9/11, research

images of 9/11 in US textbooks

In United States history textbooks, the events of September 11 are most often described as an attack – specifically a terrorist attack.  The timeline of day’s events is described in great detail, with a large emphasis in the response questions placed on memorization of the order and nature of the attacks.  For texts that are generally characterized by fairly straight forward, bland sentences throughout other chapters on other subjects, the 9/11 narrative is dominated by action verbs and passionate retellings.

For the vast amount of space devoted to discussion of the destruction and death caused by 9/11, the reader is provided surprisingly few pictures.  There are rarely pictures of the burning or fallen towers.  This is especially interesting, as such an image (see above) is often the sole or main image that accompanies the discussion of 9/11 in foreign textbooks.

Instead, the photograph most commonly used in American textbooks is the tightly cropped picture of three firefighters raising a flag at Ground Zero, one that is highly reminiscent of the image from Iwo Jima (see below).  This oft-used photo is just one of the many patriotic images seen in these textbooks – pictures of firefighters and flags, of classic American symbols rising above soot and ash, of children with their parents at candlelight vigils.  In none of the photographs, however, are the victims of the attacks shown.  While this may be out of respect for the families, or desire to avoid graphic images in textbooks, their absence may also signify the reluctance to illustrate weakness; there are often shocking and disturbing images in other sections of the textbook that discuss international affairs.  In contrast, in the case of 9/11, the reader is presented with America rising above and fighting back.

Figure 2

The narratives of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq include very few images, with any actually taken in Afghanistan and Iraq mainly and prominently featuring American soldiers.  For two wars that have caused so much destruction and death, there is not a single image that reflects this; not one American textbook includes war-torn landscapes, Afghanis, or Iraqis, instead opting for maps, pictures of Bush and his administration in national security meetings, and images of male American soldiers with large weapons in remote-looking areas.  By presenting a sterile version of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the texts make them easier to stomach and less in need of justification.

We see this sterilized presentation reflected in the textbooks’ words as well.  While textbooks often provide exacting figures for the number of individuals who were killed on 9/11, such is not the case when it comes to the sections on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where there is little discussion of casualties and a strong an emphasis on the American military.  Most books do mention that US troop losses rose as the war in Iraq progressed, yet the only mention of civilian deaths state that they were the direct result of “insurgents, or rebels, [that] engaged in acts of violence that killed thousands, including many Americans,” (Danzer et al., The Americans, 2007: 1105).  There is no discussion of Afghani or Iraqi civilian deaths caused by US military actions in any textbooks surveyed.

By eliminating any mention of the impact of these wars on those living in Afghanistan and Iraq, omitting them in both words and images, these textbooks sidestep a discussion of the more controversial – yet most fundamental – aspects of these wars, opting to focus on the details of the fighting rather than the motivations and justifications of starting and participating in these wars in the first place.


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