Okay – time to plan for our next retreat. We have two groups lined up from Detroit and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In addition to logistics like hotel and travel reservations, I need to decide what subject we’ll teach. Generally it’s whatever dominates the news that week. Since new sanctions against Iran are coming into effect, I’m leaning toward that.
A popular saying has it that “the problem with the younger generation is that they haven’t read the minutes to the last meeting.” Not our kids. One of the things we’re really good at is teaching them how to absorb information faster. We do this by taking a subject and reducing it to a few main ideas. In the case of our Iran unit, the main idea is to identify the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Islam. This is a big one in the Middle East; one of the many fault lines that bisects that troubled region and provides the fuel for much of its conflict.
I came across a fact the other day that astonished me. It is believed that Hizbollah – the proxy guerrilla force in southern Lebanon financed by Iran – has 100,000 rockets there, all poised to attack Israel. This is an incredible amount of firepower and very destabilizing. Revolutionary Guard forces have been active in Iraq and Syria, and Iranian proxies are also fighting in Yemen.
Since Iran will remain a thorn in our foreign policy side for some time, the kids will spend the first day of the retreat working through this lesson plan. It’s important for them to understand the background of U.S.-Iran relations and why they have been so bad for so long, because that informs the decisions we make now. It will also inform the decisions these kids will make in twenty or thirty years. Where do we go from here? What happens if Iran gets the Bomb? How should we react to that and to Iranian efforts to spread their influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria?
For possible answers to these questions, we will teach two more units that week: Appeasement and the Vietnam War. The former addresses the infamous policy to appease Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. This was the classic justification used to fight another enemy at another time in Vietnam. We’ll teach that unit on the last day of the retreat to show our students how the wrong lessons of history can be applied too. It is the exception to the old saying that “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.” The men who led us into Vietnam knew their history all right, but supported a doomed policy anyway.
The lessons of Neville Chamberlain’s sellout at Munich in 1938 are clear and true enough. Appeasing Adolf Hitler by giving him German-inhabited sections of Czechoslovakia was a terrible idea. And not just in hindsight. Winston Churchill most famously condemned it at the time when he said, “His Majesty’s Government had to choose between war and shame. It chose shame. It will get war.”
So it’s important to stand up to aggression, sure – but what about Vietnam? Every President from Eisenhower to Nixon used appeasement as the justification to fight Communism there, but Ho Chi Minh was not Adolf Hitler and South Vietnam was not Czechoslovakia. To oppose one and defend the other was not synonymous.
Our students will learn all this too, and the field exercise on Thursday will have a scenario in which they must surveil our Iranian “agents” downtown to determine their intent. All I can say is that it will have something to do with money laundering and circumventing financial sanctions to acquire prohibited nuclear technology. The kids will need to bring their A game for this because it will require them to do A LOT of research and connect A LOT of dots.
But by the end of the week they will be semi-experts on Iran, presented with the question (if not the answer) of how to deal with that country in the future. Should Iranian aggression be met with military force, as if the ayatollahs were Nazis bent on conquest? Or should we assume we’re in a new cold war and counter Tehran’s influence through political and economic means?
That’s the decision the younger generation will have to make.