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War is Text: UAlbany Researchers Find Depictions of War in School Textbooks Shifted Radically after Vietnam Era

ALBANY, N.Y. (August 6, 2014) -- Modern day textbooks draw a different picture of war than their predecessors did in the era immediately after World War II leading up to the Vietnam War, a study by University at Albany researchers finds.

In research published in the July edition of Sociology of Education, UAlbany sociologist Richard Lachmann and graduate student Lacy Mitchell discovered that U.S. textbooks published between 1970 and 2009 increasingly focused on the personal experiences of soldiers, rather than presenting impersonal accounts of battles, as had been the norm before Vietnam. They also found that textbooks were much more likely to focus on soldiers’ suffering rather than to glorify combat.
Wounded soldiers in Vietnam

Textbooks written after the Vietnam War are likely to focus on the personal experiences of soldiers rather than presenting impersonal accounts of battles, a UAlbany study finds.

The textbook shift focus is greater for the Vietnam War than for World War II. The researchers also found increasing attention in textbooks paid to the fact, but not the substance, of world-wide protests against the Vietnam War.

"The goal is to understand how textbook and media depictions of war affect Americans' tolerance of casualties and influence public opinion toward past and future wars," Lachmann said.

According to the authors, textbook treatment of war has been significantly transformed since the Vietnam era. Americans' unhappiness with the course and outcome of the Vietnam War is reflected in the significantly more hellish and personalized textbook accounts of that war, as opposed to the more nuanced presentation of World War II. The militarism and hidden curriculum of a nationalism suffused throughout the text has, since the end of Vietnam War, become subordinated to a concern for the experiences and suffering of individual U.S. soldiers.

Yet, Lachmann says, textbooks have moved away from glorifying World War II as well, albeit to a lesser extent than for Vietnam.

The authors conclude that textbooks' changing presentation of both wars suggests that:

• The Vietnam War soured Americans on all wars, not just Vietnam;
• The antiwar and other social movements have made uncritical patriotism less acceptable in textbooks; and
• A world culture of individualism affects how textbook authors and publishers think about war and the experiences and sacrifices of soldiers (at least in the culture of affluent Western countries that have abolished conscription).

Further, Lachmann suggests that future research and comparisons of U.S. versus other countries’ textbooks might show how much of the change is particular to the United States, perhaps due to the Vietnam War, or is attributable to global changes in military conscription, tolerance for casualties, and attitudes toward individual rights and group obligations.

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