It Is Well That War Is So Terrible (Water Balloon Style)

Water Balloon Fight

I do my best on this blog to highlight the innovative work being done day in and day out by history teachers across the country, but there is absolutely no excuse for this activity. Hey, I have no problem if you want to end the year with a water balloon fight, but why anyone would frame it as a Civil War battlefield simulation is beyond me.  Welcome to what Parkside history teacher Robert Riedel thinks is a serious exercise that is intended to give students a sense of what a Civil War battle (in this case, the battle of Fredericksburg) was like.

Students were split into Confederates and Union members. About 20 students who were part of the Confederate group were behind a fence, blocking the assault of the Union members. The remaining students were split into four groups of Union soldiers and led into the field by Riedel and fellow eighth-grade teachers Sharon Schneider and Courtney Forner.

Riedel said he has hosted this activity for the past nine years because he feels it is a unique way for students to think about the fears and confusion soldiers experience during war.

“It’s intimidating when you get out there and there are 40 balloons flying at your head,” Riedel said. “(The activity) helps students realize how hard and intimidating it was for Union soldiers to take hits.”

Each Union group took several turns throwing water balloons at the Confederate side – getting progressively wetter as the hour progressed. The Confederate side was armed with the majority of the 3,000 balloons, which were filled by the students on their own time.

The students learned about the Civil War in class in March, and Riedel said he believes events like this help illustrate battles that are ancient in the minds of eighth-graders. While many students can learn material through reading and lecture, Riedel said most students are “multilevel learners” and learn best by physically acting.

“When you do it, you learn the most,” he said.

It isn’t simply that the activity itself is useless as a historical exercise.  What I find troubling is just how disrespectful it is to the men on both sides who experienced the horrors of battle and to those who died as a result. This is a nation that has been at war for over ten years.  We would do well to try to impart to our students what that means for the men and women who experience battle, the challenges they face afterwards and the sacrifices made by their families.  This does nothing more than trivialize violence.

Dear Mr. Reidel, next time try bringing in a veteran of the Iraq or Afghanistan War to talk to your students about the “fears and confusions soldiers experience during war.” My guess is that it will leave them with a more meaningful experience even if it doesn’t involve so much fun.

19 comments… add one
  • Peter Koch Jun 13, 2013 @ 5:07

    Did this years (Years!) ago in High School too. Took a Civil War class in 11th grade and the water balloon fight was one of the final events we did (along with a long biographical essay, multiple tests, and a presentation). Our teacher’s point was to get across the idea of volleys, reloading time (we had hoses on the field), and moving in groups. I don’t remember an emphasis on counting casualties. You could argue that it did trivialize 4 years of bloodshed as I remember it being a lot of fun…

  • London John Jun 12, 2013 @ 10:45

    Kevin, are you sure this is real? It sounds like a spoof.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2013 @ 10:47

      What evidence is there to the contrary?

  • Boyd Harris Jun 11, 2013 @ 6:16

    May I point out that this event is similar to an episode of Saved By the Bell in the first season, titled the Mentor. A former mentor of Miss Bliss’ returns to teach at Bayside and causes problems with his controversial teaching methods. The recreation of the Pickett-Pettigrew Charge starts around 1:20.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Jun 11, 2013 @ 8:06

      With the Miss Bliss Farm caught in the middle.

    • Andy Hall Jun 11, 2013 @ 9:04

      The recreation of the Pickett-Pettigrew Charge starts around 1:20.

      Who needs Faulkner when you’ve got Screech and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen?

      • Buck Buchanan Jun 13, 2013 @ 7:51

        Geez Andy! Not while I’m eating! I’ve got smoked turkey and mayo on my monitor from busting a gut laughing!

  • Michael Lynch Jun 10, 2013 @ 18:28

    You’re absolutely right; as an exercise to convey the horror of combat, this is a terrible idea. But I think there’s a way to make it work for an entirely different purpose.

    On a Friday, without telling them what you’re doing or why, you take the kids outside, divide them into teams, and let them have at it with water balloons, squirt guns, whatever. The following Monday, or maybe even a week later, you have them each write an account of their “battle” separately, and then you compare and contrast the accounts. Examine how each account is different, how each one depends on perspective, confusion, etc. Then the whole class reads a couple of contemporary accounts of the same historical event or battle, maybe Lexington and Concord, and see how the same factors that influenced their water battle accounts come into play with first-person accounts of historical events.

    If he wanted students to understand how horrible a Civil War battle was, he should’ve just used some good soldier letters/memoirs and Gardner photos.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 11, 2013 @ 2:52

      I like it.

  • Tom Thompson Jun 10, 2013 @ 18:13

    This all strikes me as the pussy-footing logical conclusion of political correctness gone mad. Zero tolerance of guns has led to kids being suspended for pointing their index finger as if it were a gun. So, guns are out, but balloons are allowed to act as a replacement for bullets. Zero tolerance should rule out the entire exercise.

    I see nothing useful coming from such an exercise.

  • Corey Meyer Jun 10, 2013 @ 17:19

    “(The activity) helps students realize how hard and intimidating it was for Union soldiers to take hits.”

    It sounds to me as if this teacher has seen too many reenactments. Soldiers did not take hits…reenactors take hits to simulate a casualty. Civil War soldiers were the real casualties and were not “hit” they were shot…disemboweled…had their heads blown off…arms and legs blown off.

    I get what he is trying to do, but I believe it fails miserably.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 11, 2013 @ 2:54


      This is an excellent point.

  • Karen Graham Jun 10, 2013 @ 16:21

    I do understand what you are getting at, especially when it comes to trivializing what a soldier experiences in a war, but don’t be too hard on the teacher. It may be that He himself has more than likely never experienced war, or the abject fear of being in the line of fire, especially like so many of our young men and women have had to experience over the past decade.

    I gave some thought to what you suggested, and yes, having a veteran come into the classroom and talk about his or her experiences would be a great idea, but I think the teacher was trying to do more than just have his students know about war. He wanted them to experience the terror and uncertainty, along with the not knowing. I for one feel so very sorry for the children growing up in all the war-torn countries of this world, many who have never known a peaceful day their entire lives.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2013 @ 16:23

      Hi Karen,

      Thanks for the comment, but I don’t understand your point. I’ve never experienced war either, but I know enough not to believe that a water balloon fight somehow brings home the horrors of war. If anything I am not being tough enough on this guy.

      • Rob Baker Jun 10, 2013 @ 16:27

        I don’t necessarily believe he is going for the “horrors of war.” I think the goal is disorientation and confusion.

        • Lyle Smith Jun 12, 2013 @ 20:23

          I’m with you Rob. I doubt he’s going for the horrors of war. It’s an interesting way to try and show the confusion of a Civil War line of battle without having the kids actually fire live ammunition at one another.

  • Rob Baker Jun 10, 2013 @ 15:51

    I’ve always thought it would be interesting to have students do a mini-reenactment. There is no adrenaline rush like having a group of men 75 yds. in front of you fire a volley. It makes you shake a bit.

    I wonder what bookends Riedel uses. I have heard of, witnessed, and practiced activities such as this, but for World War I trench warfare. These usually accompany relevant information on the actual circumstances to bring the lesson from fun back to reality.

  • Mike Hawthorne Jun 10, 2013 @ 15:44

    Most casualties have been civilians, in lands outside the US that were fought over for dubious motives, in modern wars for some time. Somehow, another unrepentant, possibly self-pitying, ex-soldier’s memories might serve to obscure this uncomfortable truth. Why not just play them, “Ruby, don’t take your love to town”, and spare the kids the crocodile tears? Also, I don’t believe torture techniques, and military torture academies, were up and running in 1861-65, as state-approved tools of war. Any torture survivor would tell them all about ‘fear and confusion’, without flashing medals or pretending to be a hero. But, you are right, Mr Reidel is not serving his pupils well by trivializing the biggest and most obscene racket of them all; war. However, his water fights pale into insignificance when compared to the pornography of violence consumed by youngsters in video games every day. Like drone strikes, they never hurt the guys who push the buttons, at least not physically. Their de-sensitized minds are another matter, and there’s a gun shop on the corner.

    • bummer Jun 10, 2013 @ 17:11

      You sure sound like a combat veteran!

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