'1917 film shows why pupils must study horrors of war'

Talking about war with pupils means shining a spotlight on dark episodes – but we need to do it, say two educationalists

Annie Haight and David Aldridge

Sam Mendes' film 1917 reminds us that we shouldn't shy away from teaching about the horrors of war, argue two educationalists

Sam Mendes’ multi-Bafta-winning film 1917 shows in graphic and uncomfortable detail the horrors of war.

The film’s presentation of what two young men are prepared to do on behalf of their friends and comrades, and to prevent loss of life, is compelling and moving.

It does not tell a story of good and evil sides to the conflict, but of fearful and traumatised young men, following orders and fighting for their lives.

The same story could be told about young men and women in diverse and desperate corners of the world today.

1917: A fresh, hard look at war

The question of futility hangs over the film’s ending, calling on us to take a fresh, hard look at how war and victory in the past link directly to the brutality of geopolitics today.

We are made uncomfortable by our feelings of both sympathy and repugnance for characters who kill.

And, while not all of the film is suitable for school pupils (it has a 15 certificate), the horrors it depicts and the uncomfortable feelings it elicits are precisely what make it such a powerful tool to help teachers decide what to teach about war. 

Nowadays, young people become aware of war from an early age.

Memorials, films, books and songs recall conflicts of the past. Posts on social media recall present-day conflicts, and video games romanticise those of the future, in galaxies far away.

Whether or not we like it, the horrors of war are part of our culture, our history and our national identity. Schools cannot – and mainly do not – ignore this.

Teaching about war

The teaching of war is, quite rightly, a centrepiece in the national curriculum.

Armistice Day is commemorated in assemblies across the country and it was the source of justifiable pride that so many schools took part in events that marked the centenary of the First World War.

And yet we still grapple with how to discuss the horrors of war. As educationalists, we worry about how to sensitively approach the loss of life among our armed forces, and how to remember war without glorifying it or celebrating the success of one side.

We may wonder how those students in our classrooms who have recently experienced the traumas of war, or who have parents or grandparents who have, will handle such discussions.

An uncomfortable spotlight

We question how to teach about post-traumatic stress, absence, fear, censorship, state repression, population displacement – all topics that can come up when we talk frankly about war.

Talking about war with pupils means shining an often-uncomfortable spotlight on dark episodes of our past and discussing how ordinary people were killed and died in awful ways for causes they believed in. It means addressing the long-term impact on families and communities. 

Rituals of remembrance, silent reflection, discussions in lessons and tutor times can all provide the perfect opportunity to think and talk about the horrors of war.

As Sam Mendes’ 1917 shows us so well, above all, really talking about war means not shying away from the horrors of it.

Dr Annie Haight is senior lecturer in the school of education at Oxford Brookes University. Dr David Aldridge is a reader in the school of education at Brunel University, London

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Annie Haight and David Aldridge

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