War Is Not Healthy for Children, by Michael Livingston

In broader terms, children have been some of the main victims of war and racist policies throughout the world. The late 20th century and early 21st century has been a veritable nonstop war on children.

Photo: Reuters

By Michael Livingston  WAMM Newsletter, Volume 36, Number 5, Fall I edition

The scenes from the U.S.-Mexico border of children being separated from their parents were heart-wrenching. The children, many of them placed in harsh concentration camp-like housing, had no way of contacting their parents. When judges ordered that the children be reunited with their parents, it was discovered that ICE did not keep careful records, and in many cases parents did not know where the children had been taken.

Our hearts scream out: why?! Why are these children separated from their parents? Why is our government abusing them in this way: tearing them away from their loved ones, incarcerating them in some awful environments, in many cases not letting them know if and when they can be in contact with their parents again? The answers to these questions, both specific and general, are disturbing. In the specific case, President Trump is using the children as hostages against their parents and as a threat against all immigrants to discourage immigration and scapegoat immigrants.

In broader terms, children have been some of the main victims of war and racist policies throughout the world. The late 20th century and early 21st century has been a veritable nonstop war on children.

The number of children killed in war is very difficult to calculate for a variety of reasons, but the numbers revealed in best estimates from credible sources are staggering. A 20th century estimate from UNICEF calculates that 2 million children were killed between 1986 and 1995 in wars around the world (including Africa and Central America). Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), in a careful review of 21st century death tolls from the still ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan wars, estimated the deaths in both wars at 1.3 million civilians between 2001 and 2016, the majority of whom were children. In Yemen, an estimated 5,000 children have been killed in a war the U.S. population is barely aware of, while in Syria, estimates of children’s deaths are in the tens of thousands.

Civilians are not “collateral damage”, a horrific Orwellian corruption of language if there ever was one. Civilians, especially children, are actually the most targeted or victimized, killed by the advanced technology favored by the U.S.: cruise missiles, drone strikes, cluster bombs, and chemical weapons.

The physically and psychologically injured

In addition to the killed, there are the injured. In general, the number of injured in war exceeds the number killed. The physical injuries include Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), lost limbs, and burns. The psychological injuries are also pervasive: a lifetime of anxiety and depression, PTSD, and in the case of young children who lost their parents or were neglected because their parents had been killed, attachment disorders.

Children are especially vulnerable to psychological injuries because of two mechanisms: neuroplasticity and epigenetics during growth. These two mechanisms make children especially sensitive to trauma, and make the negative effects of trauma more long-lasting.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire itself as a consequence of experience. Every time you learn something new, say how to use your cell phone or how to speak Spanish, the physical structure of your brain changes. The brain is always plastic in a healthy person but it is not equally plastic at all ages or in all areas of the brain. In general, the older we get, the less plastic our brains. In general, the parts of the brain that determine our personality and our basic emotional patterns, such as happiness or sadness, calmness or anxiety, are most plastic during infancy, early childhood, and middle childhood. The parts of our brains that engage in complex thought and problem solving, planning, and impulse control develop in adolescence and early adulthood. Children exposed to the trauma of war at an early age are especially at risk for lifelong depression and anxiety.

Epigenetics is the source of the second mechanism. The environment turns on or turns off gene expression. This is a radical new understanding of the genetic basis of behavior. Trauma or severe depravation turns on genes that make it more likely you will be prone to addiction or anxiety. These epigenetic changes can also be passed on to your children independent of how the child was brought up. Because childhood is a period of rapid growth and development, children and young adults are more likely to experience the genetic consequences of trauma than older adults.

The children separated from their parents at the border were traumatized by their experience. The extent of their trauma depends on how they were treated, how old they are, and how quickly they can be reunited with their families. Many of these children and their parents were trying to escape the violence and poverty of Central America. They fled one trauma only to endure another. We must question a president and a policy that intentionally abuses children for political gain. Only bullies and sociopaths knowingly do this.

Who will care about the children?

In the mid-1980s I went to Nicaragua as a translator for a group of mostly North American religious activists to see for ourselves the consequences of the revolution and the U.S. war on that small country. I remember clearly one of the Sandinista activists telling me that North Americans often think that they can’t do anything because they can’t fix it all. Instead, she said, just do something and when enough people do something, real change will take place. The war on children may seem overwhelming, but if each of us does something, we will make a difference.

We can curb the unspeakable abuse of children by opposing war and militarism in all its manifestations. If not us, who? If not now, when?

ACTION: There are many different ways to be involved in the peace and antiwar movement. You can focus on specific weapon systems such as drones that especially hurt children, or specific wars, such as the conflicts in the Middle East. You can focus on foreign policy education, join vigils and demonstrations, or take part in political action such as lobbying. You can spend a tiny amount of time every month, or a larger chunk of time every week. In any event, just do something! For actions in Minneapolis/St. Paul, see page 11 or the WAMM calendar at WomenAgainstMilitaryMadness.org.

About the author: Michael Livingston has a Ph.D. in Child Psychology from the University of Minnesota. He teaches at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University and has been active in the Peace and AntiWar Movement since 1980.

Note: This article ran in the print edition of the Fall I WAMM newsletter.

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