Archive for Thursday, September 27, 2001

Freedom of thought

Students ponder question of war

September 27, 2001

I had cause to envy my brother last week.

Because my brother is a high school history teacher, that unworthy emotion usually strikes me in June, July and August. But the occasion of my envy during the school year was a visit to Karen Wall's junior American History Class at De Soto High School.

The visit was in association with the Vietnam War Memorial's upcoming one-week stay in De Soto's Miller Park. The class was studying the war to make that visit more meaningful.

The teacher warned me before the class she was trying something new. Students, or groups of students, would play the roles of the different protagonists in Vietnam during the 1940s and 1950s, a time when the United States took actions that would ultimately lead to its involvement in a prolonged and difficult war. Through the mouths of the students, Ho Chi Minh, early South Vietnam leader Ngo Bao Diem, the French, Vietnam Buddhists, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and others would state their position.

The students stood up and made their case, sometimes meekly and sometimes with relish. In all, the conflicting statements took away the comfort of unexamined assurances. Statements by Truman and Eisenhower showed how American did an about face in Southeast Asia over five- to six-year time as the country became concerned with the Communist menace.

I was invited to ask questions at anytime. As I listened, I wondered how the students related their studies to the country's current crisis and the reality that we are again heading into war.

Of course, I wasn't the only one to make the connection. As Eisenhower, Logan Smith keep saying terrorists when he meant communists.

After listening to the different positions, I asked the students if, through their study of the different perspectives of the Vietnam conflict, they now saw that war not in black and white, but in shades of gray. I wondered if they might take the same approach to the current conflict.

Furthermore, I asked if the country could be resolute in its determination to fight terrorism even if we acknowledged some legitimate grievances on the part of Palestinians and continued to debate how we should proceed.

The students were nearly united in seeing the current situation as different than Vietnam. The terrorist attack against civilians in our homeland removed any doubts, they said.

"I see a lot of black and white in other people," Jessi Van Roekel said. "People feel justified in what we might be doing. There's not enough gray to make it a weakness."

Somewhere in the debate that followed, I failed in my reporter's duty to identify all the speakers. I can report one female student said Americans are united in support of military action because anything else would invite more attacks.

"I think if Taliban doesn't give up Bin Laden, if we don't do anything, people will think we are weak," she said.

A number of students did suggest that American unity could waver should its military response be too harsh.

" I think it would if we go in there and innocent people are killed, because that's pretty much what they did to us," one young lady said.

Near the end of the class, I again asked the students if they thought open debate was a weakness or a strength in times of crisis and wondered if any would support censorship as a way of

With the time limited, the first part of the question remained unanswered. One young man did reasonably suggest military preparations not be shared with the press because that could put troops in danger.

Maria Gonzalez stated the case against stifling debate and censorship.

"I think we should debate it," she said. "Maybe someone has a better idea."

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