Cultures, Social Behavior

The Smallest Casualties of War

family life during war

“We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children.”

–Howard Zinn

Family Life During War: Children’s Perspective

During the 1960’s , partially in response to the Viet Nam war, a poster which contained the saying

“War is not healthy for children and other living things”

became very popular in the United States. One of the most powerful photographs ever taken was one in which how the horrors of war affected children was demonstrated in a very graphic and visceral way. The ways in family life during war affects children is a difficult topic to discuss and one that many people would prefer to avoid. However, because children are so often the innocent victims of war, revealing the plight of these children has the potential to arouse enough global compassion to prompt social and political action on their behalf.

Although the content is disturbing, J. De Berry and J. Boyden attempt to reveal some of the traumatic experiences that children of war face in their book “Children and Youth on the Front Line: Ethnography, Armed Conflict and Displacement (Studies in Forced Migration). The book is one of the first to incorporate information gathered from interviews with children themselves. It focuses on the sexual exploitation of girls as well as orphaned children who head households and those forced into combat.

Rather than the traditional view that children of war are little more than helpless victims, the author points to the vast amount of strength, creativity and resilience they must possess just to survive. While he acknowledges the value of the medical model of the effects of victimization and trauma, he also challenges experts to expand that model through more direct interaction and study of child survivors of war. The death of one or both parents, leaving children with no-one to care for them is just one of the many negative effects on family life during war.

According to one review no less than fifteen authors, many of whom were anthropologists who had spent time in war-torn regions, contributed to the book. The book points out that even the definition of “child” and the age of responsibility differs from culture to culture. For example, there are situations in which child soldiers forced to kill or be killed have been charged with war crimes. The legal age of accountability continues to be debated, and differs from country to country.

Negative Effects on Family Life During War

The death of one or both parents, leaving children with no-one to care for them is just one of the many negative effects on family life during war. There are many more. For example, one study showed that during war, the time that mothers are able to breast-feed their children is drastically reduced, which also increases the risk of illness and death.

According to an article, studies show that post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can not only be transmitted from one family member to another, but can even effect the development of a fetus in utero.

One study conducted in the U.S. also revealed an increase in child maltreatment by military personnel who had been deployed to war zones. Parents who experience combat often have difficulty adapting to civilian life and many do not receive adequate treatment for PTSD.

Children who experience such maltreatment exhibit psychological symptoms such as poor social adaptation, higher suicide rates, anxiety and aggression. The most recent research found that the increased stress of the non-deployed parent also resulted in a greater incidence of child abuse and neglect directly related to military deployment. The studies concluded that the stress of war, including the absence of a parent, affects every aspect of family life during war, and every family member, not just those that experience direct combat.

Rape and sexual violence is another common occurrence during war and has often been used as a tool of ethnic cleansing as well as a demonstration of power. Studies conducted among adolescent girls in Uganda and Kosovo showed that rape resulted in long-term difficulties with personal and social identity. Most studies have focused on adolescents, while relatively few have focused on younger children.

This book is devoted to giving the children of war a voice of their own and examining the ways in which they cope with the many forms of trauma associated with family life during war. Fortunately, there are a few international organizations that offer support to children of war. For the sake of all children, perhaps the horrors this book contains will serve to raise all parents’ voices in opposition to war as method of solving global problems.

family life during war
Child amid ruins following German aerial bombing of London. Toni Frissell, Abandoned boy, London, 1945
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