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The Rules of War

It’s eight o’clock on a Sunday morning and I am talking on the phone with Ogden Rogers ’77 about international humanitarian law. Still working on my first cup of coffee, I am jolted completely awake when he tells me a startling fact: that the United States has an obligation to provide information to its citizens about the international humanitarian law, otherwise known as the Geneva Conventions.
“Who knew?” I ask with surprise.
Which is precisely Ogden Roger’s point.

So that’s why Ogden Rogers and the American Red Cross are now working to teach the rules of war to four million American high school students.

The rules of international humanitarian law are intended to protect the civilian population, the wounded and sick, and captured combatants. The rules also forbid the use of particular weapons and methods of warfare. “Despite the fact that people want to say war is chaos, there have always been rules of war,” Rogers says. There are currently some 40 wars and civil conflicts being monitored by the Red Cross across the globe.

While the U.S. Department of Defense provides information about international humanitarian law (IHL) to every soldier, sailor and marine, the United States has no program to disseminate information to the general American public.

Exploring Humanitarian Law (EHL) is an internationally written curriculum developed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to teach international humanitarian law world-wide. The American Red Cross, taking on the role of disseminating information about IHL to the American public, created a four-year initiative aiming to involve 56,000 social studies teachers and four million high school students by 2007.

Rogers is associate professor and chair of undergraduate social work at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and senior volunteer advisor to the Exploring Humanitarian Law project. He has been involved with the American Red Cross all of his life (and says there is a picture of him in the 1976 Cue with an ARC patch on his jacket), and has been involved with IHL for the past 10 years.

“Some years ago I took some of my college students to the Twin Cities to take a weekend course on the Geneva Conventions…and then held a focus group afterward. I was amazed at how angry they were. At first, I thought I’d made a terrible blunder and wasted a precious weekend for them. Exploring the anger, I was surprised to find its source in, well, as one student put it: ‘I can’t believe I got all the way to my sophomore year in college and I’m just hearing about this very important law.’ This is about justice, fairness, simple humanity, the students said. They were angry they had not covered this material in high school. They were not alone, many Americans are largely ignorant of the basic rules of the Geneva Conventions.”

“I set off with a team of students working on materials that could be used in elementary and secondary school to help teach about the IHL. Along the way, I was certified by ARC national headquarters to be an instructor for their International Services division. Luckily for us, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was experimenting with a newly developed curriculum to be introduced world-wide. The folks in Washington knew of my interest, and I’ve been on their development team ever since.”


“War is a terrible thing and it would be great if it didn’t exist anymore. But there is no evidence to suggest it will go away any time soon. Even in the midst of great tragedy, there exists a capacity for basic humanity.

- Ogden Rogers '77


Exploring Humanitarian Law addresses different aspects of international humanitarian law including the basic concepts of protection (who needs protection, why and how they are protected); social justice and vulnerability; treatment of bystanders (who is a bystander and how they influence the mechanisms of justice); what constitute crimes and how are crimes adjudicated; and treatment of refugees (including setting up of refugee camps.) The curriculum deals with the Nürnberg war trials, and Vietnam’s My Lai massacre. Rogers says the goal is to engage students, and eliminate any “dry and dusty” presentation.

“Recent armed conflict in the Middle East has increased the need for citizens to understand,” Rogers says. With the photos of prisoners in Iraq practically tattooed on the retinas of the American public, the incident at Abu Ghraib prison is inescapable. Rogers calls it “a teachable moment,” a term he learned from Professor Sarel Fuchs in the single education course he took at Albright. He believes there will be “significant learning from the tragedy that occurred there, the conflict there.”

The full EHL program, with 22 hours of instruction, has been tested in 98 countries. So far, the American Red Cross project has reached about 4,000 students.

Rogers says the challenge in American high schools lies in the very make-up of American education itself. “In other countries, the educational system is unitary,” that is, the curriculum is determined by the minister of education, and teachers are more like employees. The challenge here is to reach a multitude of educators who might incorporate humanitarian law modules in their classes. Here teachers are more like artists and professionals. They decide what they teach, in alignment with the curriculum. Sarel Fuchs probably told me this 30 years ago. I only took one class in education at Albright, but I learned you have to listen to them in order to influence them.”

“I’m not a teacher. I’m a college professor and a social worker… There’s a big difference!

“Modern secondary education in the United States is a large, complex, multileveled, market system of ideas. Influencing the system in just a tiny way requires all sorts of people and efforts. I spend a lot of my time as a member of a team, advocating, gathering data, identifying problems and resources as we try to find paths to telling more people about the basic rules of humanity in war.”

“This program requires a fair amount of interdisciplinary effort,” says Rogers. “My Albright education has played a large part in some of the successes our project is having. I was an Individual Study major in college… one of the real “interdisciplinary” majors. I was a sort of bio, sociology, poly sci, psych major,” he says with a laugh. “I wanted to be a public health officer.

The fact that I was able to do what I did back in the ’70s was extraordinary. I took course work from Sarel Fuchs which has given me some of the basics to meet today’s educators on some common ground. I took research methods from sociology’s Tom Meyers. Things I learned doing my senior thesis are still with my research efforts today. They prepared me to enter complex interdisciplinary environments. It has helped me do the work I am doing now.”

As we prepare to end our conversation, Ogden Rogers tells me what has become obvious – that the EHL work has become a passion. As he shuttles between Wisconsin and Washington, social work and humanitarian law, between college students and high school teachers and students, he knows he is doing important work.

“War is a terrible thing and it would be great if it didn’t exist anymore. But there is no evidence to suggest it will go away any time soon. Even in the midst of great tragedy, there exists a capacity for basic humanity. One of the things that happens when you light up adolescents about something is they want to do something about it.” One young man, in an alternative school, went through the program, and afterwards proudly showed Rogers his Red Cross blood donor’s card. “He said, ‘This is what I did because of this.’ He was moved to make his first blood donation because of this.

“I know those 4,000 kids we infected this year, somehow, some way, some day, will pay off, will save a human life.”

Author's note: As this story was going to print, Ogden Rogers was selected by the International Committee of the Red Cross to be the U.S. representative to its 22nd Advanced School in International Humanitar-ian Law this summer in Warsaw, Poland. Attendees are usually legal scholars from around the world. Rogers says to his knowledge, he is the first social worker ever to be invited.

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