Warning: War crimes are hard to watch

Associated Press/Rodrigo Abd
A woman walks amid destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 3, 2022.

“The video you are about to see is graphic and might not be suitable for children.”

That is the warning many television correspondents issue before showing us the bloodied faces and body parts of civilians killed in Bucha and other Ukrainian cities at the hands of Russian occupation forces.

We are bombarded daily by images of bullet-ridden vehicles, dead bodies, bombed out buildings and talk of war crimes. Anyone with a cell phone can see the carnage.

So, what is appropriate to tell children about this war? Should we avoid traumatizing them at all costs? Or should we find ways to talk about the crisis, hoping that the next generation of leaders understands what is happening and knowing that only they can prevent it from happening again?

For answers, I turned to iCivics, the largest provider of civic education in the United States. With its help, I was able to ask teachers how they navigate the literal and figurative minefield of educating students about war crimes.

Marc Turner teaches social studies at Spring Hill High School in South Carolina. He says students have anxiety about Ukraine. “As a high school student in the 1980s, I remember the concerns over a nuclear conflict,” he told me. “It’s the first time in my 28-year teaching career that I’ve observed students worrying about that issue.”

Turner is explaining the Geneva Convention to his students using a game provided by iCivics to engage students in thinking about U.S. and NATO responses to war crimes.  He is careful about showing gruesome videos, but he believes “the war is a teachable moment.”

At Robert Adams Middle School in Holliston, Mass., eighth grade teacher Danielle Simoneau said, “This is a tough age to cover world events because they are just kids…many of them lack the tools to process the atrocities being reported in the media.” Simoneau also uses a game, “Convene the Council,” created by iCivics and the Council on Foreign Relations, for middle and high school students, enabling them to confront difficult scenarios like war.

But she doesn’t show them the footage of civilian victims. “They are young. They may never have experienced any type of grief or death among their loved one,” she added.  

What both teachers agree is that, regardless of age, Ukraine is a moment for education about how actions in the world have consequences for everyone, and how, in a democracy, citizens have the power to press governments to respond to war. What both teachers stress is the importance of giving students credible information from credible sources. That is quite different from the treatment of teachers in Russia, where some have allegedly been fined merely for saying that Ukraine is a separate country.

Thankfully, in the West media outlets and non-profit organizations make sure we know what is happening outside our borders, even when the material is difficult for some students to grasp. In the past decade, more and more institutions are devoting time to teaching about war.

Think back to the most recent war crimes trial in the Balkans. We saw ethnic cleansing reminiscent of today’s Ukraine.

During the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) offered materials on how to talk to young people about wartime rape.

Another organization, “Facing History and Ourselves,” supports secondary teachers with tools on how to talk about issues such as the Holocaust.

Canadian educators have a full curriculum for helping young people understand war crimes with detailed instruction and exercises.

Today, national news outlets like the New York Times are creating platforms for young people to talk about Ukraine. In February, the Times created a forum on their website for teenagers to talk about “the first TikTok war.”

NBC NEWS has a nightly “Kids Edition” with news that’s accessible for students “so children can understand the world today.”

In today’s 24-hour media-driven world, it is increasingly difficult to shield young people from news. Nor should we. History has a way of repeating itself. Learning from the past is vital. Learning from the present is painful but necessary for a better future.

Tara D. Sonenshine is professor of practice in public diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags Bucha Russia Russia-Ukraine war Ukraine Ukraine invasion War crimes

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