Rules of engagement

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
The recent conviction of Jamie Petrolini and Richard Elsey for an apparently motiveless murder has once again placed the spotlight on young people's perception of warfare and violence. The young men carried through their fantasies about the SAS and killing technique to a ghastly conclusion when they picked a car at random and murdered the driver in a frenzied knife attack.

Such callous disregard for human life is, fortunately, a rare phenomenon. However, it does raise questions about violent influences and the part that primary history education might play in this.

Images of war and violence are introduced to children from a very young age and are often purposefully distorted by media which have vested interests in myth-making. From Roy Rogers to Arnold Schwarzenegger skilled weapons handling has been allied to just causes.

Similarly, racial stereotypes and "clean" popular warfare are openly available in comic-strip books for children. Robert Hanks in an article for The Independent (April 4, 1994) on this enduring aspect of popular fiction writes: "If you look at Thomson's Commando series (war stories in pictures), still published at a rate of eight a month and available at a station book shop near you, you notice that they are mostly re-fighting old wars, against an enemy addressed as 'Hun' or 'Jerry'."

For many children the images of soldiers and war are formed in the pages of comic books such as these. And the images are clean, sanitised. The shocking nature of violent combat is not apparent. It is replaced by an exciting representation designed to lure small (and not so small) boys to the bookshelves in order to part with their 45 pences.

This is also the rationale behind the design of many junior history textbooks. I was in a primary school library recently skimming through what was available for the teaching of Tudors and Stuarts. I began to look more carefully at Oxford Junior History, a series that still seems to be a popular favourite. The illustrations are a mixture of actual source material, photographs but predominately artists' reconstructions of events. What struck me particularly was a double-page portrayal of the Battle of Edgehill.

There are charging cavalry men, pikemen locked together, troopers discharging pistols - all ripping stuff but as a representation of a 17th-century battle there were some key features missing: men up to their elbows in blood, riderless horses with terrible wounds, hacked and dismembered corpses. It was possible to spot a couple of token injuries but not enough to distract the child from the exciting imagery of battle.

I am not advocating that children should be exposed to lurid pictures of the horrors of war but I am concerned about the impact such sanitised images have on them.

I decided to ask the children what they thought of the picture: 70 per cent of them (90 per cent of the boys) felt it was "good" and would make them want to find out more about the war, 95 per cent felt it showed accurately what the Battle of Edgehill would look like and, interestingly, 73 per cent felt the picture was "exciting".

Here is the dilemma. Glance through any random sample of school history books and you will find images of Vikings, bare-chested with blooded axes, Roman gladiators locked in combat, British Tommies with Bren guns spitting, charging into action. These images are similar to the ones that appear in Commando and War Monthly. They misinform children and communicate the notion that war and violence are glamorous, exciting and, most importantly, OK.

As teachers we must encourage them to question the pictures they see. Only by asking "Do you think it really looked like this?", "In which ways might it have been different?", and "Why do you think the artist has drawn it this way?" will children develop a clearer understanding of the nature of warfare. If these questions go unasked, all that will remain for them is the seductive, exciting image.

The National Curriculum Council's key stage 2 in-service training materials tell us: "Most of our knowledge about the past does not come from personal investigation of sources, but is derived 'second-hand' from a great variety of other people's interpretations. The world is full of all sorts of images of the past, ranging from television advertisements with a historical setting to the latest researches by professional historians."

This statement, given as advice to teachers teaching key stage 2 history, does seem a long way from former Education Secretary John Patten's perennial demand for history teachers to "stick to the facts". Warfare, more than any other subject in historical study, is not, to use one of Mr Patten's favourite phrases, "moral free".

Media representations vary enormously but, unfortunately, when looking at war and its effects on people's lives, the more graphic and harrowing the image, the more honest and accurate they often are. Films of quality, such as Schindler's List, convince us of their authenticity.

However, as teachers of history we need to point out to children that some media depictions do not present war as it actually is. More disturbingly, some actually sensationalise and glamorise it in order to make it more appealing.

I believe that national curriculum history gives us a mandate to question these representations. As history teachers we need not be reminded that we have a moral responsibility to our pupils and we can, therefore, be trusted to teach them about war without bombarding them with graphic and horrifying images.

Peter Vass is a senior lecturer in education at Oxford Brookes University

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