" when our government is engaged in violent conflict in country after country? Second, we are all being forced to confront the acts of conscience of one young man who believed that the American people would want to put an end to war if they saw the true facts. Are we prepared to live with the Manning Principle?

So it was a "Eureka!" moment for me when I began reading an excellent new book about the collaboration between U.S. film producers and Nazi officials, and I realized how important it is to add All Quiet On the Western Front to our reading list for young people in Chicago.

"He tells you, 'Go out and die'!"
In particular, as described in The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand, there is the moment in All Quiet On the Western Front when the young soldier returns to visit his old high school.

The soldier visits the class of the teacher who had goaded him and many of his classmates to enlist in the first place. (It seems unbelievable to imagine a public school teacher today giving his or her class a pep talk about how great it is to join the army . . . but isn't that, in effect, what we are exposing our students to when we let recruiters into the schools and convert them into military academies?)

Encouraged by his teacher to tell about the "glories" of being a soldier, he delivers a damning verdict:
"He tells you, 'Go out and die' . . . Oh, but if you pardon me, it's easier to say 'Go out and die' than it is to do it! . . . And it's easier to say it than to watch it happen!"
You may not be surprised to learn that that is the scene that Nazi officials fought to have expunged from the film. The Collaboration provides a full account of the controversy over All Quiet On the Western Front in Germany in the early '30s and a detailed description of the parts of the film that are inimical to the war-making enterprise.

All Quiet on the Western Front

The Collaboration, by the way, is un-put-down-able, and should be read by anyone who cares about how our media and the arts is entwined with our addiction to war. It has had a special meaning for me, because it reminds me of some very special conversations I had with my mom in the period shortly before she died. She had been a young adult in the years leading up to WWII, and she told me that, although the human rights abuses and growing militarism that were happening in Germany at the time were known to many, the topic seemed to be off-limits. "I don't understand why people weren't talking about it," she told me.

So: America's addiction to war and its disgraceful reliance on recruiting young people in the schools. Let's start talking about it.

Related posts

We need to do several things for our young people. First of all, we need to show them pictures of war and explain: "This is what real chaos looks like." And then we need to ask, "Still think this sounds appealing?"

(See The Few, the Proud ... and the Chaos)

A big Hollywood production of Ender's Game is scheduled for release on November 1. It's a perfect opportunity for us to ask: Are we happy seeing our schools turned into "Battle Schools"?

(See "Ender's Game" and the Militarization of Youth: Can We Talk About This? )

Ames serves a largely Spanish-speaking community. Is the militarization of Ames anything other than a signal of what the Democratic party means by equitable treatment for immigrants?

(See The Militarization of Ames: The Real Meaning of the DREAM Act )


"A terrible disease has struck the area . . . people call it the "flu" . . . many in our own community have fallen to it . . . including someone very dear to you, someone in your own family . . . I'm talking about your sister, Margaret." (See November 11, 1918: Another Veteran for Peace )