Three years ago, over dinner with friends, Susan Hackley shared her ambitious New Year’s resolution: She wanted to make a film that would show how American children think about war.
Today, she is in the midst of making that documentary, A Child’s Guide to War. As managing director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School by day, Hackley is well positioned to take on this project.
At Harvard, she organizes programs on conflict issues and seminars for people from around the world (from Israel and Palestine to Latin America) to be better negotiators. “We try to help them deal with conflict in productive ways,” she says.
Hackley, 68, holds a master’s in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School. She is former chair of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, a Washington, D.C.-based national organization. And, she has a personal connection to war. Her son Zac was a young Marine who fought in Iraq and was among the first troops to enter Baghdad.
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We caught up with Hackley in between interviewing and filming children of military and non-military families, trauma experts, members of Congress and veterans — and busily tapping fundraising sources:
Next Avenue: Why the topic of war?
Hackley: The media have focused on the struggles of veterans, but little has been said about the impact on their children and families. The subject is current, underreported and extremely important. I think this film offers a new perspective.
Speaking of perspectives, how did you react in 2000 when your son told you he had joined the Marines?
I was stunned. He hadn’t mentioned enlisting and had been accepted to college. I was worried that four years in the Marines would derail his education plans. But he assured me he would go to college later — and he did.
How was it having Zac at war?
It was horrible. When he joined the Marines, it was before 9/11. Then, in early 2003, Zac was on a ship headed to Baghdad preparing to go into battle and perhaps encounter chemical warfare. Every day, when I came home from work, I feared there might be that black military car waiting outside the front door.
You really understand the risk, don’t you?
Yes. My college boyfriend died in the Vietnam War. That and Zac’s experience made me even more committed to opening up a conversation about the toll war can take on families and what we can do to better support those families.
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Everyone of our age remembers how painful and dysfunctional the conversations about war were during the Vietnam era. Whatever the war, it is very often the case that soldiers come home unwilling to talk about their experiences, and the rest of us don’t know what to say beyond, 'Thank you for your service.' It would be far healthier for all of us if we could have honest and respectful conversations about war.
Does your film have an anti-war message?
No. It is an effort to bridge the divide between the military and those who have no real connection to the military. I know peace activists who don’t know anyone in the military, and that seems wrong.
We all have a role to play in America and dividing ourselves between for and against war is wrong in my view. We need to have a space where we can all talk honestly about war together so that we make good decisions the next time when we’re thinking about going to war.
Why did you decide to interview kids?
I feel the best way to have conversations about war is to talk to America’s children. Their parents, grandparents and teachers need to know what the kids have to say.
We should talk to them in age-appropriate ways about war so they can grow up to make good decisions. When you are 18, you can join the military. You can vote for the leaders who make decisions about going to war. We don’t do enough to prepare kids for those responsibilities.
For children under 13, we have been to war their entire lives. Three out of five service members who deploy leave children behind. Nearly 2 million American children have a parent who has been to war.
Those are staggering numbers.
Yes. When we talk about war, we need to remember the larger circle of loved ones around the soldier. While I was interviewing in Indiana, someone said to me, 'When my brother went off to war, our entire family went to war with him.'
The media have focused on the struggles of veterans, but very little has been said about the impact on their families.
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In my view, there is war talk fatigue in this country, and I think that by hearing the voices of our children say surprising, often poignant, things about war, adults will take note.
What are you learning from interviewing kids?
I’ve found that kids have many unanswered questions. We need to do a better job of educating our children about war.
What are some of those questions?
'Why do we decide to go to war?' 'What goes on in war?' 'How do wars stop?'
In the film, there is a group of kids, some have family in the military, some don’t, and the non-military kids ask questions of the kids who have had a parent go to war. There’s something about kids asking kids what it’s like to have a parent go to war that is truly moving and insightful.
'What’s the worst thing about your dad being at war?' 'When you see a soldier coming home to her family, what happens after?' 'Is it comforting when another dad takes you to a baseball game because your dad’s at war?' 'Did they kill anyone?'
The parents and grandparents I am meeting are saying, 'Oh my God, I never knew my child or grandchild was thinking about all this.' Imagine being a child of 10 whose mom or dad has been fighting in Afghanistan and being worried that your parent will be killed or is trying to kill someone. That’s a lot for anyone.
Who is your audience?
Everyone, especially parents and grandparents. The benefits for our country could be immense if we make it safe for people to talk candidly about war. We send soldiers off to fight and need to support them in every way when they come back. That means supporting their families, too.
What is your goal for the film?
When the next debate happens about whether or not we should go to war, more Americans with and without connections to the military will factor in the significant cost to families and will also push to get families of soldiers the support they deserve.
Besides speaking with schoolchildren, what other research are you doing for the documentary?
In Washington, D.C., I organized an off-the-record conversation among high-level retired military from different branches and asked them why it’s so hard to talk about war. I learned that many times they have a complicated set of emotions relating to their war experiences and that can include pride, guilt, shame and anger.
I am also interviewing medical experts who note that some children can suffer secondary PTSD that goes untreated.
Has your work at Harvard’s Program on Negotiation been helpful for the project?
Definitely. Skilled negotiators know how to bring people together who have strong differences of opinion and let everyone feel heard. Understanding the other’s point of view is essential. We all are affected by war in this country, and we need to hear everyone’s voices.
This film will bring the viewer into the homes of many Americans deeply affected by war, and it will prompt all of us to think about what we can do to make sure all voices are heard.
One of the most important principles in being a skilled negotiator is understanding the interests of the other side and having empathy for their experience. Civilians need to understand and appreciate what soldiers experience, and military Americans need to let the rest of us be part of the conversation. We may not have been to war, we may sometimes ask dumb questions, but we want to understand it.
I’ve seen how the peace building people don’t connect with military and feel we need to do that because we all want the same thing: to fight only just wars, to support our citizens, including our soldiers, and to have empathy for other Americans who maybe don’t think the way we do.
How far along are you?
We have an 8 1/2-minute rough-cut trailer on our website that shows some of the footage. We’re making a 28-minute version that is going to air on public television in Indiana this spring. We’ll be telling the stories of soldiers and families in different parts of the U.S., from Alaska to Florida.
Along with the film, we will be developing a curriculum with education and psychology experts that will help teachers, parents and grandparents talk about war with children.
That’s ambitious, particularly since you already have a full-time job.
It is, but I believe so deeply in this project that I don’t get discouraged. A friend said to me, 'If you aren’t willing to take a long call about your project on Christmas morning, then don’t do the film.'
Did you get that call?
No, but I absolutely would have taken it!