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The Changing Face of War

Grades: 9-12
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Lesson Summary


In this lesson, studentsexplore how warfare in the 21st century has dramatically changed since thedays of “conventional” 20th century warfare. The IntroductoryActivity uses computer-generated proportional maps to help students visualizehow patterns of military spending, arms trade, and war deaths reflect shiftingdynamics in the nature of warfare from 1945 through to the present day. In theLearning Activities, students watch and discuss video segments excerpted fromthe PBS series Women, War & Peace to explore what the “new world order”inaugurated by the end of the Cold War means for the millions ofpeople—especially women—affected by today’s intense but often obscureconflicts. For a Culminating Activity, students prepare brief reports aboutongoing conflicts in the world, seeking to establish or confirm patterns basedupon what they’ve learned in this lesson.


Students will be ableto:

  • Describethe geopolitical impact of the end of the Cold War;
  • Compareand contrast 20th century “conventional” warfare with the conflictsof today;
  • Differentiate and explain the concepts of “national security” and “human security”;
  • Provide examples of how the United States military is revising its approach to “winning hearts and minds”;
  • Describe the future of women’s roles in peacemakingand postwar reconstruction.

Grade Level:


Suggested Time

(3-4) 45-minute class periods

Media Resources

A New World Order Video
Human Security Video
Empowerment Video


The Shape of War Student Organizer

The Shape of War Student Organizer Answer Key

For eachgroup of 4-5 students:

One set of map charts from World Mapper, including (in order):

Military Spending 2002

Arms Exports

Arms Imports 

Armed Forces at War 1945-2004

War Deaths 1945-2000

War Deaths 2002

Web Sites

The World at War



UN Women: Women, War & Peace

International Committee of the Red Cross: Women and International Humanitarian Law

The Lesson

Part I: Introductory Activity

1. Divide studentsinto groups of 4-5 and distribute a full set of the Worldmapper mapcharts toeach group and a copy of The Shape of War Student Organizer to each student.Tell students that they will have approximately 30 minutes to complete theirorganizers based on information presented in the mapcharts, each of whichfeatures a computer-generated map in which national land mass is proportionalto the statistic(s) being represented, generating a visual “snapshot” thathelps intuitively convey larger geopolitical trends and realities. Tellstudents that they may reference the included “Land Area” mapchart of the world(which reflects actual geographic land area) for orientation and to better understandand evaluate the proportional distortion represented on the other mapcharts.Note that it may be necessary to help students identify nations, which areunlabeled on the mapcharts. Havestudents note that the questions on the student organizer are intended to besomewhat open-ended; they don’t necessarily have “correct” answers and areintended rather to provoke discussion and speculation about that geopoliticalnature of war. Also have students note that the statistics visualized by themapcharts are not necessarily those represented in the lists and graphicslocated below the maps.

2. When 30 minuteshave passed, have groups take turns offering the answers they wrote on theirstudent organizers and invite comments and discussion from the other groups.Use the The Shape of War Student Organizer Answer Key to guide the discussion, but note that theobservations and conclusions it offers are not definitive, but rather examplesof how the data contained within the charts can be interpreted. Explain thatthe remainder of this lesson will utilize video segments from the PBS series Women,War & Peace to explore the new face of war in the 21stcentury, and how the experience women—both as victims of war and as agents ofpeace—is moving to center stage.

Part II: Learning Activity

1. Write or projectthe following paragraph on a blackboard or whiteboard. 

“This is anhistoric moment. We have in this past year made great progress in ending thelong era of conflict and cold war. We have before us the opportunity to forgefor ourselves and for future generations a new world order -- a world where therule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations. When weare successful -- and we will be -- we have a real chance at this new worldorder, an order in which a credible United Nations can use its peacekeepingrole to fulfill the promise and vision of the U.N.'s founders.”

2. Ask students ifthey can identify who said these words and what occasion they observed. (It  ispart of a televised address to the nation given by President George H.W. Bushon  January 16, 1991—the day air strikes began against the Iraqi forces ofSaddam Hussein in occupied Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Storm.) Ask students what had happened in theprevious year that Bush believed afforded the United States an “opportunity toforge…a new world order?” (Thedissolution of the Soviet Union had begun, following the fall of the BerlinWall in 1989, both of which marked the end of the “Cold War.”)  Ask students what the Cold War was. (A decades-long political, ideological,economic, and strategic rivalry between SovietUnion and its Warsaw Pact satellites and the United States and its NATO allieswhich never escalated into a full-scale war.) Ask students why they thinkthe Cold War never “heated up” into a direct military conflict? (Answers will vary, but point out that nuclear weapons played a major part, astheir destructive power was an effective deterrent to both sides.) Askstudents if they think the world has become more or less dangerous since theend of the Cold War. (Accept all answers.)Provide a focus for the first video by asking how wars today differ fromearlier, more conventional wars. Play A New World Order.

3. Pause the video at 2:42 after the narrator says “And when we speak of civilians, for the most part we are speaking of women; women, and all those who depend upon them for sustenance, for health care, for keeping families together as these new wars rage around them.” Review the focus question: how do wars today differ from earlier wars? (Wars have historically been fought betweenthe military forces which generally made at least an effort to spare civilians;in today’s smaller conflicts, the terrorizing, killing, and raping of civilianshas become just another tactic.) Askwhere, according to the video, some of the world’s more recent insurgencies,conflicts, and wars have been (and continue to be) fought. (Answersmay vary, but point out that the video specifically mentions Bosnia, Afghanistan, Columbia, Sudan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Libya.) Ask students if they can think of anything that these seven conflicts fundamentally share, which again differentiates them the more conventional wars of the 20th century. (Acceptall answers before explaining that unlike “traditional” wars fought betweennations, these conflicts are more or less contained within one nation’sborders--i.e. civil wars and insurgencies.) Ask how civilian casualties intoday’s wars differ from those inflicted in the previous century. (20th century wars killed morecivilians, but these casualties were generally inflicted through strategicbombing campaigns conducted at impersonal distances; today’s wars tend to befought on a smaller scale and kill fewer people, but the killing is done on a morepersonal level, with small arms, and often by people who may have even knowntheir victims in peacetime.) Explain that earlier wars where also fought byuniformed militaries, whereas contemporary conflicts are often conducted byparamilitary insurgents or guerillas. Ask students if they think suchdistinctions about who does the killing, and with what weapons, makes anydifference? Why or why not? (Accept allanswers.) Provide a focus for the next portion of the clip by asking howsmall arms have come to be the primary killer of civilians. Resume playing A New World Order.

4. Pause at 7:57, after Rachel Stohl says: “So women, although they are not necessarily the combatants in these conflicts, are often the victims of these weapons.” Review the focus question: How have small arms come to be the primary killer of civilians? (During the Cold War, both superpowers regulated the flow of weapons to their respective allies, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, cheap and easily transported Soviet-produced small arms like rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles have been sold on the international black market by unscrupulous arms dealers like “Merchant of Death” Viktor Bout.) Why has the proliferation of small arms been so difficult to control? (Effortsto impose international treaties regarding the distribution of small arms have been slowed in large part because the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—including the United States—are themselves major arms exporters with powerful arms industries. Even if the larger scale manufacture and distribution of small arms could beregulated, it would remain very difficult if not impossible to stop smallerscale arms dealers, many of whom operate on the black market.) Ask studentswhat type of war this easy access to small arms is helping perpetuate? (Accept all answers, but point out thatunlike tanks, planes, and other heavier weapons which require expensivemilitary training and organization to use, almost anyone—including children—canbe taught how to use small arms, and this dynamic is further shifting thenature of war away from conventional conflict between national militaries andtoward conflict between—and within—civilian populations.) Provide a focus for the next portion of thevideo segment by asking how, according to peace activist Leymah Gbowee, the UnitedNations has attempted disarmament in former conflict zones, and how they mightdo so more effectively. Resume playing A New World Order through to the end.

5. Review the focus question: According to peace activist Leymah Gbowee, how does the United Nations attempt to disarm populations in former conflict zones, and how might they do so more effectively? (The UnitedNations tends to bring in outsider “experts” to supervise disarmament, butGbowee believes that they should be assisted by locals, who know theircommunities—specifically, the mothers of former fighters.)

6. Ask students whatthey think is the most important factor for having and maintaining peace andsecurity in the world. (Accept allanswers.) Ask students if they think a strong military is essential tomaintaining peace and security? (Acceptall answers, but point out thatmilitaries traditionally defend against external threats, and that mostconflicts today happen within national borders. Moreover,militaries—particularly in weak nations--have often been co-opted by dictatorswho use the instruments of oppression against their own people.) Askstudents if they think freedom and democracy are essential to maintaining peaceand security? (Accept all answers, but suggest that while freedom and democracytend to promote peace, they are to some extent abstract virtues which may lackimmediate relevance in war zones where survival itself is the primary concern.)Ask students if they think that fighting for freedom and democracy isalways justified, no matter the cost in lives. (Accept all answers.)

7. Explain thatthroughout the Cold War, the ideologically divided populations of smaller,weaker nations repeatedly served as proxies for the nuclear superpowers whichsponsored warring factions within those nations with political, economic, andmilitary support—often resulting in years of bloodshed. Ask students if theycan think of any examples of such Cold War “battleground” nations? (Answers will vary, but should include Koreaand Vietnam.) Explain that following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in1979, the United States armed and funded Afghan mujahedeen guerilla “freedom fighters” who eventually forced theSoviets to withdrawal in 1989—an event which helped foment the collapse of theSoviet Union itself less than two years later. Ask students if they think thisexample of “indirect” American military involvement sounds like a strategicsuccess. (Accept all answers, but explainthat being anti-communist did not equate to being pro-democracy, and followingtheir victory over the Soviets, many former mujahedeen used the small arms provided by the United States to support therepressive Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban, which in turn later provideda safe haven for the terrorists of Al Qaeda.)

8. Ask students whathas happened in Afghanistan since Osama Bin Laden planned the attacks ofSeptember 11, 2001 from bases there? (TheUnited States and its allies invaded Afghanistan, toppled the Talibangovernment, installed a new government, and is now pursuing its own ongoing andbloody counter-insurgency against Taliban guerillas.) Explain that theinsurgents are in many cases fighting American troops with weapons provided bythe United States decades ago. Ask students how they think this war hasaffected the United States’ national security? (Accept all answers, acknowledging that this is a deeply divisive issuein American politics, but suggestthat the war has gone on far longer than either side predicted.) How do youthink this war has affected the everyday life of an average Afghani? (Accept all answers.) Provide a focusquestion by asking what former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’sobservation was regarding the United States’ great strategic mistake ininvading Afghanistan? Play Human Security. Pause at 3:36, after Rice says “making the population secure turns out to be very, very important to making the state secure.”

9. Review the focusquestion: what was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s observationregarding the United States’ great strategic mistake in invading Afghanistan? (“When the population doesn’t feel secure, itis very difficult to win their hearts and minds.”) Ask students what theythink this means? (That “humansecurity”—i.e. the basic freedom of individuals to go about their lives withoutfear—is a precondition for the more conventional notion of “national security”whereby a “strong state” is made geopolitically stable; the Unites States andits allies had effectively prioritized nation-building over peacemaking inAfghanistan, attempting to impose a democratic system on a “weak state” stillvery much terrorized by war.) Askstudents what womens’ rights activist Shahida Hussein thinks about life todayin Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Despite theTaliban’s cultural and political restrictions on women, she remembers theirrule as a time of relative security when women were at least free to live theirlives without fear of suicide bombers or American troops.) According toprofessor Mary Kaldor, how can the “human security” that Shahida laments beprovided? (By protecting ordinary people and establishing a rule of law by alegitimate political authority.) Ask students if they think the Afghangovernment installed by the United States under President Hamid Karzai isconsidered by most Afghans to be legitimate. (Karzai’s administration is widely viewed as a corrupt “puppet”government of the occupying American forces.) Explain that, in fact, theKarzai administration has been quite uncooperative with the American militaryin Afghanistan, which is now looking for new ways to connect more directly withthe Afghan people. Provide a focus forthe next portion of the video by asking what mistake the U.S. military originallymade in attempting to accomplish this, and how it has now changed itsapproach. Resume playing Human Security through tothe end.

10. Review the focusquestion: What mistake did the U.S. military originally make in attempting toconnect with Afghan civilians, and how it has now changed its approach? (By only dealing with men, the Americanmilitary had not been engaging with half the Afghan population—the women whoactually make many of the day-to-day decisions for their families andcommunities; it is attempting to redress this problem by reaching out to Afghanwomen with Female Engagement Teams—or FETs—composed of female soldiers who,unlike male soldiers, are able to speak with Afghan women living under tribalPashtun law.) Ask students what issues they think might tend to be discussedbetween FETs and Afghan women? (Healthcare, education, utilities, livelihood.) How might these conversations bedifferent from those between male soldiers and Afghan men? (Accept all answers, but suggest that theU.S. military’s earlier approach to winning the war in Afghanistan concentratedmore on finding and defeating insurgents on the battlefield rather thanaddressing the more basic “quality-of-life” issues the FET teams are addressingin their campaign to “win hearts and minds.”) Explain that a growingawareness of the importance of women in peacemaking and nation-building is notlimited to the tribal regions of Afghanistan. Provide a focus of the remainderof the video segment by asking what specific steps are being taken on theinternational stage to promote women’s involvement in peacemaking. Play Empowerment.

11. Review the focus question: what specific steps are being taken on the international stage to promote women’s involvement in peacemaking? (The United Nations has passed Resolution 1325, calling for greaterconsideration and inclusion of women in all peace and reconstruction efforts;peaceful protests are also drawing attention to grassroots efforts by women to end violence in Liberia, Ivory Coast, and other war-torn regions.)Ask students what they think activist Leymah Gbowee meant when she said “When women gather, men get afraid.” (Accept all answers, but point out the patriarchal societies—which remains most of them—can feel threatened by the growing willingness of women to challenge the established order.) What, according to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, will be the central theme of the 21st century? (“Reconciliation.”) What does this mean? (Accept all answers, but suggest that Albright is talking about the need to promote understanding, cooperation, and “human security” within nations, as opposed to “national security” between them, as was the dominant theme of the 20th century.)

Part III: Culminating Activity

1.As homework, have students select a currentconflict from the list provided on the World At War website to research. Have each studentprepare a brief summary report describing:

  • Who thecombatants are
  • What eachside claims to be fighting for
  • The nature of the conflict (e.g. a tribal civil war, a drug war)
  • Whetherone or both sides have outside assistance or sponsors. If so, who? What aretheir motivations for support?
  • Whatcasualties have been caused by the conflict? Who are they (e.g. military vs.non-combatants, malevs. female)?
  • What hastraditionally been women’s role and place in this society? How has the conflictaffected them? Are they combatants? Has rape been a tactic employed by eitherside? Are women playing a prominent role in working for peace? If so, who? Ifnot, why not?

2. On the followingday, have students present their reports before the class. Keep track of keyfacts and statistics from each report on a blackboard or whiteboard, and usethis information to ask students what trends and/or commonalities they see inmilitary conflicts today.



Project Credits

Contributor: WNET-grayscale