The costs of war in the context of the war in Iraq: a youth focused workshop

Let’s Talk was a series of workshops for young people debating and analysing current issues undertaken in partnership with TIDE (Teachers in Development Education) based in Birmingham ( and Alternatives based in Belfast (

The activity emerged directly from the widespread public debates that were ongoing at the time on the war in Iraq; participants were anxious to debate the issues as there was very considerable controversy about Britain’s role at the time and about the decision to invade.

The workshop was designed to address these debates and controversies but to also go beyond the limited discussion in the public media and to ‘get behind’ many of the ‘costs of war’, not just in Iraq (and for ‘ordinary Iraqis’) but also regionally and internationally.

The workshop used a number of simple basic approaches (group and plenary discussion and debate; video presentations of views on the war; the art-based ‘making of a ‘smart’ bomb and the public exhibiting of the workshop results at the Ormeau Baths Art Gallery in Belfast.


Young people from 9 schools and youth groups from Birmingham, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland Age: 14+


One full day workshop 1st September, 2003
Recommended timeframe: a full day divided into 4/5 distinct components

4 Big Ideas

  • The costs of war are many and diverse: the actual monetary cost itself and the ‘opportunity’ costs in terms of how such resources could have been used; the human consequences for all on all sides; the environmental, cultural and ‘legacy costs and the ongoing damage to international understanding and diplomacy etc.
  • At a time of war, the media is hugely divided – one the one side are those sources which support the official line in a jingoistic manner and on the other side, those who are implacably opposed to the war
  • Art is a particularly useful and insightful DE methodology for exploring an issue such as this
  • If you make use of art, it is important to have the support and engagement of ‘artists’ and/or art teachers (in our case, we had the guidance of 80:20 staff member John Johnson, himself an artist and teacher.


  • We were extremely lucky to have access to the work of Northern Ireland artist, Phil Collins, who had an exhibition on ‘The Human Cost of the War in Iraq’ in the Ormeau Baths Gallery in Belfast and he was available to discuss the issues (for an introduction to and review of his work see
  • Materials used to manufacture the ‘smart’ bomb: A3 poster paper, photocopies of dollar notes on A4 paper, colouring pens, scissors, glue, measuring tape, flags (representing the different parties to the war, divided into working groups), access to computers, access to stimulus material on the human cost of war i.e. videos, posters, statistics, interviews, audio
  • Background information on ‘smart’ bombs (see for example


Take a ‘step by step guide’ approach to explaining the evolution of the activity

  • The ‘Who, What and How’
  • Who were the main actors?
  • Where did you start? How did you start?

In its overall work, 80:20 is convinced of the value of using art and artists in DE and this was especially true of our work in Northern Ireland; ‘visualising’ an issue is a powerful approach in education. We had an artist John Johnson working with us who had considerable experience in using art to reflect on justice and human rights issues. We also had project participants with hugely diverse backgrounds from Ireland, Northern Ireland and the West Midlands of the UK.

The key elements included:

  • A set of ice-breakers to mix the group and begin to break down barriers of different types etc.
  • An initial (animated) debate on the motion ‘This war is justified’ involving small group preparation (of key points, rebuttals etc.) and an extended plenary debate which required careful moderation because of the emotions involved and because of the Northern Ireland context
  • An interactive visit to Phil Collins exhibition and an extended discussion
  • The making of a ‘smart bomb’ to actual size using dollar bills manufactured for the purpose by teams representing the different ‘actors’ in the war (the ‘Americans’ could not make enough of their dollars (proportional to their contribution to the war) in the allotted time and, so had to seek help from other teams
  • Ongoing discussions and arguments during the art workshop as the facts and figures of smart bombs and munitions manufacture were shared across the groups A final ‘installation’ of the bomb in the gallery followed by a ‘launch’ of the workshop outcomes.

Case Study: making a ‘smart bomb’

The ‘smart bomb’ was made to actual size as this ensured a stunning visual aspect given the physical size of such a bomb. The bomb was constructed with dollar bills made with wax paper which were then glued to a bomb template (see photo). Each team of ‘war participants’ was given the resources to made their share of dollar bills proportionate to their military expenditure on the war/as part of their GDI. They could embellish their dollar bills with additional details if considered useful based on information gleaned by their ‘researchers’ online during the workshop.

We knew in advance that the group with the most difficult task would be the ‘Americans’ given their overwhelming dominance in war and in ‘bomb making’ – we invited the whole group to share ideas as to how we could ‘help’ them. This led to a further debate about whether we should or should not contribute to ‘their’ war effort.

The participants were shocked by the actual size of the bomb and how anyone could manufacture, yet alone ‘drop’ such a bomb. There was considerable discussion about the popular view that ‘smart bombs’ were very accurate and that the ‘collateral’ damage would be limited as a result. Research during the workshop revealed that this was not necessarily so, that the collateral damage could be very large. This, in turn led to a debate as to why we let such bombs be dropped on people such as ‘Iraqis’ and this sparked an argument about how we ‘dehumanise’ an enemy in times of war.

Some lessons:

  1. Using art and using art with the guidance and assistance of an artist is crucial because the quality is actually important to deliver the desired effect
  2. Creating a physical entity that visualises the debate and the learning – in our case the bomb – is important in focusing the debate onto an end product
  3. Beginning with the participants’ own views on the war in Iraq is a fundamental principal in DE: finding out what people think already before you start trying to challenging that thinking or stimulate that thinking
  4. Working in groups to get people ‘to do stuff’ is a good way to break down barriers and get people active in a process

Project Learning

In our case we had Muslims, Catholics, Protestants and those of no-faith base; we also had people of very different cultural backgrounds. Ensuring that people could engage each other without becoming abusive in any way is one of the great challenges of doing DE work and being able to mediate genuine disagreements. In this respect the teachers and DE workers from the UK were extremely helpful and skilled as they had considerably greater experience with the issue.

If you are going to use active-art methodologies you really do need to have people that are reasonably good at art to help animate the process – trying to do it if you are not good at art is not very productive because the end product needs to resemble what you want it to resemble.

In choosing your partners to do a project with it is good to think about what you mean by ‘learning through diversity’ and how you are going to deliver on that. In our case it meant schools in Northern Ireland as we were based in East Belfast, a loyalist Protestant area. Our partner in Birmingham worked with a whole range of multicultural backgrounds in terms of schools. This meant that we had diversity built into the project and within the group and we weren’t trying to artificially manufacture it, which happens all too often when we look at intercultural learning.

Measuring Your Impact

We believe the project was successful in many of its core aims – offering a structured opportunity to debate deeply held beliefs and views within a very diverse and opinionated group. We know this from the feedback received and from the project reviews. We know it from the individual feedback received from students post workshop and from the enthusiasm for engaging with subsequent workshops. And we know it from the feedback and opinions of very experienced teachers who engaged etc.

Links to Project Activities

Other Information – remembering Dennis Edwards

One of the teachers from Birmingham, Dennis Edwards was heavily involved in many of the Let’s Talk seminars and played a key role throughout the project. Sadly, Dennis died in 2013 and this workshop case study is dedicated to his memory – a gentle and charismatic teacher whom we miss greatly.