The Monsters We Make
War and World Health
The Psychological Effects of War on World Health
War has many effects on the world’s population, both citizen and soldier. It has a strong influence on the health of the people involved. Health problems are created and accelerated during wartime by an increase in poverty, reduced medical services, and unhealthy violence. Not only do disease and hunger increase, but many soldiers and citizens are psychologically affected by the violence, death, and hardships that they face. War creates many people who are not always able to function as normal people once they return to a peaceful everyday life. Many become addicted or desensitized to violence, return to an infantile state, feel overwhelmed and confused, withdraw from society, or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Society often alienates these people, making it seem as though they are monsters because they are different, but it is the war that causes their differences.
People, especially children, exposed to the violence of war can become completely desensitized or addicted to danger. “Many people claim that they feel most alive when successfully challenging themselves by confronting danger.” (Fox 24) For most children it is natural to appreciate the thrill that comes with moderate danger and they often seek it out in their play. With the continued violence of war many grow accustomed to the danger and become addicted to it. In observations of Palestinian children in the Infatada, the children “developed a ‘bravery’ in combating Israeli soldiers that can be seen as a reckless disregard for their safety.” (Fox 24) They became a danger to themselves and others; they are made into monsters because they act in an overly aggressive way as they adapt to the wartime environment. “Warfare and violence are not only accepted as central, normal parts of human experience but they are transformed into heroic, exciting events.” In many societies masculinity is related to violence and some armies encourage this behavior in male children. A 13-year-old abducted by Renamo in Mozambique described his experience in a camp.
The chiefs told us to look at people when they are beaten and to never act like we don’t like it. They told us we could not cry or be sad when people were killed…
I had been at base for five months when [they] made me kill a man…I took my bayonet and stabbed him in the stomach…I was now one of them. (Levy 174)
Though this behavior is simply an adaptation to the wartime environment, an additional drive to stay alive, it does not adapt well when the person is returned to normal society. For example, if a man gets in a disagreement with his neighbor or a child is teased at school, defending themselves through the overly aggressive behavior that was developed in the abnormal time of war would not be appropriate for these normal situations.
Other people affected by war develop a sadistic disposition to seek vengeance for unfair treatment or the death of someone close. A Ugandan 11-year old boy, David Kabanda, joined an army in response to the murder of his parents by guerilla fighters. “I want to beat the people who killed my mother. If I find them, I’ll kill them.” (Levy 174) An 18-year-old girl abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army was used for sexual exploitation and developed a strong dislike for all men. On returning to normal society she commented:
After returning from Sudan, I was a wife to one rebel commander, then another junior commander and then two older rebel soldiers. I had one child who dies when he was a few days old. I was a slave to the revels for 19 months. I will not marry again. (Machel 54)
After the war, they do not merge with society because they feel anger towards those around them. Viktor Frankl described the psychological phase some of the men who were imprisoned with him in concentration camps during World War II went through upon their release.
[They] could not escape the influences of brutality which had surrounded them in camp life. Now, being free, they thought they could use their freedom licentiously and ruthlessly. The only thing that had changed for them was that they were now the oppressors instead of the oppressed. They became instigators, not objects, of willful force and injustice. They justified their behavior by their own terrible experiences. (Frankl 112)
These people are unable to live a normal life without having feelings of anger or dislike towards the people around them. Some become dangerous and something to be feared, yet it is the war that should be feared. The war has created their vengeful mindset.
Another psychological effect of war especially prevalent in children is returning to an infantile state. “There is no sense anymore in being good, clean, or unselfish.” (Burlingham 74) The rewards for being good are often no longer apparent during the suffering war can bring. Many children returned to bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, throwing temper tantrums, being overly dependent and submissive, and being selfish. Small children in nurseries during World War II were recorded saying things such as “I don’t like you, I don’t like anybody! I only like myself’ and “I am nobody’s nothing.” The children were seen going into a regressive state “passing through the no-man’s-land of rejection.” (Burlingham 74) A group of South African children whose parents had been detained were described as “overdependent and clinging, unable to sleep alone, moody, irritable, and suffered bedwetting and nightmares.” (Levy 177) This reaction is not simply restricted to children. Many victims of bombing “lost all ability to cope and simply followed along aimlessly with the crowds.” (Levy 80) Rather than contributing to society those in this state feed off of it. These problems of regression can be reversed but they often require therapy or support and time in a normal atmosphere.
Some adapt to chronic violence and danger through emotional withdrawal. This does not have a large effect in the short run when the victim returns to normal society, but can affect the next generation. This was observed in studies of families of Holocaust survivors. Children of concentration camp survivors are described as having problems with separation and individuation, pathologic identification with their parents, depression, guilt, and aggressiveness. Bertie, a 4-year-old boy in a post World War II nursery shows the negative effect on the generation following emotionally withdrawn parents.
He would suddenly interrupt whatever he was doing, run to the other end of the room, look aimlessly into the corners and return quietly as if nothing had happened. He would distort his face in the most horrible manner. He was restless and excitable, quick to pick quarrels and very worried about his own health; he would not go out without warm clothes even in the summer heat, and so on. It showed in time that this was his way of relating how his mother had behaved after his father was killed. (Burlingham 71)
It is difficult for the children of these victims to function normally outside the home, and they often become alienated by other children because of their different behavior.
As well as being emotionally withdrawn many victims of wartime atrocities develop a sense of hopelessness. They find no value and put little effort into life. Sanel, a 12-year-old in Bosnia and Herzegovinia stated “It is very difficult to live in war. You just wait for the moment you will die.” (Machel 80) A Sudanese youth, Wuoi, commented on the situation of a refugee camp. “The situation in the camp is not nice… People are starving there, not to death, but not enough for human life.” After losing their friends and families many feel that they have nothing left to live for. Others, after viewing the hostility and hate in mankind, feel that there is no hope for the future. They think that there will always be evil and contention among men, or that the war they are coming from will never end. In Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, he described keeping fellow prisoners alive in the concentration camps by finding something that each man felt he should live for, whether it be family, success in a career, etc. On being let out of the prison camps, many of those who had stayed alive for family members found that their families were dead. They no longer felt the hope that had kept them alive in the concentration camps and committed suicide. A teenage girl in Zambia experiencing the results of war through HIV/AIDS commented, “I mean if we are the future and we’re dying, there is no future.” (Machel 41) They have convinced themselves that they are unable to change the future. Among normal societies these people can become burdens because they do not contribute, and often form a bad influence on the next generation.
In addition to a feeling of hopelessness, many also feel helpless in a wartime situation. Whether directly in contact with war’s violence, the feeling of helplessness is very common among soldier and citizen. Many veterans of the Gulf War developed a terror associated with a sense of helplessness in anticipation of attack with unknown chemical compounds. Parents among the civilian population feel this a great deal. Should invasion or bombing occur during war they feel unable to help their children. Many families are also reduced to poverty. It is difficult for parents to see their children hungry or without the things that they need, but in wartime often cannot find the means to support them. This gives them a great deal of psychological strain. Many feel guilt over their helplessness or experience depression that can remain long after the war ends.
One of the most common psychological problems that develops among citizens and soldiers alike is post-traumatic stress disorder. This is usually found in situations where the psychologically disrupted person has experienced something that would evoke large amounts of distress in almost anyone. The disorder is fairly common among Vietnam veterans, many of which were noticeably “different” upon their return home. “A 12-year follow up study of U.S. veterans of combat in Vietnam attributed a 65 percent elevation in the death rate from suicide and a 49 percent elevation in the death rate from motor vehicle accidents to the psychological sequelae of combat.” ( Levy 34) It is also common among children who have witnessed violent scenes. Those suffering from PTSD re-experience the trauma through recurrent recollections, dreams, or suddenly acting and feeling as though the event was occurring. They show a “numbed responsiveness and reduced involvement with the external world, losing interest in significant activities.” Some have an “exaggerated startle response, guilt about surviving when others have not or about behavior undertaken for survival, or memory impairment.” (Fox 26) Among U.S. veterans of World War II and Vietnam roughly twenty percent of those wounded in combat developed PTSD. “Chronic anxiety, obsessional rumination, difficulty enjoying life, difficulty trusting and feeling a sense of belonging, hypochondriasis, feelings of shame and aggression are described.” (Levy 178) Those diagnosed with PTSD can be a danger to themselves and those around them upon returning to non-wartime society, especially when they react as though the violent event that have effected them are actually occurring.
There are constantly wars happening around the world, adding to the number of psychologically affected people; however, there are those working to stop the increasing numbers and to help those already affected. The United Nations has several organizations such as UNICEF putting forth efforts to help. The Anti-War Agenda of UNICEF states:
The world must no longer wait for the outbreak of hostilities before it pays heed. Much more deliberate effort should be made to address the underlying causes of violence and to invest more resources in mediation and conflict resolution.
There are many other organizations also working to resolve the problem. Many religious organizations provide aid as well as non-profit organizations such as the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and the Peace Corps. Education is also a strong weapon against war and it’s problems.
Global illiterates are dangerous because they see military strength as the way to peace. But advanced weapons do not address the economic causes of war and the competition for limited resources. ‘Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.’ – understanding that leads to cooperation and sharing. (Levy 323)
The situation of those affected by the war can be improved, but society must do its part. Improvements do not happen without effort. The heroes against the monster are those who have helped the victims of war and who are working to prevent further contentions that may create more victims.
War can be very damaging psychologically. After experiences during wartime there are many who find it difficult to readjust to regular society in a variety of ways. Despite the ill effects they have on the health of the people involved, wars continue to be fought. The war creates and accelerates health problems making people “abnormal”. Society then alienates them because they are not the same or because they cannot function as well as others. Many see them as monsters simply because the war has made them different. Society fears the health problems that they have developed. War, however, is the real monster. War is what causes theses problems and is what should be feared and hated.
Burlingham, Dorothy T. and Anna Freud. War and Children. New York: Ernst Willard. 1943.
Fox, Nathan A. and Lewis A. Leavitt. The Psychological Effects of War and Violence on Children. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. 1993.
Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search For Meaning. New York: Pocket Books. 1984
Levy, Barry S. and Victor W. Sidel. War and Public Health. Washington DC: American Public Health Association. 2000.
Machel, Graca. The Impact of War on Children. New York: Palgrave. 2001.