Project Essential Question: "Why does the US have troops in _____?"

This essential question is inspired by the Intercepted Podcast episode "Legacy of Blood- The 55-year US War against Iraqis". Before I listened to it, I knew about the US's 1980s support for Saddam Hussein but I had no idea that he was one of the key movers in a CIA-backed coup in 1963, against Abdel Karim Kassem, a leader who promoted education and women's rights, but was definitely a dictator. This, on its own, was not a problem for the CIA, but he wasn't enough of a clear-cut anticommunist for the Kennedy administration, so they supported Saddam Hussein and his Baathist allies, who executed Kassem after a show trial broadcast on the radio, and then murdered thousands of suspected communist sympathizers, using lists provided to them by the CIA (The New York Times did a piece about this in 2003).

This all blew my mind, and it got me thinking that there is always a rich, fascinating, and usually disturbing history whenever the US has troops stationed in a foreign country. Hence the essential question, "Why does the US have troops in _____?"

(The seed for this question was really planted in October, when I read about the US soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger. My first question when I heard about it was "Why does the US have troops in Niger?")

Mystery Piece

This question lends itself to a "mystery piece", a component that has too-often been left out of my projects. I'm imagining doing a world cafe, gallery walk, or jigsaw, with print-outs of maps and charts, in order to generate observations and questions.

Some resources for the mystery piece:

I'm anticipating that a lot of students will be shocked by how many countries we're in, and will feel aggrieved that we seem to be "the world's policeman". Some students will also have personal connections, either because they have family members deployed in some of the countries, or because they have family from those countries. And some students will be curious either because they hear about a country in the news a lot, or because they don't.

So I'm generally expecting consternation from across the political spectrum about the scale of US involvement in other countries. This will provide a launchpad for questions about moral responsibility, along the lines of "if this current situation is partly our fault, what is our responsibility now?", and these serious moral discussions will be enriched by in-depth study of the history that led to the present situation in each country. 

Why would a kid care about this question?

A fair number of kids will have a personal stake, because they have family members stationed overseas, and/or are thinking about joining the military themselves. Also, a lot of kids feel a basic frustration that the US invests so much money in fighting abroad, rather than investing domestically. This came up a lot when we studied the refugee crisis, so I assume it will come up here. There's also a bit of a "secret knowledge" element - finding out about covert cold war CIA stuff will allow them to laugh knowingly at relatively superficial TV news coverage, which is enjoyable. 

Content that kids could learn through this question

I'm planning for students to choose a single country to focus on, either on their own or in pairs. So if a pair chose to go in-depth on Germany, their question would be "Why does the US have troops in Germany"?

This question shows one of the dangers of this project, which is there are a whole lot of pieces to the puzzle, so that kids will face a cognitive load choice between a load that is way beyond their ability to carry, and one that is pretty much effortless. In other words, it will be hard to plot a course between the incredibly superficial ("Germany lost WWII so they weren't allowed to have an army. We're done, can play basketball for the next four weeks?") and the overwhelmingly messy and complicated ("Berlin was divided up between the allied powers after WWII, and also Germany split into two countries on either side of the Cold War. The US agreed to essentially provide West Germany with a military, plus Germany became the most clear-cut "front" of the cold war, so the US and Russia both packed their sides with troops. OK, so what happened after the Berlin wall fell? Why are there still so many troops?").

Ideally, kids will be able to explain the history of conflict in the country at least since the 1940s, identifying the different players, both colonial and postcolonial, and the way(s) that the country fits into regional and global power structures (which is to say, both political/military, and economic), focusing particularly on the role that the US has played in the country's history since the 1940s.

I think a constant pressure in this project will be kids trying to find a clear-cut answer to the question "how can we fix this country so we can get our troops back home?" which is a great question, but will tend to kids trying to find simple answers in order to get past the unease of living in doubt. 

What adults can be involved in this?

I'd love it if everyone interviewed one person who has been stationed in this country, one person with expertise on the country (an academic or an intelligence expert) and one person who comes from this country.

What could they make? Who would be the audience?

Parents and families strike me as the most powerful audience for this, because it should trigger (and enrich) lots of substantive discussions. 

A podcast is an obvious product, since I was inspired by listening to a podcast. The issue with a podcast is that it's hard to follow chronology, particularly if you're explaining shifting allegiances over time (the Intercepted episode works in part because it's focusing on the US's role (and, even more specifically, its misdeeds) in Iraq. If it was also explaining the interplay of relationships between the Iraqi government, the Kurds, Sunnis, Shias, Iran, the Yazidis, etc., it would be utterly baffling.

A Ted-Talk style lecture with graphics might work well, as would some kind of beautiful infographic. A Youtube video (again with graphics) might also work. 

A play along the lines of The Great Game could be really effective (a promenade piece would be especially cool) but in order for this to work, the team would need to choose a country, or maybe 2-4 countries as shorter pieces taht weave together, and making these choices tends to be a nightmare.