As an economics undergraduate major and subsequently a doctoral student, I remember studying World War I, especially the economic consequences of the Treaty of Versailles. Impossibly large reparations were just one ingredient in setting the stage for another world war to quickly follow World War I. In high school and most likely in middle school, I also studied this war to end all wars. As I remember it, history in middle school and in high school was mostly a story of wars with only a brief focus on other events. And when the time came to discuss World War I, the enormous loss of human life was a sobering figure for us all to contemplate.
A few weeks ago, I took my older daughter to see War Horse, the story of a young man in World War I who enlists to find his horse who had been sold to be used in combat. The play was excellent. The horses were life size puppets and their movements were so real that it made the impact of the story that much greater. Horses are hurt by barbed wire in this play, horses die from hunger, horses are killed and the happy ending of young man being united with his horse is coupled with the unhappy fact of many soldiers on both sides dying and many horses also dying.
In all the courses I took that touched on World War I, I doubt if the loss of horses was ever mentioned. Yes we knew there were horses in combat, we knew this was a time for transition from horses to tanks and cars but that was all the attention I remember being paid to this subject. The reality, however is that a million horses died and that was just in the British armed forces; overall the number was closer to 8 million. Of the million horses to see combat for the British, only about 60,000 came home. And those that came home received no recognition for an important job well done. In fact, according to an interview in the London evening Standard with Michael Morpurgo, the author of War Horse,
In its wisdom the British government decided to sell off many thousands of these war horses. In Egypt many ended up emaciated and maltreated in the streets of Cairo. In France and in Belgium, they ended up as meat on a butcher’s slab. It was the ultimate betrayal.
The education I received didn’t place a high value on a horse’s life or 8 million horses’ lives. And yet, a loss this great is clearly a tragedy. We all know, but sometimes we don’t make it clear to our students that our values permeate our view of reality and of history. That doesn’t mean that we should strive any less to be as objective as we possibly can be. But we also shouldn’t strive any less to make sure our remaining or inherent biases are as visible as they can be. If the reality we present is incomplete or in any way less than objective, a disclaimer is certainly appropriate. And for our students, the sooner they recognize that black and white is at least somewhat gray, the more we will help foster their intellectual curiosity.