The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, author of The Theory of Communicative Action, saw a clear link between violence and distorted communication. Upon recently revisiting Ken Burns’ Civil War series, 150 years after those first shots fired at Fort Sumter, I found the stench of distortions everywhere, then and now. They will never leave us. How, after all this time, can anyone deny that the defense of slavery is what ripped this country apart? When I saw those images of wild, headstrong boys so eager to support the Confederate cause, I thought of the deception they’d been fed as a kind of maggot souffle. Pierce the puffed-up top, and out come the worms.
Hell is what Goethe called the relentless war depicted in the Iliad. I recall once reading excerpts from Rosemary Sutcliff’s stunning version of this epic poem to fifth graders. Why, a child asked me, are we hearing about all this war, in a Quaker school? I replied, you folks have already answered that question, as, over and over, you comment on the futility of it all. At last, the tragic war reached its bleak denouement — as do all wars. In our land, the Civil War ended, the dumb teeth of tombstones protruding in the fields of slaughter. We live in the aftermath of that carnage. Can we count the ways distorted communication has led us to subsequent wars? How often do we miss opportunities to nourish relationships that strengthen our culture and our own spirits?
We do not serve our older children well by shielding them from the bloody results of war, or by glorifying it. Like us, they will witness and experience a multitude of conflicts fed by communication gone astray. Why not use literature to engage them in discussions that will motivate them to think critically, to share their views in constructive ways, and to inspire them to work for a more just and peaceful world?
Recommended Read-alouds for Middle School
Lewis, J. Patrick. The Brothers’ War: Civil War Voices in Verse. Featuring the Work of Civil War Photographers. National Geographic, 2007. Acclaimed children’s poet Lewis has written 11 poems exposing the horrors of war, from myriad perspectives. Each remarkable poem is accompanied by a full-page archival photograph of the time. Readers will find much to ponder in both the well-chosen images and the words. Fittingly, Lewis opens the book with the sharp, lingering image of slaves picking cotton near Savannah, GA: “I stooped to stoop/ And stooped to chop,/ Then clipped to scoop/ The cotton crop.” Other poems imagine accounts by John Brown and Frederick Douglass, letters from soldiers to their families, and a narrative by a runaway slave. One of the most haunting poems is “Boys in a Brothers’ War,” in which a wounded young soldier from Virginia falls on a vole’s home. “Ignorant of war, the vole had his pea-sized heart/ set on the bark of a chinaberry tree, but there/ was Private Flowers’ boot…” Detailed captions explain elements of the war that relate to the poems. Also included: a selected-event timeline, map of states, a note on the photography, and author’s notes on the poems.
Lupton, Hugh. Adventures of Odysseus. Barefoot, 2010. Hear master storyteller Lupton read his wondrous version of Homer’s Odyssey on the accompanying CD.
Sutcliff, Rosemary. Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad. Frances Lincoln, 2000. This fluid, supremely readable version offers young people an accessible version of the Iliad.
- A Conflict’s Acoustic Shadows (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Old times not forgotten: Civil War at 150 (msnbc.msn.com)