Teaching in Wartime

“Nothing is lost by peace; everything may be lost by war.”  

-Pope Pius XII

After Mass one Sunday I shook hands with the priest and asked him to pray for me. I reminded him that I teach about government and world affairs. “Father, think what this week is going to be like for me!” I said with a half-laugh.

It’s something of a selfish request because, of course, there are people in the world who need far more prayers than I do. It’s always going to be worse to live through terrible hardships than it is to teach about them. But, if there’s ever a time when I need an understanding heart and all of my God-given wisdom in my classroom, it’s when I have teach about war.

Unfortunately, I have to teach about it often.

It’s easy to explain why a war is happening, to connect causes to effects, to rattle off key players and events. If that’s all I ever had to do, I’d probably never have any anxieties to share with a priest. But – and I’m alternately proud of and daunted by this – my students will always ask more challenging questions.

Is there ever such a thing as a good war? Are we just going to make a bad situation worse? Is the use of deadly force justified if it saves lives? What will it say about us as a country if we do nothing in the face of human suffering? What does it really mean to love peace in a violent world?

What does peace even look like?

I’m not sure I can answer any of that. I – Champion Knower of All the Things (or so my students tell me) – have as much trouble figuring this out as they do.

But I can let them discuss their thoughts freely. I can point them towards philosophers, generals, heads of state, and – yes- religious leaders who have thought about the same things. And I can publicly wrestle with my own confusing, conflicting thoughts on war: as a historian, as the daughter of a military family, as a believer in our moral responsibility to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and as a woman whose faith teaches that all life is sacred.

I can be honest with them about who I am, what I believe, and what I’m not sure about yet.

I can face it when they ask me what I’ll do if my brother ever has to go to war again (the same thing I did last time: get up, go to work, teach about the war he’s fighting, and pray that he comes home).

I can show them that, even though it’s hard, we shouldn’t shy away from these questions, or decide we don’t really need the answers that badly. Citizens in a powerful country owe it to themselves and the world to do better than that.

So this is your assignment, too: think about war. Ask yourself and others questions about its efficacy, its morality, its justness. Determine why and how it should be waged – if ever. And pray, or send good thoughts, or whatever you do to spread love and light in the world for all of those living through its horrors – and, a little bit, for those of us teaching in wartime, so that we may always do it wisely.


Kathleen Murdough has a hard time explaining where she’s from because she’s an army brat, but North Conway, NH, the town where she lives now, has been her home longer than any other place that she’s lived. She has been a high school social studies teacher there for twelve years, and can think of no more awesome privilege and responsibility.