Deference in the Classroom? Discussing Military History

Published on November 23, 2021

Amy Shaw

Teaching military history comes with advantages and minefields that are in some ways distinctive to the field. Its particularities mean that classroom discussions about war, and the commemoration of war, can be particularly fertile ground for students to think broadly about how history is presented, and consider themes of context, audience, deference, and memory.

Military history tends to be popular with post-secondary students. Courses with a war focus fairly reliably fill up. The drama of the subject matter and its place in popular culture attract young people, who often come to the subject with some prior knowledge from movies,  and fiction, and immersive video games. Students also often enter classes with a sense of family connection. Grandparents’ (with the increasing number of “greats” attached making me feel older every year) service in wars, especially the World Wars, are passed down and remembered with detail not often accorded other parts of their lives.

There are further benefits for students and teachers in the opportunity to use primary documents that are not always accessible for other topics of study. When war breaks out there are flurries of parliamentary debates and newspaper articles. When they become soldiers, governments measure the bodies of their citizens, register their employment and religion, their home addresses, and the state of their teeth. Added to this, being away from home and feeling part of important world events means that soldiers and those who move for war work write home, perhaps for the only time in their lives. And wartime letters, seen as more significant than other correspondence, tend to be preserved by families and are often donated to archives. We know more about more people, especially poorer working people, in a more intimate way – with attention to their physical bodies and their own voices – than we would without the documents created during war.

Military history is also connected, rather more sharply than other subdisciplines, to patriotism and nationalism. These sentiments are often tied to a sense of a shared past, with exploits in war an explicit part of this – the country pulling together, bravery on an international stage. If military history is difficult to disentangle from nationalism, there’s a further problem because the argument is often articulated that it should be tied to nationalism, that countries need heroes, and the job of historians and educators is to find and promote them. When the éminences grises of Canadian history bemoan the lack of appropriate historical awareness among students and the wider public, it is more military history they often call for, especially in ways that highlight patriotism and the reverence of heroes.

This combination of family connection and patriotism means teaching and learning about wartime Canada can be emotionally fraught. And it means it is often harder to look clearly at wartime individuals and events because there is a felt need for deference here. Historians have done much in recent years to challenge the narratives by which key political and religious figures are taken down from their pedestals (often literally). In the civilian arena Emily Murphy’s achievements in expanding women’s political rights, for example, do not make people reluctant to discuss her racism or support for eugenics. Far less has been done to deconstruct and problematize the country’s wartime generals, let alone its soldiers.

 The challenge feels stickier here. Deference to soldiers remains widespread, almost instinctive, and our ability to discuss war history in the classroom is hurt by a reluctance to see those involved as full and flawed human beings, and instead to speak only in euphemisms of sacrifice and service. Teaching military history involves negotiating sacrosanct groups in a way that I haven’t found in my other classes. Towards the end of the semester in my senior level class on Canada in the Two World Wars, I get the students to think and talk about this.

 One class, which focuses on the 2007 controversy over the Canadian War Museum’s Bomber Command display, provides an opportunity to do so in some depth. This section of the museum’s WWII exhibit, discussing Allied bombing of German cities, was criticized by some people, including some veterans, for its presentation of the damage done and lives lost, and especially for a plaque that seemed to suggest that bombing of populated areas was not strategically effective or necessary. The uproar by those who found this offensive and demanded more sensitive treatment went all the way to the Senate, where a special committee, after hearing from prominent historians, decided that the museum ought to rewrite the plaque. The original plaque was not incorrect, it stated, but revised wording was deemed preferable, at least partly because it would be more explicitly respectful of the Canadians veterans who had been involved. The process incurred extensive debate and analysis by historians.

The classroom discussion on this extends usefully into thinking more broadly about how history is presented, about context, audience, and memory. I use the controversy as an entrance point to get the students to think and talk about what their responsibilities as historians are. Many of them are education majors, hoping to become social studies teachers.We bring that into the discussion. Do those who put together museum displays have different responsibilities than educators or academics? We talk about patriotism, and deference, and the weight of holding memory after all those who have lived through an event have died.And I ask them what I think is the key question of this controversy: who owns history? There isn’t a single right answer to this, obviously, but the discussion about it, watching the students feel their way through thinking about themselves as historians with responsibilities and power and a role in wider society, is always one of my favourite parts of one of my favourite classes.

Amy Shaw is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Lethbridge. She is the author of Crisis of Conscience: Conscientious Objection in Canada during the First World War and the co-editor, with Sarah Glassford, of collections examining women and girls in Canada and Newfoundland during the two world wars




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