How textbooks have changed the face of war

| November 7, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Bettina Chang

As the world commemorates the start of the Great War this year, researchers find that war is more personal, less glorious and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

The content of children’s textbooks is often a cultural flashpoint, with conservatives and liberals battling it out over who’s indoctrinating whom with biased views. American news often centres on the public review process of a state’s chosen textbooks, and whether or not parents deserve more time to raise objections.1 With all the hand-wringing over what students are reading in textbooks,2 there have been few systematic reviews of textbook content,3 particularly on the controversial topic of the Vietnam War.

Previous criticisms4 have gone so far as to suggest there was a ‘hidden curriculum’ in textbooks that fosters militarism and nationalistic attitudes by emphasising the heroism and glory of war. A new analysis A new analysis shows that the simplistic depiction of war as a glorious, patriotic endeavour has, in fact, dampened in recent years, at least in relation to the Vietnam War and World War II. Still, contemporary textbooks rarely offer explicit criticisms of American foreign policy, nor do they depict the suffering inflicted upon America’s enemies.

In a paper published in the July 2014 issue of Sociology of Education,5 researchers at the University of Albany-State University of New York analysed 102 textbooks published from 1970 to 2009. The researchers found that the number of references (text, photos and exercises) to death and casualties in both wars rose over the decades, as did mentions of the anti-war movement for Vietnam. “The rate of change for Vietnam was much greater than for World War II,” they note. One mind-boggling finding: “A total of twelve books for WWII and eight books for Vietnam make no mention of casualties whatsoever.”

Most of the offending books were published before 1982. Vietnam view revised The descriptions of the casualties also changed over time. For World War II, mentions of casualties in a glorious light and impersonal terms (deaths as strategic results of war, no focus on soldiers) increased slightly. The percentage of items that describe World War II in personal (focusing on soldiers’ and families’ suffering) and hellish (cruel, gruesome, senseless) terms almost doubled. “The change was greater, and different, for Vietnam. The number of items that present Vietnam in glorious and impersonal terms fell from five per cent in 1970 to close to zero per cent by the 1990s, where it has remained,” researchers note.

“In other words, while textbooks’ coverage of World War II remained mixed… textbooks’ coverage of Vietnam has become unrelievedly bleak.” An absence of accountability The authors note that the analysis does not show why this shift has occurred. They offer a few hypotheses: the counterculture of the Vietnam years caused a general distaste for war and allowed for a more critical review of both World War II and the Vietnam War. Or, the growing influence of our individualist culture has shifted the focus away from a country’s geopolitical goals and toward the personal suffering of citizens.

Regardless, the lack of explicit critique of United States foreign policy and the absence of personal stories about enemy soldiers remain an issue for textbook makers, the researchers write: “Based on the evidence of the textbooks examined, legitimation of the identities and rights of individuals stops at the water’s edge.”

Bettina Chang serves on the board of directors for Supplies for Dreams (see, working to improve education outcomes for students in public schools in Chicago, Illinois, in the US.

This piece was featured in the Pacific Standard (see in July 2014, and appears here with that publication and the author’s kind permission.

References: 1. The Florida, US legislature has approved Senate Bill 864. It is now mandatory for all textbooks produced in that state to be made available to the public before a school year starts, and parents can challenge textbook content. See, for example: new-law-allows-textbook-challenge and article/2014/04/30/us-usa-florida-education-idUSBREA3T0OS20140430. 2. See, for example: Walsh, M. (2014) “Parents alarmed by frank sex education in California high school textbook.” Available at: high-school-textbook-article-1.1896713. 3. See, for example: Benavot, A. (2011) “Improving the provision of quality education: perspectives from textbook research.” Available at: 4. See, for example: Apple, M.W. (2004) Ideology and Curriculum. New York: Routledge. 5. See: Lachmann, R. and Mitchell, L. (2014) “The changing face of war in textbooks.” Available at:

Category: Book Reviews, Summer 2014

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