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Stanford freshmen to debate war ethics in 2011 'Three Books' program

This year's selections, chosen by political science professor Scott Sagan, explore American warfare both at home and abroad. Sagan hopes students gain a better understanding of current events and foreign policy while learning the necessity of bringing reasoned judgment to heated subjects.

L.A. Cicero Three Books

The class of 2015 will read 'March' by Geraldine Brooks, 'The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama' by Stephen L. Carter, and 'One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer' by Nathaniel Fick.

BY ROBIN MIGDOL

When Professor Scott Sagan chose "war ethics" as the theme for this year's Three Books selections for incoming freshmen, he knew he had to offer the students some extra guidance.

"This is a pretty serious set of books, and potentially controversial," Sagan said.

The class of 2015 will be reading March by Geraldine Brooks; The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama by Stephen L. Carter; and One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer by Nathaniel Fick.

The Three Books program, sponsored by the office of Undergraduate Advising and Research, is a "common book experience" (funded by private donors) that serves as both summer reading and an introduction to intellectual life at Stanford. A copy of each book is mailed to every freshman, and during New Student Orientation the authors participate in a panel discussion about their books for all freshmen to attend. The program is now in its eighth year.

This year's panel will be held on Sept. 25 in Memorial Auditorium. Other members of the Stanford community may watch a live simulcast of the discussion in Pigott Theater.

For the first time in Three Books history, freshmen received a letter from the moderator along with the books. Sagan's letter explains why the books were chosen and provides questions for the students to consider as they read and then discuss the books with others.

Sagan, who is the Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science, co-director of Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute, said he wants students to become well-versed in current foreign conflicts and war ethics.

"I think war is too important for young people at a major university to ignore," Sagan said. "I don't think that all Stanford students should study these subjects as a profession, but I think as global citizens it would behoove them to pay attention to the world around them and to know how to make political and ethical judgments that their leaders make or sometimes fail to make."

In The Violence of Peace, Yale Law School professor and New York Times bestselling author Carter analyzes and critiques President Barack Obama's foreign policies and views on military force, paying close attention to his Nobel Peace Prize speech. Carter also compares Obama's actions with those of President George W. Bush, arguing that they may be more similar than many would admit.

L.A. Cicero Scott Sagan portrait

'I think war is too important for young people at a major university to ignore,' said political science Professor Scott Sagan, who made this year's Three Books selections.

"It's such a realist argument, that the anarchy of international relations forces countries to behave in a quite brutal way, and Carter is a realist critiquing the Obama administration – I'd say he's a friendly critic," Sagan said.

One Bullet Away is the memoir of former United States Marine Corps captain Nathaniel Fick, who served in Afghanistan just after 9/11 and in Iraq in 2003. Fick recounts his training at Quantico, Va., his experiences in battle and the difficulties he faced after returning home. Along the way, readers get a glimpse of the many moral judgments he is forced to make as a leader in the armed forces.

"I want students to understand what it's like to be trained to be an officer and a soldier, but also the practical dimensions of making difficult, ethical choices," Sagan said. "When do you shoot? When do you encourage your men to shoot? How do you balance the desire not to kill innocent civilians with the desire to protect yourself if there's ambiguous threat against you?"

March, the only fictional work this year, is an alternate take on the Louisa May Alcott classic Little Women. Eschewing the familiar characters of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Brooks tells the story of their father, Mr. March, as he travels throughout war-ravaged Virginia. Halfway through, the narrative switches to the perspective of his wife, Marmee, as she struggles to reconcile with a husband utterly changed by the Civil War.

"I want students here to not only think about the Civil War and slavery and question whether force is justified or not, but also this gets at the cost of war even for the victors, and the tragedy involved, and someone who's tried to live up to his morals who pays the cost of living up to his morals," Sagan said. "I think [March] will also appeal to the many students, mostly women, who have read Little Women and didn't think much about what the father was doing, to imagine what he was doing and the relationship to his wife when he goes back."

Sagan said he wanted to choose three books that presented the dilemmas of war through various perspectives, in order to show how different points of view can coexist peacefully when each is supported by reason and sound judgment.

"I want to encourage students to recognize that in sensitive topics like this, reasonable people disagree, and that a very important skill to acquire while you are in college is how to engage in reasoned debates on difficult subjects and bring evidence to bear on those kinds of subjects," he said.

At the panel discussion, Sagan plans to ask the authors why and how they wrote these works and to reflect on their own views and the lessons they've learned about current events. Students will also have the opportunity to ask questions of the authors.

Though students will undoubtedly cultivate their own (often strong) opinions about the books, Sagan said he hopes disagreements will give them the chance to debate intelligently and practice engaging in important world events. But in the past, he said, he's already been impressed by Stanford students' ability to do just that.

"I know this will create discussions in the dorms, and some of them will be heated. You'll have, at this university, ROTC students, military vets, some antiwar activists," Sagan said. "I hope that the continuing debates about what is the proper role for the United States will continue on this campus and that this will help make those discussions better informed and more reasoned. I hope they will take place with a stronger background of ethics and understanding of when war is justified and when it is not."

Robin Migdol is an intern for Stanford University Communications.