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The Tortured Knowledge of Today's Teens

A new survey by the American Red Cross finds that only one in five U.S. youths between the ages of 12 and 17 is familiar with the Geneva Conventions, the international law standards for humanitarian treatment of prisoners and other victims of war. Presumably as a result, youths are more likely than adults to condone certain illegal wartime activities. For example, according to the survey, 59 percent of youths believe it is acceptable to torture enemy soldiers to get important military information, and 56 percent would support killing enemy prisoners in retaliation for the killing of American prisoners.

At the same time, fully 80 percent of youths believe that the U.S. should do more to educate young people on the laws and rules of war before they are old enough to vote or enlist in the military―a finding, the Red Cross suggests, that is supported by the rest of the survey. "With so many conflicts throughout the world, we should encourage high schools across the United States to incorporate lessons in the classroom to better inform students on these timely issues," said Bonnie McElveen Hunter, chair of the American Red Cross.

The American Red Cross has its own related curriculum, titled "Exploring Humanitarian Law," for use in social studies and history classes. Teachers may be able to integrate information on wartime codes of conduct into lessons linked to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The Red Cross notes that it was during the Civil War that the United States first adopted rules providing for basic humanitarian standards in war. (Incidentally, only 18 percent of youths knew this―but that's compared to only 7 percent of adults.)

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