Blog: Wilfred Owen

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September 30, 2011

Inside the Classroom: Using Literature and History to Introduce Disarmament Law

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

“Gassed,” by John Singer Sargent (1918), a reminder of what motivates advocates for disarmament. Imperial War Museum.

Before my first class this fall, a student approached me to say she had spent the previous evening at the kitchen table reading her assignment and crying. Normally I would feel that I had failed as a teacher if I made a student cry, but this time I was both touched by her reaction and pleased that the initial readings for my course had had an impact.

In my new seminar “The Promises and Challenges of Disarmament,” students will spend much of the semester poring over the negotiating histories and provisions of international weapons treaties.  They will have ample opportunity to analyze legal sources in depth.  But to start off, I felt it was important for the students to grasp the reasons for and the value of the law governing weapons.

Drawing from my training as an undergraduate history and literature concentrator, I turned to readings that are atypical for a law school class but that had affected me personally and would help the students understand what motivates most modern disarmament advocates, including myself.

Over the course of a decade of war zone field research, I have been moved by the testimonies of survivors of armed conflict.  I wanted the students, too, to see human suffering from an individual perspective.

For the opening reading, I chose a poem, a reminder that literature can have a place in the study of law.  In “Dulce et Decorum Est,” World War I poet and soldier Wilfred Owen describes a comrade who had inhaled poison gas “guttering, choking, drowning. . . . with white eyes writhing in his face.”

To show the impact of a nuclear weapon, I then gave them excerpts from journalist John Hersey’s Hiroshima, which was originally published in 1946 but banned in Japan by US occupying forces. Hersey recounts the stories of six survivors of the atomic bomb and the unprecedented horrors they witnessed.

When I pulled out my copy of Hiroshima this summer, I saw I had annotated in college a passage about the skin slipping off a victim’s hands “in huge, glove-like pieces” with the note that it was the most gruesome description I had ever read.  I have since seen first-hand many of the effects of armed conflict—gaping wounds, lost limbs, body parts of a dead child—but I still find Hersey’s image as haunting as I did then.

To highlight the harm from types of munitions used in contemporary armed conflict, I turned to the story behind an iconic image: Nick Ut’s famous Vietnam War photograph of a naked girl, Kim Phuc, fleeing a napalm attack.  Passages from a biography of  Phuc illustrate the excruciating and enduring pain caused by incendiary weapons.  These weapons can burn at almost incomprehensible temperatures of up to 1,200° C; according to one of Phuc’s doctors, treatment for the wounds they cause is comparable to being “flayed alive.”

Finally, I included Ken Rutherford’s account of losing both his legs to a landmine while he was a humanitarian aid worker in Somalia in 1993.  He describes how, immediately after the explosion, he saw a foot on the floorboard of his Land Cruiser.  Realizing it was his own, he kept trying to reattach it.

Ken and me at the 2008 signing ceremony for the Convention on Cluster Munitions

My friendship with Ken, whom I met during the campaign to ban cluster munitions, gives his tale special resonance for me.

As a teacher, you never know how students will react to readings, particularly when the course is new.  But during class, students opened up and shared their personal responses.  They wondered aloud how people could design such cruel weapons as napalm, which spreads burning gel across the body as a victim instinctively tries to wipe it off.  One student related to Ken’s experience because she could envision being a field worker someday; another said she could imagine reacting to a nuclear bomb like the witness who ran around Hiroshima in disbelief for hours after the attack.

Students were also able to look beyond the narratives to identify how weapons differ in technology, use, and the harm they cause.  It was gratifying for me as an instructor to see them so engaged.

I know from experience that when one is absorbed in the minutiae of arms treaty work, it is possible to lose sight of the suffering that makes it a humanitarian imperative.  My hope is that our discussion of literature and history will continue to remind students of the individuals whose protection underlies disarmament law.

Course readings:

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