America's forever wars and their fallout over these last 18 years have been hell for kids. Just ask Ismail or any of the other 56 wounded children who survived an August 2018 attack on their school bus in northern Yemen by Saudi planes armed with American weaponry. Of course, you can't ask the perhaps 40 children who died, thanks to a single 500-pound laser-guided MK 82 bomb made by Lockheed Martin. And that was just one example of the way, in these years, war has torn the lives of children apart across the Greater Middle East.
Take, for example, Iraqi children in a country remade (or, more accurately, devastated) by the U.S. invasion of 2003 and everything that followed from it, including the ISIS takeover of major Iraqi cities in 2014. By 2016, UNICEF reported that "one in every five children in Iraq is at serious risk of death, injury, sexual violence, and recruitment into armed groups." That was 3.6 million children (a jump of 1.3 million in 18 months). And if you make your focus larger still, UNICEF recently reported that, thanks to largely war-induced humanitarian crises across the Middle East and northern Africa, 32 million children need assistance, 5.8 million of whom are refugees.
Under the circumstances, I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that many of those young people have lost the chance to take part in what we would consider one of the most basic aspects of childhood: going to school. One in five children across that vast region, more than 14.3 million (again according to UNICEF), don't attend school at all. Given how many of them are refugees and given that the same organization reported in 2015 that "more than 8,850 education facilities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya have been attacked and destroyed leaving them incapable of hosting students for education purposes," childhood itself, at least as we might normally define it, seems to have ceased to exist in parts of the region.
All of this just begins to scrape the surface of the true costs of war in these grim years. So consider the thoughts of TomDispatch regular Andrea Mazzarino, a teacher, therapist, mother, military spouse, and co-author of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as one of the founders of the invaluable Costs of War Project at Brown University, on the ways in which American wars and their aftereffects have played out in children's education both in distant lands and right here in the good old U.S. of A. Tom
"The Shooters Are Coming!"
War on Terror, War on Education
By Andrea Mazzarino
One day in October 2001, shortly after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, I stood at the front of a private high school classroom. As a new social studies teacher, I had been tasked with describing violence against women in that country. I showed the students an article from the front page of the New York Times featuring Afghan women casting off their burqas as they bathed in a stream near Kabul.
The implication of the piece was that the U.S. would liberate -- had already, in fact, begun to liberate -- such women. I soon realized, though, that my students weren't really paying attention. They hadn't, in fact, been fully capable of focusing for the previous three weeks, ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. They squirmed in their seats, watched the clock, or stared out the window at California's rolling hills as if something bad was about to happen.
One student finally raised her hand and said, in evident confusion, "I don't know why, but I'm scared." And we had our first meaningful conversation since that fateful September day. One after another, my students confessed that they didn't know what the response to those attacks -- already dubbed by the Bush administration a "Global War on Terror" -- would mean for all of us or what Washington's goals of "liberation" in distant lands would mean for their futures, no less those of the women in the photo. As last week's explosive report in the Washington Post on the lies our top military and political leaders have offered us ever since about "progress" in the Afghan War made all too clear, none of us could really have had a clue, nor did we even know what questions to ask then.
Eighteen years later, the war on terror has spread to some 80 countries around the world, a nightmare far worse than anything those children or I could have imagined on that long-ago day. As a military spouse and a therapist-in-training, specializing in the effects of war on health, I've lived in several cities with a high concentration of veterans and military families, as well as refugee and migrant families from countries across five continents, many deeply affected by those still spreading armed conflicts (or even older ones in Central America that the U.S. had been involved in launching in the previous century).
It's clear to me that, at least for the children of such groups, the never-ending fighting thousands of miles away can affect their concentration levels, the ways they solve problems with peers at school, and how their own parents respond to interpersonal conflict in their homes. I've watched more than once as such kids flinch at the everyday sound of an airplane overhead or sirens from an ambulance passing by while I'm trying to troubleshoot their concentration problems with them. At such times, they explain to me that similar trigger moments, unexpected reminders of violence in their home countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, or Central America, sometimes keep them from concentrating at school or even from effectively discussing their problems with me in therapy.
Such conversations drive home a point that merited only a few brief references in the recently published book of essays, War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that Catherine Lutz and I -- both of us from Brown University's Costs of War Project -- put together. The truth is, though, that the subject of the hidden costs of war to the young undoubtedly deserves a volume all its own, a reminder of how America's wars and other conflicts, barely seen by most of us, are nonetheless deeply felt, even here, in all sorts of unnerving ways.
In a powerful piece on heroin use and survival among Afghan war widows, for instance, anthropologist Anila Daulatzai tells how an eight-year-old Afghan boy died in a bomb blast as he walked to school. Such senseless violence prompted his mother (and other similarly grieving wives and mothers) to start using heroin as a coping mechanism. Similarly, anthropologists Jean Scandlyn and Sarah Hautzinger note how our country's post-9/11 wars have affected the study habits of the children of military families even here on the home front. Some miss school to prepare for parental deployment or homecoming. Some struggle to keep up as they assume some of the household responsibilities of the missing parent. Others are even hospitalized in response to depression brought on by what could be thought of as deployment stress -- simply knowing that a parent is gone and might be in danger.
I've seen the way armed violence many thousands of miles away affects the ability of kids to study and that's obviously so much more true of the young in actual war zones (even when the option of school exists, which in the chaos of war, disruption, and displacement it often doesn't). I've heard it in the voices of the children I've met who tell me that they remember vividly their inability to study because they were afraid that, in the very schools where their minds were to be molded, at any moment their bodies might be attacked or even destroyed.
Capturing the Indirect Costs of War
As my colleagues Catherine Lutz, Neta Crawford, and I learned when we started the Costs of War Project in 2011, it's pretty hard to quantify the indirect human costs of war, particularly those that manifest themselves in mental illness or chronic injuries among soldiers, civilians, and their families, in people eternally grieving or struggling to adjust to worlds that have often been turned upside down. Partly, this is because those in power who decide to go to war give little or no thought to what attacking another country, no less sending your troops in as occupying forces for years on end, will mean for everyday life in the war zones to come. In addition, once such wars have begun, they do a terrible job of keeping track of those costs.