The Effects of America’s New War on Military and Civilian Children

Misty L. Booth

 

Abstract

The effects of America’s New War on children of military and civilian families were studied.  Participants in the study were fifth and sixth grade students at a Midwestern elementary school near an Air Force base.  Teachers distributed the surveys to their students during their history classes.  Military children reported significantly greater feelings of worry that a loved one would be hurt as a result of the war.  Children who currently lived on a military base were significantly more affected personally by the war than children who did not. There was no significant difference between military and civilian children and the personal effects of the war.  Civilian children reported discussing current events more frequently with their parents than did military children, but the difference was not significant.  Civilian children also reported greater feelings of pride in being American than military children, but the difference was also not significant.  This research can be used as the framework to more closely examine the effects of America’s New War on children.  When we can pinpoint the precise effects of the war, then we can begin to implement programs to educate the public on this important issue.

 

         Until recently, war was a concept that most American children only experienced through history lessons and high budget movies.  For many young Americans, the thought of the United States being involved in a war during their lifetimes seemed highly unlikely.  After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, however, this quickly changed.  The attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. have had a tremendous impact on all aspects of American life.  The subsequent involvement of U.S. troops in Afghanistan continues to affect our nation and its citizens.  The feelings of safety that many Americans so readily took for granted were suddenly challenged, and many American children are now struggling to regain their sense of security.

        The recent terrorist attacks on America have also led to greater feelings of pride and patriotism among the people of our nation.  Following the onset of America’s New War, the American flag quickly became a best selling item; it was proudly displayed on many houses, buildings and vehicles.  Traditional patriotic songs, as well as newly recorded songs of pride and patriotism, blared from radios across the nation.  Many men and women throughout the United States freely volunteered to join our troops in the fight against terrorism.  These feelings and gestures of pride have touched many Americans, adults and children alike.

Children and War

Many studies have been conducted to examine the effects of war on children.  Rosenfeld (1993) conducted a small naturalistic study of how affluent American children responded to the Gulf War.  Rosenfeld interviewed many children and found that the war had a deep impact on the majority of them.  He found that the images that they saw on television saddened them a great deal.  He also noted that the same images they viewed on television made them proud to be Americans.  Costello (1994) also examined the effects of war on children.  She explained that developmental and social concerns were the most significant factors to address when dealing with children and war.  She also explained that further research in the area was greatly needed.  Ladd & Cairns (1996) went on to explain the effects of ethnic and political violence on child development.  The authors concluded that children who were exposed to violence of this sort were more prone to develop mental health disorders, behavior problems, sleep disturbances, somatic complaints and other difficulties.  Furthermore, after focusing on the direct and indirect effects of several wars, Goldson (1996) explained that war is devastating to the children who experience it because of the disruption of education and other public services that often come with it.

Garbarino, Kostelny & Dubrow (1991) also explored the effects of war and violence on children of several war and violence struck nations.  Their research suggested that many children experienced lifelong impairments to their mental health, physical well-being and to their moral development, as a result of this exposure to violence.  It also explained, however, that these negative effects could be minimized by the presence of a secure relationship with a parent or other family member.

These studies explained that war and violence undoubtedly negatively affected the children who experienced it.  By studying the effects of war on America’s youth, we can begin to address the problems associated with war.  Ben Shalit (1988) explained that, “Different individuals adopt different coping strategies toward the same situation or toward themselves in a given situation (36).” No two children will react to war and conflict in the same way, but if we can precisely pinpoint some of the effects of war on children, then we can most effectively offset the negative consequences.

Our nation’s schools can implement programs that focus on the prevention and treatment of war related emotional, physical and behavioral problems.  Jane Rohrer (1996) observed pre-school through sixth grade classrooms throughout the duration of Operation Desert Storm.  By comparing children’s written and verbal thoughts, as well as teacher comments, Rohrer concluded that the war scenes the children witnessed on television greatly affected them.   She concluded that “schools should develop a response plan for children affected by televised scenes of war and bombing.”  By observing, studying and documenting these reactions to war, we can begin to implement programs to help America’s youth deal with the hardships associated with it.

        Studying the effects of war could also allow parents to be better informed on how to talk to their children about war related issues.  During times of war, children often look to adults for love and support.  Deborah Byrnes (2001) explained that, “As a result of war, children see and experience real violence as well as the threat of violence.  Both violence and the fear of violence are debilitating to development.”  Children try to make sense of what they see on television, and parents must be able to help them do so. Educating parents on the effects of war is extremely important and the benefits are obvious.

Gulf War vs. America’s New War

        Several studies have been conducted on the effects of war on children, but because America’s New War began only months ago, specific research on this war is rather limited.  The Gulf War, on the other hand, and its effects on American children, was researched quite heavily.  Figley (1993) explained that, “The recent Persian Gulf crisis provides a useful context for examining the impact of traumatic stress.  Although brief in duration as a national crisis, the ongoing military mobilization caused extreme hardship for children, marriages, and families of those who participated in some way.” 

        Because the Gulf War took place fairly recently in American history, it is most comparable to America’s New War.  Throughout the Gulf War, Americans were exposed to great amounts of media coverage.  News of the war appeared on the front page of every newspaper and was the top story in every newscast.  Americans were constantly being fed up-to-the-minute details on the happenings in the Gulf.  “Television had brought detailed images of war into 98 percent of American homes (Rohrer 1996).” This is precisely what is taking place today in regard to America’s New War.  American children are constantly bombarded with images of the war in Afghanistan.

War in Other Nations

        Research has also been conducted on the effects of war on children in other nations.  These studies demonstrate that children who are exposed to war, whether first hand or through the media, are greatly affected by it.  Oweini (1998) examined children who lived through wartime in Lebanon.  It concluded that “an average Lebanese child was exposed to one or more of the following events: bombardment and shelling, displacement, witnessing violent acts, bereavement, and extreme poverty.”  This study concluded that these war traumas were positively related to post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, mental health symptoms, and adaptational outcomes. 

        Garbarino & Kostelny (1996) interviewed Palestinian mothers during wartime in the West Bank. Researchers found that the amount of risks present in a child’s life was significantly correlated with the number of behavioral problems the child exhibited.  Children who lived in conditions of high risk were significantly more likely to demonstrate behavior problems than children who lived in low risk conditions.  The study also explained that among children in high-risk areas, boys exhibited more problem behaviors than did girls.

        Mghir & Raskin (1999) went on to exam the effects of the war in Afghanistan on young Afghan refugees.  The study focused on Afghan refugees who settled in Seattle, Washington.  It looked at 15 refugee families in the Seattle area; the families included 38 children aged 12 to 24.  Researchers administered the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire, the Beck Depression Inventory, and the Hopkins Symptom Checklist to each of the parents involved in the study.  Factors such as ethnicity, language fluency, finances, going to a Mosque regularly, and the amount of time spent in Afghanistan were all highly correlated with the Beck Depression Inventory.  “The study points up the need to identify particular refugees who may need mental health services.”  This study is particularly interesting because it provides some insight into what the people of Afghanistan are currently experiencing, even though it was conducted before the onset of America’s New War. 

Specific Effects of War

            Leavitt & Fox (1993) explained that, “There is a growing recognition among developmental psychologists that where one is developmentally has a lot to do with how and how much historical events in the society and the community influence one’s personal development (36).”  Historical events such as America’s New War undoubtedly effect children of different age groups in different ways, but there are some important characteristics to take into consideration with all children, regardless of their ages.

        Elbedour (1993) described previous research that has been conducted on children and war.  Elbedour found that five factors were important to examine when studying this topic.  They included (1) the child’s psychobiological makeup, (2) disruption of the family unit, (3) breakdown of community, (4) ameliorating effects of culture, and (5) the intensity, suddenness, and duration of the warlike experience.

        When looking at the effects of America’s New War, it is very crucial that each of these factors is examined.  This new war certainly began suddenly, and with a great deal of intensity, with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  The exact length of the war is presently unknown.  A main factor that is being examined in this study is the disruption of the family unit, as this disruption is often seen in military families.

        The effects of work-related absences on families were studied among military families during the Gulf War (Angrist & Johnson, 2000).  The authors of this study explained that “the majority of soldiers today—about 57% of enlisted personnel and 73% of active duty officers—are married.  Moreover, about half of soldiers have children.”  Because of the demands of a career in the military, many men and women are forced to leave their spouses and children behind to perform duties away from home.  This undoubtedly impacts on each military family.  Many spouses must deal with being single parents, and many children must learn to adapt to having a parent away from home.  This study found that the deployment of soldiers during the Gulf War did significantly impact military families in several ways.  Females who were deployed during the Gulf War experienced an increased likelihood of divorce.  The deployment of male soldiers, however, did not have a similar effect.  The study also found that “time away from home reduced the employment rates of male soldiers’ wives.”  This was most likely a result of the increased responsibilities placed upon these wives while their husbands were away.  A third finding suggested that there was “no evidence of an increase in disabilities in the children of service personnel, at least as measured by the reported incidence of disabilities.”  While this finding was inconsistent with other studies in the area, the researchers pointed out that, “Because Gulf War deployments were not associated with appreciable declines in earnings, this result offers some support for the view that loss of income is largely responsible for negative effects of parental absences.” 

        While many studies suggest that war affects all children who experience it in many ways, this research is oriented toward assessing the differences in these effects between military and civilian children.  While both groups of children are undoubtedly exposed to the details and images of America’s New War, each group may handle the war differently. 

This research study on the effects of America’s New War was guided by these hypotheses:

(1) Military children are more deeply affected emotionally by America’s New War than are civilian children.

(2) Military children worry more that a loved one will be hurt as a result of the war than civilian children.

(3) Children of military families express more feelings of pride toward their country than civilian children.

(4) Military children are more likely to discuss current events with their parents than are civilian children.

(5)   Children who currently live on a military base are more personally affected by America’s New War than children who do not.

(6)   Students who believe that the United States is the most powerful country in the world will also believe that most people in other countries wish they could live in America.

(7)   Children who would like to serve in the United States military someday express greater feelings of pride in their nation than children who would not like to serve in the military.

(8)   More boys will answer that they would like to join the United States armed forces someday than girls.

(9)   Students who frequently watch the news and read the newspaper will be more knowledgeable about current events than those who do not.

Method

Participants

        A survey was distributed to 158 fifth and sixth grade students at a Midwestern elementary school that is located near an Air Force base.  Of the 158 children tested, 69 were in fifth grade, and 88 were in sixth grade.  A total of 76 males and 82 females took the survey.  Seventy-five military children and 83 civilian children completed the survey.  A child was considered civilian if his/her parent(s) were not currently or previously in the military.

Instrument

        A 33-question survey assessing the effects of America’s New War was used. (See Appendix A.)  This survey was developed by the researcher.  A semantic-differential scale, a Likert scale, and a multiple-choice format were used.  There were three questions related to demographics, which asked for each participant’s gender, age, and grade in school.  Students were also asked four questions that assessed each child’s parents’ involvement in the military.  The remaining questions assessed each child’s overall exposure to the news, their specific knowledge of current events, and the effects of the war on each participant. 

Procedure

The researcher contacted the elementary school and met with the school’s principal.  The principal asked fifth and sixth grade teachers to administer the survey to their students during their history periods.  The principal decided that a permission slip would not be necessary.  Each of the teachers administered the survey to their students, who were given no time limit to complete the survey.  They were told to answer honestly and that their answers would not be graded.  The data was analyzed through the use of SPSS.

Results

Military and Civilian Children and the Effects of War 

To assess the first four hypotheses, independent sample t-tests were conducted.  For the first hypothesis, military and civilian children were compared on personal effects of the war.  A semantic differential scale of one to seven was used to assess the level to which each child was personally affected.  A lower score indicated that the child was greatly affected by the war, and a higher score indicated a lesser effect. The mean for military children was 3.00, and the mean for civilian children was 3.02 (p= .938).

 

 Military and Civilian and Worry that a Loved One Will be Hurt: Degree of Worry (1-7 Semantic-Differential Scale) and percentage of each response for military and civilian groups

For the second hypothesis, military and civilian children were compared on feelings of worry that a loved one would be hurt as a result of the war. A Likert scale of one (strongly disagree) to seven (strongly agree) was used, and a higher mean indicated a greater amount of worry. The mean for military children was 5.52, and the mean for civilian children was 4.95 (p= .041).

Military and civilian children were also compared on their levels of pride in being an American for the third hypothesis.  A Likert scale of one (strongly disagree) to seven (strongly agree) was used.  A high score indicated a high level of pride.  The mean for military children was 6.75, and the mean for civilian children was 6.92 (p= .064).

            For the fourth hypothesis, military and civilian children were compared on the frequency of discussing current events with their parents.  A semantic differential scale of one to seven was used.  A low score indicated that the child never discussed current events with his/her parents. The mean for military children was 4.96, and the mean for civilian children was 5.37 (p= .186).

Effects of Living on a Military Base

            To assess the fifth hypothesis, an independent sample t-test was conducted comparing children who currently lived on a military base on the personal effects of America’s New War.  The mean for students who live on base (N= 19) was 1.87 (1= yes, 2=no).  The mean for the effect of war was 3.01.  A Likert scale of one (great effect) to seven (no effect) was utilized.  This hypothesis was significant (p= .001).

Pride in One’s Country 

To assess the sixth and seventh hypotheses, Pearson’s Product Moment correlations were conducted.  For the sixth hypothesis, the belief that America is the most powerful country in the world was correlated with the belief that most people in other countries with they could live in America (r= .345, p= .001).  For the ninth hypothesis, the desire to serve in the military someday was correlated with feelings of pride in one’s country (r=.085, p= .292).

Gender Differences

To assess the eighth hypothesis, an independent sample t-test was conducted comparing male and female children on the desire to join the United States armed forces someday.  The mean for males was 1.41, and the mean for females was 1.66 (1= yes, 2= no) (p= .002).

Current Events

            To assess the final hypothesis, a Pearson’s Product Moment correlation was conducted comparing the amount of televised news a child is exposed to with the number of correct answers to the knowledge based questions on current events (r= .266, p= .001).

 

Watching Televised News and Knowledge of Current Events: Number of times watch televised news per week and percentage of students who answered each number of questions correctly

Discussion

 

Military and Civilian Children and the Effects of War 

The hypothesis that military children are more deeply effected by America’s New War than civilian children was not supported with p= .938.  Because this survey was distributed shortly after the onset of America’s New War, many children had not yet experienced the full effects of the war.  Media coverage of the war continues to be so extensive that many children, whether military or civilian, are exposed to the hardships of the war.  Additionally, because the war is not one that is being fought on American soil, it is easy for many children to disregard the current war in Afghanistan.

The hypothesis that military children worry more that a loved one will be hurt as a result of the war than do civilian children was supported with p= .041.  Military children have to deal with the fact that there is a possibility that their parent(s) will be sent to fight for our country.  This is not an issue which most civilian children face.

The hypothesis that military children express more feelings of pride in being American than do civilian children was not supported (p= .064).  Once again, because of the extensive media coverage on the war, all children are likely to feel a great deal of pride in their nation.  Many children are taught from a young age that our country is the most powerful in the world.  Additionally, since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, many American flags and other expressions of patriotism are openly on display.  This undoubtedly contributes to one’s overall pride in our nation.

The hypothesis that military children are more likely to discuss current events with their parents than are civilian children was not supported with (p= .186).  Civilian children reported discussing current events with their parents more often than military children.  This may be because parents who have ties to the military do not want to place any fear into their children regarding the war.  These parents may avoid discussion of the war with their children in order to send the message that there is no need for them to worry.  Military parents may also be more likely to avoid discussion of the war while at home because they are continually exposed to the realities of it while at work.

Effects of Living on a Military Base

The hypothesis that children who currently live on a military base are more personally affected by America’s New War than children who do not was supported (p= .001).  Children who live on military bases experience the effects of the war first hand.  Since the onset of the war in Afghanistan, security on military bases has increased substantially.  While children who do not live on base go home to the same environment daily, children who live on military bases face the realities of the war at all times.  Children who must pass through gates that are guarded by armed soldiers on a daily basis certainly view America’s New War from a different standpoint than those who do not. 

Pride in One’s Country 

The hypothesis that students who believe that the United States is the most powerful country in the world will also believe that most people in other countries wish they could live in America was supported (p= .001).  Both of these questions deal with feelings of ethnocentrism and patriotism.  Children often equate power with stability and happiness, so it makes sense that the two beliefs are correlated.

The hypothesis that children who would like to serve in the United States military someday express greater feelings of pride in their nation than children who would not like to serve in the military was not supported (p= .292).  The majority of children surveyed expressed a great deal of pride in their nation, regardless of whether they would like to serve in the military some day.  Pride and patriotism are feelings that are strong within most children.  The aspiration to enter the military does not signify stronger feelings of pride in one’s nation.

Gender Differences

The hypothesis that more boys would answer that they would like to join the United States armed forces someday than girls was supported (p= .009).  Joining the military is traditionally an occupation that men enter, although the number of women who serve in the military continues to increase.  Evidently gender specific role expectations still exist.

Current Events

The hypothesis that students who frequently watched the news and read the newspaper would be more knowledgeable about current events was supported (p= .003).  Televised news programs and newspapers undoubtedly provided ample coverage on the war.  Children who were regularly exposed to such news sources demonstrated a firm grasp of people, geographic locations, and specific terms associated with the war.

Overall, these results indicated that military and civilian children shared several similarities in regards to the effects of America’s New War.  Feelings of pride were exceptionally strong among most children.  The reported personal effects of the war were also similar between military and civilian children.  On the other hand, military children expressed a significantly greater degree of fear that a loved one would be hurt as a result of the war.  Children who live on military bases also expressed a significantly higher degree of personal effect.

This research certainly lays the foundation for further research in the area.  Further research could explore specific gender differences between male and female military children.  Examining the effects of the war longitudinally would also provide insight into the long-term effects of war and violence.  In conducting research such as this, we can pinpoint the precise effects of war and implement programs to offset the negative consequences.

References

 

Angrist, J.D & Johnson, J.H. (2000). Effects of Work-Related Absences on Families: Evidence from the Gulf War.  Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 54, 41-58.

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Garbarino, J. & Kostelny, K. (1996). The Effects of Political Violence on Palestinian Children’s Behavior Problems: A Risk Accumulation Model. Child Development, 67, 33-45.

Garbarino, J., Kostelny, K., & Dubrow, N. (1991).  No Place to be a Child: Growing Up in a War Zone. Illinois: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

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Ladd, G.W. & Cairns, E. (1996). Introduction—Children: Ethnic and Political Violence. Child Development, 67, 14-18.

Leavitt, L.A., & Fox N.A. (1993). The Psychological Effects of War and Violence on Children. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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Shalit, Ben. (1988). The Psychology of Conflict and Combat. New York, NY: Praeger Publishers.