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Class Notes
Preparing D.C. students for war
(Published March 24, 2003)


I was substituting during my free period the day after President Bush announced his 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein. After about half an hour of silent studying, the class - mostly 11th and 12th grade girls - started asking me about war.

Even though I know very little about combat, the fact that I teach science made me an authority on certain matters of warfare.

"What does a chemical bomb spread in the air?" "How long do you have to wait after a biological attack before it's safe to go outside?" "If a nuclear bomb hits the White House, how far would it reach into Northeast?" My students expected solid answers, but my own cursory knowledge was hardly sufficient.

As I fumbled to provide basic explanations, I felt the crumbling of my childhood illusions of adults as confident, omniscient guardians. I faltered at the very time when students most needed to hear clear words of reassurance from their teacher.

The inevitable question, "Why are we going to war?" was probably the most difficult - given my own ambivalence over whether our stated goals hold merit. Bush's televised addresses to the nation and the world have made an ambitious promise to bring freedom to 22 million Iraqis currently living under a repressive regime. This objective is indeed noble; it holds the potential to dramatically improve the lives of all Iraqi citizens. But suspiciously, this altruistic rationale departs from the earlier justification made during the build-up to war: that the U.S. must protect itself against Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. And the Bush administration's refusal to estimate projected expenses or casualties suggests that they are ignoring the deep price we will have to pay for our actions.

I have enormous sympathy for the Iraqi people, who suffer under a dictatorial, repressive regime. While I fault our nation for failing to build true multinational support, especially from countries in the Arab region, at the same time I cannot deny that a newly conceived democratic government in Iraq would bring tremendous improvements to the quality of life for all people in that nation. Ignoring Saddam Hussein - burying our heads in the sand - cannot be an option. An invasion that dramatically improves the lives of millions of people and incurs relatively little expense or loss of life would be wrong not to undertake.

But every war has casualties and high expenses. These are too often neglected in the calculus of morality. The decision to go to war is a decision not to spend our resources on other important causes: education, curing disease, health care.

For instance, economic development is a relatively cheap alternative to armed conflict and produces tangibly beneficial results. The Marshall Plan to rebuild 16 nations after World War II cost the United States $13.3 billion. It served 270 million people, a cost of about $50 per European, or roughly $350 in today's dollars.

In stark contrast, by some estimates Operation Iraqi Freedom will cost $100 billion, or $4,500 per Iraqi citizen - and may or may not produce any permanent improvements to infrastructure.

As a teacher, I know the vast rewards that relatively small investments can yield when directed to help people improve their lives. Our athletic director has taken kids from the projects, growing up under the shadows of violence, sexuality and drugs, and gotten them onto sports teams that have built their confidence and their sense of community. The band and choir directors at my school have built programs that ensure students will be able to enjoy playing music for the rest of their lives. A veteran Spanish teacher opens up a world of diverse customs, peoples and languages in her ever-popular Multicultural Club. Our college counselor has helped students get into college and secure financial aid - even when many of those students are the first in their family to advance beyond high school.

Education works. But we could do more. I have a long list of things that could improve the quality of our schools, such as hiring a drama director, developing an integrated curriculum or ordering good library books - and almost all of them require some money. A single Tomahawk cruise missile costs $500,000 to produce, and 24 were fired in the first day of attacks. As I saw the explosions over the Baghdad skyline, all I could think was what a difference $12 million might make in the lives of children in our inner-city, or in the cities of Iraq.

The fact is that we put a higher priority on national defense than we do on guaranteeing base-level quality in every school. When I was a senior in college, I got a job offer to be a systems engineer for a major aerospace company that primarily takes projects contracted by the Defense Department. The bulk of its funding comes from taxpayer dollars, but the salary it pays is more than twice that of a public school teacher. If my college loans had loomed larger, or my lifestyle needs been higher, there is no way I could have turned down that offer.

If we put our money toward what we believe in, then we simply do not believe that good schools are a necessity for every child.

Justified or not, war is here, and our school is taking measures to prepare. Teachers have been recommended to stockpile emergency provisions in the event of a lock-down. We have had two "Shelter-In-Place" drills this week, to move all students and staff to the basement level in the case of a chemical or biological threat. This drill has had a gravity not felt before during a standard fire evacuation. The hypothetical of an enemy strike has suddenly become a real danger in our midst - a danger that we have undertaken knowingly and willingly.

Though students have been reassured that school is one of the safest places they could be, I have heard many of them speaking in noticeably anxious tones about their fear of attack. Some can play it off cool, joking that they plan to skip school for the rest of the year. Others more visibly show their agitation, uncertain whom to trust in an increasingly hostile world.

From any perspective, war - even a war that is morally justified - is a tragedy. It is the action taken by peoples who have failed to cooperate and understand each others' differences with compassion. As we pray for peace, let us also teach our children how to work together so in their world they may invest their precious time and resources in more rewarding, productive endeavors.


Wulsin is a second-year chemistry and physics teacher at the H.D. Woodson Academy of Finance and Business. Please send stories, comments, or questions to

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator