Sunday, January 20, 2013

Notes From The Classroom, pt. II--Civil War Casualties

As I mentioned in my last post, I spend a lot of time teaching my high school students about the American Civil War.  Or, to be more accurate, I should say "the Civil War era".  As I tell them on the first day of the school year, I'm a pacifist, and I don't like war.  As a result, I spend a lot of time talking about life during wartime, and the effects of wars on American society, but not a lot of time on the "bang bang, shoot shoot" part.  This usually disappoints a few students (mostly boys) but of course I still make time to cover certain major battles as well as key military leaders and their tactics, so even the more "bloodthirsty" kids have something to look forward to.

This past week I taught the kids about the scale of Civil War casualties, as well as the terrible conditions faced by soldiers of that era, especially those who were wounded in battle. When I teach this class, I have several goals in mind; first, to put the event into a global perspective, and second, to try to relate the information to the wars the United States have been fighting for most of their lives.

I find it helpful to put the Civil War into a global perspective for a couple of reasons.  Primarily, since I teach students from all over the world (my school draws from over 20 nations) I don't want to seem chauvinistic.  And secondly, if I am successful in driving home the point that the Civil War was the most significant event in our nation's history, it stands to reason that civil wars in other countries are equally important.  I start the class by sharing the following facts with the class:

  • 3,000,000 soldiers (USA and CSA) fought in the Civil War, which was about 10% of the total population. 
  • Approximately 620,000 soldiers died in the war (about 2% of the total population). An equivalent today would be  six million deaths.

I then share the casualty totals of some significant 20th Century civil wars for comparison:

These numbers typically elicit a strong response, but someone usually raises the significant differences between 19th and 20th century technology.  So I mention that contemporary with the US Civil War was the Taiping Rebellion in China. This civil conflict lasted from 1850-1864 and claimed at least 20 million lives

After this perspective, I try to make a comparison to something with which they should be familiar, the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.  At this point I am teaching students who were only four or five years old in 2001, so their recollections are naturally hazy.  But they are quite aware that 9/11 changed their world. Nearly 3,000 people died that day (with many more dying since then, especially rescue workers at Ground Zero).   Our country was horrified by the carnage in 2001, but (thank God) nothing similar has happened to America since then.  But imagine living here 150 years ago.  In the space of four and a half months in 1863, the following battles took place (among others): 

Chancellorsville, Virginia: May 1-4 1863: 30,099 casualties (17,278 USA / 12,821 CSA)

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: July 1-3 1863: 51,112 casualties (23,049 USA / 28.063 CSA)

Chickamauga, Georgia:Sept. 19-20 1863: 32,624 casualties (16,170 USA / 18,464 CSA)

and that was after two hard years of war, with another year and a half to go.  I ask the students to consider what it must have been like to live in the country back then.  I imagine that people must have been almost in a state of shock.  Everyone must have known someone connected to the war and the tension of never knowing when a loved one's name would show up in the newspaper's death rolls must have been terrible. 

And that is a useful point of contrast to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have gone on for most of  my students' lives. According to The New York Times, during the last decade, less than 1% of the total population has been on active military duty, compared to 9% during WWII and 10% in the Civil War. This makes it easier for people to have an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to war.  

I also spend time discussing medical science and technological advances in the last 150 years.  We talk about how wounds to the extremities were the most common injury in the Civil War, and that most resulted in amputation.  After grossing the students out with discussions of the highly septic conditions of operating rooms 150 years ago, I ask if they know what the most common injuries are for American soldiers today. According to Catherine Lutz of Brown University, [.pdf] they fall into four categories:

  • Traumatic Brain Injury:  A Rand report in 2008 found 19 percent of returning service members reported having experienced a possible traumatic brain injury...Whatever the true number, TBI cases range from severe, penetrating TBI to the more common mild TBI which can display itself in psychosocial dysfunction, seizures, irritability and aggression, depression, confusion and memory loss.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Mental injuries, including PTSD, have also been common.  The Veterans  Administration reported 192,114 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had been diagnosed with PTSD through the end of 2010, with these numbers, however, excluding anyone diagnosed and treated outside the VA system...Several features of these two wars have made emotional and cognitive impairment more common, including multiple and extended deployments with less rest between deployments (39 percent of all soldiers who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan have had two or more deployments, even after wounding, and more exposure to handling body parts and seeing friends killed, surviving with more grievous wounds, and higher rates of  TBI.  Other predictors for PTSD include “killing of innocent bystanders, or having to  witness such killings without the ability to intercede, [which] is also associated with more intense psychiatric manifestations. This is of significant concern due to the large numbers  of civilians killed during this current conflict by both coalition forces and the insurgency.”
  • Amputation:  More soldiers survive their wounds now than ever before in human history. The widespread use of body armor protecting the vital organs has also  meant an unusually high number of wounded soldiers with multiple amputations (including limbs and genitals) and complex combinations of injuries, including burns,  blindness and deafness, and massive facial injuries.  According to the Army Office of the Surgeon-General, there were 1,621 amputations among US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and “unaffiliated conflicts” through September 1, 2010. Half of these were caused by  improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Blast injuries from IEDs often combine penetrating, blunt, and burn injuries. IED shrapnel can include nails, dirt, and clothing and create enough small wounds to exsanguinate the victim. There has also been a high incidence of blinding injuries. 
  • Spinal Cord Injury: US News reports that  "explosions are the main cause of spine injuries among wounded U.S. military personnel...Researchers analyzed more than eight years of data on back, spinal column and spinal cord injuries suffered by American military personnel serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of nearly 11,000 evacuated casualties, about 600 (nearly 5.5 percent) had a total of more than 2,100 spinal injuries. Explosions accounted for 56 percent of spine injuries, motor vehicle collisions for 29 percent and gunshots for 15 percent, the study found. In 17 percent of spine injuries, the spinal cord also was injured. Fifty-three percent of gunshot wounds to the spine led to a spinal cord injury. 

One of my students pointed out that it is a shame that since so many injuries are "invisible" it will be hard to recognize and thank these veterans for their service to the country.  I thought that was an excellent example of being able to discuss "current events" in the context of a history class.  Thanks for reading!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Notes From The Classroom, Pt. I-Slavery Footprint

So in my day job I teach American history (and since I work at a boarding school, it is often my night job as well). One of my classes is a survey course on U.S. history.  I believe that it is impossible to understand America without understanding the Civil War, so every year in the winter I spend about seven weeks covering the Civil War (about four weeks on the lead-up to the war, and the rest on the conflict itself) followed by another two weeks on Reconstruction (you can see my full syllabus for details).  Most of my students are 10th and 11th graders and I strive to try to make the material that we cover relevant to their daily lives.  As the slogan on my history webpage says, we study history to make sense of our world today. 

This week we covered the midpoint of the war.  The students wrote an essay evaluating whether Lincoln or the slaves themselves deserve the most credit for emancipation, and we also discussed the Gettysburg Address.  It also helps that the movie Lincoln has been so well-received this winter; my school took all of our students to see the film, which led me to write a "who's who" of the characters.  Because this month is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, numerous articles have been published discussing the significance of that landmark declaration.   One article that I found especially compelling, entitled "How Many Slaves Work For You?"  was in the New York Times on Dec. 31, 2012.  In it, Louis Masur, a history professor at Rutgers proposed that it was time for a new Emancipation Proclamation one "written for our times".  

Masur draws our attention to the problem of human trafficking, which President Obama has correctly identified as modern slavery.  Estimates are that up to 27 million people worldwide are enslaved right now; these people are exploited for their labor and their bodies.  "Trafficking" can include forced labor, bonded labor, debt bondage among migrant workers, child labor, involuntary domestic servitude and sex trafficking.  I don't usually share my personal viewpoints with my students, but I have traditionally revealed that I consider the kidnapping and sale of 13.5 million Africans from roughly 1450-1850 the worst thing ever.  But twice that many people are enslaved right now!  

Masur linked to a very provocative website ,  The site uses clever animations and informative blurbs to educate visitors about the scope of human trafficking, and more importantly, to show how our modern Western lifestyles benefit from the labor of the victims of modern slavery.  When I took the test I was told: 

So this week I shared the site with my students, asking them to take the survey for homework, and to write a response.  I was very interested to see what they would say.  I teach at a private school, where many of the students come from relatively privileged backgrounds.  Further, I have students from 8 different countries in my classes (our school draws from over 20 nations).  The responses were quite gratifying:  the students took the project seriously, and several wrote deeply meaningful responses.

One American boy wrote: 

Upon completion of the slavery activity I found that I have 102 slaves working for me. The main contributers to this score included, in order, Lightbulbs, Ibuprophen, Cars, T-shirts, and Ballpoint pens. 
This number is very disappointing. The number of companies involved with slavery was quite extensive. This activity proved the reality of slavery. Slavery is still a major issue in not only foreign countries but also in our homeland. Human trafficking is a major issue in the US as well as around the world. This activity has shown me that people are still living under slave-like conditions and that there are options to end this maltreatment.... The US is a leading cause of the slavery in these areas because of our demand for their products. If the US and other countries refused to buy products manufactured by slaves the slaves would be freed form their bondage....I feel that the Slave Footprint activity was a great way to relate how slavery was back then and how it is now since these periods are very similar and require the same legislation and human effort to end slavery. 
An American girl wrote:

63 slaves work for me.  
This is a great program. It makes it visually appealing so anyone would be interested in taking the survey, and it's really eye-opening.  Even if it doesn't make people give away anything or stop buying anything, at least they can have a greater appreciation for what they have. 
A Chinese boy wrote:

The place I chose was not Shanghai, instead, I chose my hometown Zhengzhou. It is a city in northern China. It is no doubt that China is the “World Factory”. 60% of commodities we use have the label of “Made in China”. It is true that Chinese economy booms and people think that Chinese people are getting rich. It is true that the families which can send their kids to our school are already rich. Radically speaking, it is also true that those families are those 5% people who hold 90% of the wealth of China. 
I was born in a very little town in northern China and I knew what the circumstance it was ten years ago. My father only had two hundred dollars when he got out from college and those money were his entire family property. 10 years, things changed. From a little town without more than 20 apartments and fancy cars to crowded shiny business buildings and Mercedes and BMW cars. People do become rich; however, does everyone get rich? Absolutely not. There is a lot to say the negative impact of the increasing economy. So I decided to pick one example. I am an electronic geek. Computers, headphones, speakers, cameras and programing equipment are my favorite. Apparently 95% of them are made in China. Every Chinese knows a company knows a company called Foxconn. My home town Zhengzhou has the largest Foxconn factory in China. I believe every student at least owns one product from Foxconn. If you flip your iPhone or Macbook, you will read: “Designed by California. Assembled in China”. Foxconn, the largest electronics assembler on the earth. People believe their iPhones were made by machines and robots. True, but only 5% of the jobs are done by machines. The other 95% percent of the work are entirely done by hands. The workers in Foxconn only have the wages 1600 Chinese Yuan (240 USD) per month. 
Nowadays slavery is given  a new definition. Those “slaves” are free. They can talk they can do whatever they want. However, their wages do not equal to the amount of work. An American can make at least 7 dollars an hour but for those workers they can only make 7 dollars a day (12 hours working). I traveled from one of the poorest town on the earth to New York and this is what I do several times. It is very frustrating once you have this kind of experience. 
A Vietnamese girl wrote:

After I did the survey I got the result that approximately 42 slaves worked for me. Although the survey is not 100% correct, it does reflect the truth that slavery exists within modern society and in our daily life. By looking at the estimated number of “slaves” working for us from Slavery Footprint, it seems hard to believe that somewhere in the world people still have to suffer from social inequality. Last November, I had the chance to join the simulation of the UN Human Rights Council at Brown’s Model UN conference. One of the three topics I had to work on that time was the issue of unpaid bondage in Southeast Asia. In the process of preparing for the conference and writing up my position papers, I had the opportunity to read a lot of articles and useful information on unpaid bondage....According to the International Labor Organization, there are about 20.9 million victims at any time. I was totally shocked the first time I saw that number in ILO’s report. More surprisingly, 11.7 million of them, making up about 56% of the total, are from the Asia and Pacific region. These numbers should alert people about the seriousness of this issue. This is the consequence of social hierarchy and the lack of legal protections in this region....Anyway, I think that everyone should be aware of this issue and take it seriously. Moreover, we should all maybe avoid using products that are the results of forced labors. Although the issue of modern slavery requires long-term solutions, I believe that small changes can make a huge difference! 
An American daughter of Indian immigrants wrote:

My slavery footprint was 51 slaves.  This made me sad.  I know--or at least I have a general idea--of who they might be, where they might come from.  I've seen the kind of people that might be forced to work under slavish conditions, sat in taxis driving by them.  I've listened to them beg and been told not to get too close.  In India, giant megacities like Kolkata and Bombay they are everywhere.  Except for the malls--those are gleaming white things with security guards at the doors, meant strictly for the rising middle class.   
...I sit in some aunt's house  and I listen and I watch.  And there are people who aren't slaves, who technically are paid, but still... 
[My grandparent's house], it's normal by our standards but for them it's huge.  So there's a woman who comes and cleans the rooms and does other chores.  After a week of staying with them, we took a train back to Kolkata...The tickets might have cost a few hundred rupees (rupees are 40-50 to a dollar).  I was told that the train tickets were equivalent to one month's salary for the woman.  Not quite slavery, but not the ideal life either... 
And how to respond to this sort of thing?  It might be possible for people to cut back on some products associated with slaves, but not completely.  Inequality has been a part of the world since the beginning of time.  And we're all just teenagers.  What can we do?  So yes, it made me sad.  
 These responses are only a few examples.  I feel proud that I was able to make the students aware of a serious issue, and that I was able to do it in a "holistic" way that meshed with the syllabus and was a natural outgrowth of the historical material.  As a follow-up, I also shared the following links with the class:

Feel free to share this with your children, your worship communities and your friends.  Hopefully if more of us have our consciousness raised we will be able to make a contribution to curbing this scourge.  As Prof. Masur wrote at the conclusion of his article, "today we should celebrate the extraordinary moment in the nation’s history when slavery yielded to freedom. But the work must continue. For those who insist they would have been abolitionists during the Civil War, now is the chance to become one."