Education by Role-Playing

I’m recently back from the UK where I defended my dissertation and then took a vacation to drink Scotch and travel about the Highlands.  As I’m almost de-jetlagged and as the airline has finally coughed up my luggage, I’ll soon be returning to proper blogging.

In the meantime, I thought I’d just post a link to a really interesting site from Barnard College about a technique for teaching undergraduates about critical periods in the past, emphasizing the role of historical contingency and (more controversially, but, in my view soundly) about the agency of individuals.  Their technique is a game called “Reacting to the Past.” It involves roleplaying and does have some sort of determination of winners and losers.  (How this determination is made is not clear.  My impression is that entails voting by a panel of judges, but I may be wrong.)

As Israel and Palestine are on everyone’s minds these days, check out the video of the students playing a scenario of “Reacting” dealing with the founding of Israel.  “The game was based around the work of the Palestine Royal Commission (also known as the Peel Commission) which arrived in Jerusalem in 1936 to try and determine the causes of conflict and make recommendations for the future.”  It’s fascinating and really powerful, not least because most of the students were Jews or Muslims and they were purposely cast against type for the purposes of the game.  I applaud all of them for their intellectual integrity and for the research and effort that they clearly put into their preparations.

That scenario clearly has some connection with military history.  Another scenario in development which deals more directly with military history is entitled “The Second Crusade: The War Council of Acre, 1148,” and it deals with the decision to launch the…Second Crusade.  Barnard has in the can already yet another scenario dealing with New York City during the Revolutionary War. Rather amusingly, the description of this scenario includes the amusing line, “Winning requires the ability to master the high political arguments for and against revolution as well as the low political skills of logrolling, bribery, and threatened force. [However] Military force often determines the winner, much to the surprise of the students who concentrated merely on internal game politics.”  Never forget Mao: “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

I wonder if it might not be possible to apply the “Reacting to the Past” methodology to a course that is more specifically related to military and diplomatic history.  Possible scenarios.

  • The run-up to World War I.
  • The decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
  • The run-up to the U.S. Civil War.
  • The Prague Spring of 1968.
  • Perestroika, the USSR and the East Bloc.
  • Japan and the United States: The Road to War.

Of course, if one wanted to be particularly controversial, one could create a REALLY interesting scenario around the Arab mujahidin at the end of the Soviet War in Afghanistan.  Near enemy?  Far enemy?  Azzam or Bin Laden?  I shan’t hold my breath, but that would be really cool.

[Update:  Gah.  Always follow every link.  Grants have been given for two additional games that deal to some degree with military history:  “Kentucky in 1861: A Nation in the Balance” and “Petrograd, 1917.”]

Published in: on June 9, 2010 at 1:50 AM  Comments (2)  
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Palestinian Deaths More Newsworthy Than Chechen Deaths

The Ansar al-Jihad English language jihadist forum has a very interesting posting that it pulled over from Kavkaz Center that asks why the world hears so much about Palestinians killed by Israelis and so little about Chechens killed by Russians.  The posting gists a piece by Brett Stephens that the Wall Street Journal ran a year ago.

The forum version lays out Stephens’ argument pretty faithfully.  Stephens concludes that taking into account both the number of deaths in each conflict and the amount of media coverage of each conflict, Palestinian deaths get about 28 times more coverage than Chechen deaths.  In a snarky but probably at least partially true comment, Stephens ends: “As for the Chechens, too bad for their cause that no Jew will ever likely become president of Russia.”  At this point Kavkaz Center comments that “ethnic Russians know well he [Russian President Dmitry Medvedev] is a jew.”

[Aside: that’s a story that Medvedev’s nationalist opposition circulated and that nasty people like those at Stormfront have picked up on.]

The Kavkas Center piece goes on to add that it is true that the Israelis and the “Crusaders” do “occupy” the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.  Thus, it’s natural that the Palestinian struggle would receive somewhat disproportionate attention from other Muslims.  Still, they say, it hardly seems fair that Palestinians receive international sympathy and support while Chechens do not.  They blame the facts that Russia is a great power and thereby holds other countries in its thrall and also that Hamas has gone democratic and thus seduced the world.

On the Ansar al-Jihad forum there was then a very thoughtful response (essentially seconded by a subsequent response from another forum reader).  The author of this response argued that there were six main reasons for the disproportion in attention and the al-Aqsa Mosque was not among them.

1) Media Blockade:  The Russians have successfully cut the Caucasus off from the world, they have murdered many Russian or Chechen journalists and simply don’t let foreign journalists or activists into the country….

2.) Language barrier: The material that somehow does make it out of the Caucasus is rarely translated into English or other languages, which greatly reduces its impact….

3.) Economic power: While Israel is a tiny nation which doesn’t export much to the world, Russia supplies enormous amounts of natural gas, oil and other resources to countries in Europe, whose governments keep quiet about the Russian record on human rights in return….

4.) Historical political power: The Soviet Union was the second most powerful nation on earth for at least three decades, it was the patron of nearly every Arab country during the 1960’s and 1970’s, and still is relatively powerful (having the veto power that comes with being on the UN Security Council etc…).  This explains why we see disgraceful scenes such as the leaders of HAMAS rushing to Moscow to pay tribute to the Russians, as they still see them as the only real rival to the United States.

5.) Petty Nationalism/Pan-Arabism: I am talking here mainly about the heads of the apostate Arab regimes, who make long, falsely passionate speeches about the suffering of their Arab brethren, but don’t actually lift a finger to help them.

There are several interesting things about this short thread.

First, the spitting contest between Hamas and al-Qaida’s sympathizers is going strong.  This should be a cause for celebration on our part.

Second, the list of reasons I reproduced about is short on religious bombast and features reasons that might readily occur to any dispassionate Western analyst.  This, along with Marc Lynch’s recent find on the Al Qaida assessment of the group’s informational and political failures in Iraq, suggest that at least some of the bad guys are thinking about these important issues in effective sorts of ways.  If that’s true, I’m pretty sure it’s bad news for us.

Third, the list above is also a further example of how our jihadist adversaries are not so different from us.  That’s actually good news.  Sun Tzu enjoins us to know our enemy.  Doing so needn’t be hard.