War Is Not a Family Value: A Conservative Case for Peace

Support for American wars and military interventions, and the massive military establishment behind them, has been a feature of American conservatism for at least the last 70 years. The Cold War and more recently the War on Terror have been embraced by the Republican Party and such conservative publications as National Review, Commentary, and the Weekly Standard. Yet social conservatives who care about protecting marriage, children’s well-being, and stable family life would do well to reconsider their support for hawkish foreign policies and the politicians and pundits who endorse them. American history shows that war has harmed family life, at home and abroad.

Wars break up families in the most fundamental way: by killing people and thus robbing families of parents, siblings, and children. In addition to these ultimate costs, however, American wars have undermined family life in subtler ways: by fostering divorce, separation of parents from children, and general family stress and instability.

Divorce. Military deployments separate spouses and can estrange them. Infidelity on the part of the deployed or at-home spouse can contribute to estrangement, as can post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological legacies of war. American wars predictably have been accompanied by spikes in the divorce rate. After World War I, the American divorce rate rose from 1.2 divorces per 1,000 people in 1917, the year the United States entered the war, to 1.6 by 1921, when the conflict ended. Such a modest rise seems unremarkable until one realizes that this increase is equal to the total divorce rate increase over the 17 years prior to 1917. The marital damage wrought by World War II was even more dramatic, with the divorce rate almost doubling from 1941 to 1946, from 2.2 to 4.3. This wartime and post-war increase was more than triple the American divorce rate’s total increase from 1922 to 1940.[1]

By contrast, the Korean War was unusual in not being accompanied by a spike in divorces among the general American population—divorce rates steadily fell in the 1950s. Another rise in divorce rates did accompany the Vietnam War, although disentangling the war’s effects from the larger social and legal changes of the time is difficult. After Vietnam and the end of the draft, military and civilian life—and hence military and civilian marriage and divorce—became far more distinct.

Studies differ on whether the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had harmed military marriages or made divorce more likely. At least one set of numbers from these wars’ early years are suggestive, however: the number of divorces among active-duty American Army officers and enlisted personnel almost doubled—from 5,658 to 10,477—between 2001 and 2004 even as troop strength remained stable. The divorce rate among Army officers tripled from 2002 to 2004, from 1.9 percent (1,060 divorces out of 54,542 marriages) to 6 percent (3,325 divorces out of 55,550 marriages).[2]

Parentless Children at Home. Military deployment also separates parents from children. About 1 million of the American service members deployed as part of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had children, which means over 1 million children were deprived by war of at least one parent’s presence in their lives.[3] Military psychologists Bret A. Moore and Carrie H. Kennedy, in their book Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life after Deployment, observe that children of service members face “unique challenges”:

Not only do they have to learn to deal with a parent being sent off to some remote and distant country for months on end, but they also have to deal with the real possibility of never seeing that parent again. On top of that, children grow both mentally and physically during a deployment…When you combine this with children’s disappointment with missed birthdays, Little League games, and graduations, you create a perfect storm for hurt feelings on their part.[4]

Moore and Kennedy warn service members returning from deployment to be on guard for possible negative behaviors by their children: hunger for attention, aggression or rebellion, or various types of withdrawal.[5]

A team of psychologists reviewed over 30 studies published between 2001 and 2013 that looked at children’s mental health during the deployment of a parent in the military—generally the father—and the deployed parent’s reintegration into the family’s life after returning. The review showed that parental deployment may be related to increased emotional and behavioral problems for children.[6] A study of healthcare received from 2003 to 2006 by over 300,000 children, ages 5 to 17, from military families found that a parent’s deployment was associated with increased care related to depressive disorders, behavioral disorders, and other problems. A later, similar study of 137,000 military children found parental deployment was associated with a 17 percent increase in anti-depressant prescriptions and a 10 percent increase in anti-anxiety prescriptions.[7]

Yet another study that distinguished between children of married parents and single parents found a different kind of disturbing trend in healthcare for children of single parents. During single parents’ military deployment, children’s rate of medical visits decreased—even as those for children of married parents increased during parental deployment. This strongly suggests that with their sole parents away on a military deployment, these children were being cared for by someone who could not take them to the doctor as often as they needed.[8]

Some military children self-medicate to deal with their parent’s deployment. A 2013 state-wide Iowa survey of middle-school and high-school students found that kids of deployed or recently deployed service members were significantly more likely than kids from non-military families to drink, binge drink, or use drugs.[9]

Others coping tools for kids are healthier but no less revealing of separation’s pain. Various children’s books published in last decade or so have tried to make a parent’s deployment comprehensible. A book for toddlers whose father is deployed, titled simply Over There, was published in 2006 at the height of the Iraq War. It contains comforting cartoons of children and their fathers doing the same activities—eating, sleeping, brushing their teeth—in parallel, the child at home and the father in a foreign military setting. The simple text pierces, though: “My daddy is away. And I miss him.” “I think about my daddy here. My daddy thinks about me there.” “My daddy would like to be here with me. But he has very important work he must do there.” “Sometimes I feel sad, or even mad…because my daddy’s not here. It’s ok to feel that way.” The book concludes with a space at the end for sticking in the absent father’s photo.[10]

Parentless Children Abroad. American wars do more than take parents in the military away from the United States and their children here at home. War also can separate members of the military from their children in another, very different, way:

American wars have frequently led to servicemen having children with women in other countries. The 20th-century American military presence in Asia led to an estimated 2 million “Amerasian” children being born by the 1980s.[11] In Europe, tens of thousands of children were fathered by American troops deployed there during the Second World War: perhaps 67,000 in Germany and as many as 100,000 in the United Kingdom.[12]

These children would generally lose their fathers’ presence in their lives—if they ever had it at all—after his deployment ended and he returned to the United States. The children and their mothers would then have to manage on their own, often dogged by the stigma of an out-of-wedlock birth and association with a foreigner. After the Vietnam War, the children of Vietnamese women and American servicemen could be denied employment, education, or even food rations. Visiting Vietnam in the early 1980s, journalist Stanley Karnow observed that Amerasian children

some with blond hair and blue eyes, others partly black—were peddling or begging on street corners. The mothers, many ostracized by their families, implore international refugee agency officials to locate the fathers—often identifying them simply as Joe or Bill or Mac, to whom they were “married” for six or eight months in Saigon or Danang fourteen or fifteen years ago.[13]

Some children of American servicemen have tried to find their fathers, with mixed and sometimes heart-breaking results. The fathers and their stateside families might welcome contact from their children or might rebuff them—or the fathers might die before their children ever locate them. Given such prospects, a child might decide the search is not worthwhile. Le Ha, a Vietnamese Amerasian, once observed that her father “has another family in America. What’s he going to do with two families?” She concluded, “I’m used to living without a father.”[14]

Faced with this historical legacy—and in some cases present reality—of strained or broken marriages and children suffering a parent’s (sometimes permanent) absence, conservatives should reconsider the wisdom of the last 70-plus years of hawkish foreign policies. One way to promote stable, intact families is to keep husbands, wives, and children together in a country at peace.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Imago Dei Politics website. 


[1] For American divorce rates, see US Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, various years, available at https://bit.ly/1pgr7Iq.   

[2] David Crary, “As War-Zone Deployments Increase, so Does Army’s Divorce Rate,” Associated Press, June 29, 2005.

[3] Suzannah K. Creech, Wendy Hadley, and Brian Bosari, “The Impact of Military Deployment and Reintegration on Children and Parenting: A Systematic Review,” Professional Psychology-Research and Practice 45, no. 6 (2014): 452-453.

[4] Bret A. Moore and Carrie H. Kennedy, Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life after Deployment (Washington, DC: APA LifeTools, 2011), 59-60.

[5] Ibid., 61-63, 64-65.

[6] Creech, Hadley, and Bosari, “The Impact of Military Deployment and Reintegration on Children and Parenting,” 452-454.

[7] Ibid.,” 457.

[8] Ibid., 454-455.

[9] Ibid., 458.

[10] Dorinda Silver Williams, LCSW-C, Over There (Washington, DC: Zero to Three, 2006).

[11] Thomas Bass, Vietnamerica: The War Comes Home (New York: Soho Press, 1996), 40.

[12] Lacy McCrary, “Decades Later, `War Babes’ Seek Their GI Fathers: WWII Secrets and Lies,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 10, 1997, A01; Mary Wiltenburg and Marc Widmann, “WWII G.I. Babies: Children of the Enemy,” Der Spiegel Online, January 2, 2007, https://bit.ly/2tYmJ4O.  

[13] Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin, 1984), 39.

[14] Bass, Vietnamerica, 179.

© 2018 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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