War in Iraq

I did my first public speaking during the lead-up to Operation Desert Storm, and once I began, there have been, sad to say, so many American (mis)adventures in the region that I seem hardly to have paused.  There seemed then, and seem now, so many things the students have to know, so many contradictions between the stories the government told us and the information we had even then, it is difficult to step back and let students draw conclusions.  The stakes seem too high, even now after more than a decade of sanctions and another horrific invasion.

Our job is to have students learn to analyze sources critically and to draw conclusions.  That’s what I was demanding of my public audiences more than a decade ago.  Instead of including the students’ voices today, though, I hoped I could model the way a historian can create a narrative based on diverse sources.

 They arrived to Saadoun al-Bayati performing Iraqi music at UNC, videotaped this fall when he was part of my students’ workshop for K-12 teachers, Iraq beyond Conflict.

We began with a review of Saddam Hussein’s reasons for invading Iran, tying them to the issues that we had been discussing since World War I.  Then I moved on to the US support for both sides of the Iran-Iraq conflict.  I focused on the aftermath of the war: the horrific human cost, the Anfal campaign in which Saddam Hussein’s troops destroyed Kurdish villages and lives, the devastation of the economies of both countries, and the consolidation of Iran’s new revolutionary regime.  I argued that one could not understand Iraq’s subsequent invasion of Kuwait without recognizing the effects of the previous invasion of Iran: Saddam Hussein’s sense that Kuwait was disavowing their common war aims by demanding loan repayment, accusations that Kuwait was engaging in economic warfare against Iraq, insistence that Kuwait was stealing Iraq’s oil.

The George H. W. Bush administration waited hardly any time to see if sanctions had worked, and the war was quick and enormously destructive, carried out by a coalition of 34 countries.  Ending the war was a murkier project.  I showed them an interview with then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney explaining (presciently) why trying to topple the Iraqi regime would have resulted in a quagmire.

I showed photos of the “Highway of Death,” when American forces bombed Iraqi conscripts retreating from Kuwait.  I talked about the importance of military reports, showing them one that discussed the complications of the campaign, like the bombing of the Amiriya Shelter that had killed hundreds of civilians.  I ended with a description of the simultaneous Iraqi uprisings against the regime, encouraged by the US, during which American forces did nothing to stop Saddam Hussein’s brutal repression.  They left to the video of the destruction of Kerbala.

In the end, it was an old-fashioned narrative, a lecture about war and destruction.  How traditional can a historian get?

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Sadat and Saddam: The 1970s and 1980s

For some reason, recent history seems much harder for me to synthesize.  What are the biggest issues of the 1970s and 1980s?  How can one present them to beginning students who don’t know much about the region, without eliciting significantly more controversy than analysis.  By the time we get to the 1970s and beyond, students already have fixed ideas and a stake in the narration.

Instead of doing an overview of the 1970s and 80s, I decided today to focus on two secular autocracies and try to connect them to the big issues of the era.  I realized they hadn’t hear Fairuz yet, a serious deficiency on my part, so they arrived to her singing one of the songs my Damascus women friends seemed to consider almost an anthem.

The “quiz” today was the same one that Viji gave her students a few weeks ago, and their responses were similar.  I told the students about the experiment she had done in class, and how thinking about issues at a deeper level would help students learn.  I explained that when I asked them to respond to a poll, I had hoped to encourage the kind of engagement that would help them participate more actively in the kinds of analysis historians do, but now it seems I may have been (inadvertently) helping them learn and remember the issues we were talking about.

I began by reviewing the importance of the past in understanding the violence in Lebanon in the 1970s, talked briefly about the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, the Israeli occupation of the south, the Syrian occupation of much of the rest, and the bombing of the US marines barracks in Beirut, for which a memorial exists down the road at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Then I asked the students to think about all they had learned so far about the region.  Based on that, what kinds of challenges faced Egypt and Iraq in the 1970s?  Here are their Poll Everywhere responses, appropriate and complex, as a word cloud:

I began with Sadat’s Egypt, the high costs entailed in being neither at war nor at peace, and the 1973 war that managed to solve none of those problems.  Neither did the “opening” to capitalist investment.  I described Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, the result of food riots that followed the imposition of IMF austerity measures.  (In past years I have had to describe the demands for austerity measures, but the students seem to know lots about them these days.)  I introduced the Muslim Brotherhood as both an economic and a political force, and ended with the assassination of Sadat.  (They now know the names of all of the Egyptian presidents since 1952!)

Then on to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  Context comes first: the Cold War, and the various ideological options available to people in the 1970s Middle East: communism, state nationalism, Arab nationalism, Islamism.  The Ba’ath party made sense in this context. The rising price of oil we had already talked about (and they seem to have talked to their parents about) provided the emerging Iraqi dictator with a lot of income to spread around.  I talked about rapidly improving child mortality rates under his rule, and the sorts of improvements that would have been reflected in the improving health of children.  But I also showed them a series of images reflecting the growing cult of personality, and concluded with the 1980 invasion of Iran, trying to provide the background they would need for the week’s reading, Sinan Antoon’s I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody.  The Iraqi invasion of Iran, I pointed out, brought together most of the issues we had focused on since the end of World War I: disputes over borders, questions of belonging, Nasserism and nationalism, and fear of popular revolution.

Their questions will provide a transition to Thursday:

Guest Lecture

This week is lecture week.  After my extended discussion of the origins of the Lebanese civil war and questions of belonging on Tuesday, the students were treated to a remarkable lecture by my colleague James Gelvin from UCLA.  He was on campus to participate in a panel on the Arab Uprisings with Amjad Atallah, Al Jazeera bureau chief for the Americas.  Professor Gelvin placed the Israel-Palestine context in global context using two timelines, both drawn by hand on a white board.  Some of us need no technology.

Lebanon

So much to “cover”!  This week, I wanted to connect the growing dissonance about belonging with its violent consequences in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The era was so fraught that Billy Joel seemed the best introduction as the students got settled.

I began by talking about the exercise Thursday, trying to reckon with the perspectives of each of the three authors so we could figure out what happened.  Analyzing sources is important, I argued, and we can learn even from explicitly “untrue” sources.  My example: fairytales.  What can we learn from such fiction?  They offered terrific ideas: methods of economic production (pricked her finger on a spindle), kinds of housing, value structures, forests as frightening, class divisions, and others.

At the same time, I emphasized, all sources are not equally valid or trustworthy or believable.  Corroborating evidence is always essential.  So rejecting a source because you disagree or because their tone seems strident isn’t helpful.  I reminded them of the need for a historian to have a split screen.

And the only question from Thursday was really helpful in discussion which things matter: “Was the economic situation as important as the human rights situation in wanting to overthrow the government?”  Different historians focus on different things in trying to understand the past, so the answer would depend on which historians one read or talked to.

One of the four basic themes on which we are focusing this semester is the question of who belongs.  The Lebanese civil war of the 1970s is a devastating window into the issue, and its antecedents offer perspective and context.  So I began with a map of the French division of “Syria” during the mandate and the longstanding European demand to be able to “protect” Ottoman minorities.  Their “protection” led to the 1943 National Pact, which offered an opportunity to remind the students of their readings on the 1860 Damascus riots and the problem of borders that came after World War I.

Then I introduced another strand: the refugees from the creation of Israel in 1948, the new refugees from the war in 1967, and the establishment of competing Palestinian nationalist organizations.  As Palestinians began to emulate the Algerian liberation movement, they tried to create a space in Jordan from which to operate.  Jordan’s King Hussein, threatened by the hijackings that followed, along with Israeli strikes against Palestinian bases on the border, attacked the Palestinian organizations, resulting in thousands of dead.  I talked about three consequences:

  • the creation of Black September, the organization that carried out the Munich Olympics hostage crisis
  • the new refugees flooding into Lebanon and destabilizing the precarious religious balance institutionalized in the 1943 Lebanese National Pact
  • the alienation of non-Palestinian residents of Jordan.

Readings for this week included discussions of the We Are All Jordan campaign of the last decade, and descriptions of the changing geographic boundaries within Beirut as a result of the civil war.

But in addition to demography and war, analyzing Lebanon’s economy is also essential to understand the outbreak of war in the 1970s.  I described the gap between Beirut, Playground of the Rich on one hand, and Beirut, Slums for the Poor on the other, and a political/economic system in which each of the confessional groups were represented among the wealthiest 4%, who seem to have encouraged them to identify with co-religionists instead of with the other underemployed and impoverished people in the city’s surroundings.  Then I briefly compared the Lebanese Nationalist Movement’s and the Phalange’s positions on confessional politics, reform, and restricting Palestinian fighters on Lebanese soil.  After a very brief mention of the horrors of the civil war, I tried to summarize the connections among the three “minority” issues in the neighboring states.  It seemed a long lecture, and I never even got to the Israeli invasion in 1982.

Revolution in Iran, Continued

The students had read three primary sources this week: a chapter from US Ambassador William Sullivan’s memoir, a few short chapters from the Shah’s memoir, and two short speeches by Ayatollah Khomeini.  Fortunately, I had a very bright student come to my office during office hours on Wednesday.  He seemed surprised that anyone would follow the “irrational rantings” of someone like Khomeini.  William Sullivan’s writing was much more measured, much more believable.  He wanted to know how he should be reading these.

His questions made me realize I was making some important and unwarranted assumptions about the way students read the documents I assign.  I decided to spend lecture on Thursday trying to help them figure out how to read historical texts.

Instead of music, I opened with ABC news stories about the hostage crisis, explaining that the legacy of that drawn out affair had left their parents’ generation with a longstanding antipathy toward Iraq.

I knew, after talking with my student, that I had to make them understand that, while Khomeini may have seemed to them like a ranting crank, he had been viewed as a respected leader by many, many Iranians.  I showed them a brief news clip to make the point.

I asked them to think about how one could account for the differences among the three authors they had read.  What made their views so different?  I was impressed with their list:

  1. Motives of the author
  2. Author’s experiences
  3. Chronology (before or after the event)
  4. Author’s agenda/Advocacy/justification
  5. Tone

I had come in with three A’s: Author, Audience, Agenda.

I divided the huge hall into three groups.  One would analyze the Shah’s writing, another William Sullivan’s memoir, and the third would focus on Khomeini’s speeches.  I asked them to come up with the five most important claims in each piece, and to draw a map describing the relationships among the three men.  After a few minutes, I asked each group of six or seven to send a spokesperson to another group to compare what they had come up with.  My goal was to arrive at a consensus among all the small groups working on each man.  Unfortunately, there was too much chaos and not enough time to share among most of the small groups.

Nonetheless, their reports were really fascinating.  Each group took “their” person seriously and explained his point of view, though only one produced a map.

Update: I found myself exhilarated by their work on the assignment in class, but at the same time, haunted by the idea that I should be really lecturing.  I was awake during the early hours of the morning replaying the class, wondering whether it really is more effective to have them figure things out, remembering how seriously they engaged with the discussion in their groups and at the same time worrying about the students who have told me or the TA’s that they learn better from lectures.  I was struck when attending a discussion section after my partly sleepless night when one of the students repeated my three A’s in analyzing a source.  Maybe they needed the practice?

Yet, once again, I fear I left them with the sense that each document, all information is equally valid.  That is where I must begin on Tuesday.

Revolution in Iran

Just back from Spring Break and March Madness is upon us.  Basketball is a preoccupation at Carolina for the next few weeks (we hope), even more than it usually is .

This week is devoted to the Iranian Revolution, and I began by telling the students that this is really, really, REALLY important.  One cannot understand US policy in the region without recognizing the complete alienation that resulted–on many sides.  I welcomed them with a music video by one of Iran’s preeminent rock stars, Googoosh, who earned the respect of many by remaining in Iran after the revolution for many years.  (Please note: many of the images in the blog are clickable and will take you to the videos used in class.)

Spring break is very long, even longer than the week that marks it on the calendar.  To review where we had been before the break, I asked the students to think about the two biggest issues and two most important events in the region between World War I and the revolutionary period we covered right before spring break.  The result really surprised me: it seems that, though many included other issues and events, everyone included the creation of Israel.  It didn’t seem that I had spent very much–or even enough–time on this, so I was quite surprised.  (I wondered if this was a result of the Daily Tarheel’s coverage of the student walk-out during David Horowitz’s talk on campus the night before.)  The wordle was so unanticipated that I didn’t know how to respond.  I will return to it next week, I think.

I began my lecture with a review of Mossadegh and the Shah (from before break), then re-introduced the Shah in the context of the 1971 Persepolis ceremonies.  Although we haven’t yet talked about the 1973 war, I introduced the oil “weapon,” describing the longer trajectory (since 1947) during which producing countries had been demanding more control over and higher prices for their petroleum exports.

Rapidly growing oil revenues helped the Shah fund his White Revolution, as well as encouraging corruption and allowing the growth of an expanded military and a repressive police force.  The results, I pointed out, were quite dissimilar from the goals.  The students got to hear President Jimmy Carter toasting the Shah at a state dinner, while reading Amnesty International’s 1975 report that “The Shah of Iran retains his benevolent image despite the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts, and a history of torture which is beyond belief.”   Then they got to hear the shah deny torture while talking with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes.

The problem is to convey the complex nature of events.  We think of this as an “Islamic Revolution,” so I wanted to introduce them to some of the demands articulated by the Shah’s opposition.  At the same time, they needed to know that religion did play a role, or more accurately, a number of roles.  After a three-minute introduction to the seventh-century division that led to the emergence of Shi’is, I explained the importance for Shi’is of having sources for emulation and the problem of legitimate rule after the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam.

Spring Break Reflections

I have been able to visit three discussion sections in the past week, and it has been generally reassuring to recognize not only that my Teaching Assistants are really good at facilitating conversations about the main themes of the course, but also that the students seem to be understanding them!

I have signed onto a new project sponsored by UNC’s Center for Faculty Excellence, a “faculty learning community” devoted to teaching large classes.  Nine of us will be meeting monthly, and we are expected to provide each other the kind of mentoring that is often absent at research-focused universities.  Faculty tend to critique each others’ teaching for purposes of promotion, tenure, and post-tenure review, but we don’t really provide much  feedback to each other when the stakes are not as high.  So I looked forward to observing a colleague to get ideas, and to their thoughts on how I could improve my teaching.

The class I attended (a psychology methods class) was both fascinating and instructive.  The professor, Viji Sathy, has a challenging task–teaching late in the afternoon on Thursdays–and this week immediately before spring break must have been even more difficult.  I was struck by how much her personal warmth and enthusiasm for her subject carried the students with her.  I was reassured that even her students spent part of their time online doing other things–it isn’t just mine!  I know the research shows that multi-tasking doesn’t really work, but the student sitting in front of me managed to do some online shopping, study for an exam in another class, and perhaps even write a paper, and could still raise her hand and answer (correctly) a difficult question.  I’ve talked with colleagues about strategies for dealing with laptops in class, but I persist in believing that these are adult students who must decide how to spend their time–and take the consequences.

The most important lesson I took away was the importance of “deep-level thinking.”  The professor did a multiple-choice poll on Poll Everywhere at the start of class:  Which of the following is the MOST important ingredient for successful learning?

  1. The intention and desire to learn
  2. Paying close attention to the material as you study
  3. Learning in a way that matches your personal learning style
  4. The time you spend studying
  5. What you think about while studying

Toward the end of class, she carried out a remarkable experiment to illustrate the response.  Here is Viji’s description of the experiment, which she attributes to Willingham:

Students listen to a list of words. For each word, they carry out an orienting task that creates either deep or shallow processing. One group rates the pleasantness of each word (“Is the word pleasant?”), an orienting task that leads to deep semantic processing, Another group checks each word for the presence of an E or G (“Does the word contain an E or G?”), an orienting task that causes shallow processing. Additionally, half of each group is told in advance they will need to recall the words (intentional learning), and the other half are not warned ahead of time that they will need to recall the words (incidental learning). This results in students being divided into four groups: deep/intentional learning, deep/incidental, shallow/intentional, shallow/incidental. To make it simpler to “see” the results the room was divided into quadrants with each quadrant receiving a different set of instructions.

After completing the list, the students are asked to recall all the words. The instructor then asks the class to check their list and count the total number of words correctly recalled. Everyone is asked to stand and remain standing as the instructor calls out the number of words recalled in 3’s (remembered at least 3 words, remembered at least 6 words, etc.). The group that did pleasantness ratings, the deeper processing orienting task, virtually always remembers strikingly more words. What is remarkable, is that both the intentional and incidental groups recall the most words when the processing is deep rather than shallow. So when the word was rated pleasant/unpleasant we see the highest level of recall, regardless of if the group was told ahead of time that they would need to remember the words. This was not true of the “shallow” processing group as most of them sat down first and demonstrated recalling very few words.

Revisiting the initial question posed: most of us would say that the intention and desire to learn is key to successful learning, but the demo indicates that what you think about while you are learning (i.e., a deeper level of processing)  results in higher retention.

The professor had visually demonstrated the answer to her first Poll Everywhere slide: successful learning comes from engagement at a deeper level.  I found myself musing about that during the whole break as I prepared for the second half of the semester.