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.
In June 2016, for instance, I spoke with a Human Rights Watch analyst who was doing research on what the Saudi-led, American-backed counterinsurgency war in Yemen meant in terms of attacks on schools. As of then, more than three quarters of that country’s schools had already been closed due to insecurity. Most schools that had sustained direct damage in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, she told me, had not actually been directly targeted by Saudi-led forces. They had been grim collateral damage from air strikes on nearby suspected weapons caches and the like. Yet the consequences of such bombings have been immense and intense.
In Yemen in 2015, 1.85 million children could not take their final school exams. That’s a population larger than Philadelphia’s and that was just in the first year of an American-supported war that would only get worse (and worse and worse). War, in other words, is not just a conflict between states, not when the children who live through it (and the chaos that invariably follows in its wake) can’t do what anyone should be able to do to grow up in a reasonable way, no less sustain civilization — namely, learn to read, write, listen to others of varying viewpoints, and do the kinds of math and critical thinking that should help them anticipate the consequences of similar war-making decisions themselves one day.
Of course, when it comes to attacks on education, bombs dropping on schools barely scratch the surface of the damage caused by this century’s forever wars. A few years ago, I conducted research for the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), which reported on how wars around the world affected education. In the process, to my grief, I learned about all kinds of not-so-obvious ways in which students are forced to participate in conflicts that should have nothing to do with them.
I learned, for instance, that schools can be used as barracks for troops, weapons caches, bases from which to fire on an advancing enemy, and recruiting grounds for soldiers. I learned that kids around the world were scared to walk to school because they or their parents feared kidnappings, rapes, roadside bombs, or because they would have a hard time reaching school thanks to clogged military checkpoints. In other places, school buses were also used to transport troops or people to political rallies, leaving kids without a safe way to attend school.
The May 2018 report that resulted from our joint efforts found that ever more targeted and indiscriminate attacks on schools, teachers, and students had occurred between 2013 and 2017: 12,700 attacks hurting more than 21,000 students and teachers in at least 70 countries. Colleagues working in Ukraine, for instance, told me that schools for kids with disabilities had been occupied by parties on both sides of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and that most of them had to be evacuated early in the war. There were few other options for such children when it came to education. Similarly, girls’ schoolstended to suffer disproportionately when education was attacked, as did schools for other kinds of kids who generally get the shorter end of the stick during peacetime as well.
When it came to Afghanistan, my high school students were right to be skeptical about or pay little attention to the optimism of that New York Times article I showed them. While U.S. aid did indeed bring new educational infrastructure to some regions of that country, building new schools hardly began to make up for the damage done by that still unending war.
As nurse-midwife and anthropologist Kylea Liese has shown in an essay on maternal mortality in our new book, the growth of Islamic extremism among warring factions over the last 18 years has made it difficult for young women to leave their homes in the first place, let alone sit in a classroom all day. Many fear that they will be raped or killed on their way to or at school. What numbers we have are not encouraging: as of 2018, 8% of Afghan boys and 22% of Afghan girls at the primary level, and 2% of boys and 10% of girls at the secondary level identified insecurity as the reason they did not attend school.
Because so much of the damage to education is overlooked when states wage war, it can be hard to get the full story of just how many young people are being killed, hurt, or prevented from studying due to attacks on schools. When I worked on the GCPEA report, our research methods were limited to painstaking surveys of news reports from around the world and interviews with the few intrepid activists willing to speak out on the subject, often despite fearing for their own lives.
We struggled to cobble together as full a picture as possible of how many young people have been attacked, had died, had been injured, and how many children simply couldn’t study in the aftermath of such violence. But given the inability to discover so much, the full consequences of America’s forever wars (and other conflicts) across significant parts of the globe remain only partially known even to those, like us at the Costs of War Project, who focus on the subject much of the time.
A Culture of War and Terror in American Schools
One problem with a war on terror that can, as on 9/11, manifest itself anywhere at any time (and the promotion of the fear of terror that’s gone with it) is that there are no limits on the militarized chaos it can create in people’s lives. After all, since 9/11, it’s become part of our culture to assume that armed violence — terror of the Islamic or white nationalist variety — can touch us anywhere we are, including in the classroom.
It’s also common to think that physical violence is the right way to solve problems and that militarized language and tactics are reasonable ways to deal with and discipline children, especially in schools. Kids I work with attend one of the more highly regarded school systems in the country when it comes to both academics and security. Yet every week, I learn of school arguments, including disputes over who likes whom enough to date him or her, or who gave whom a dirty look in the hallway.
Such arguments have a way of escalating quickly into fights that end when uniformed security personnel break them up without — as kids and their parents typically tell me — anyone being asked what happened. The involved parties are simply removed from the scene, often by force. Such school fights and the way schools now tend to resolve them may have nothing at all to do with our distant armed conflicts abroad. Still, I’m aware that kids are increasingly seen as threats in the very places where they are supposed to be learning and that, for some kinds of kids, a militarized version of security, not the school equivalent of diplomacy, is considered the order of the day.
And don’t forget that violence, however you explain it, is now a remarkably regular part of school life and the school experience, or at least fears and preparation for it are. Even as the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars to fight jihadist terror targeting civilians at home and abroad, gun violence, including suicides, homicides, police violence, and “mass shootings” (especially in schools), has cost us exponentially more lives. Yet according to the Atlantic, we’ve invested only the tiniest fraction of the money we’ve spent prosecuting the War on Terror in protecting students in America’s schools (roughly $22 million annually).
Still, the effects of mass shootings and the ways we prepare for them have changed school life in grim ways, normalizing the very idea of armed violence. Recently, I shushed my two preschool-age children while I took a work call, only to hear one of them say to the other, “Let’s play lockdown! The shooters are coming!” They then crawled behind an armchair and lay flat on their stomachs like little boot camp trainees, their eyes wide as they watched me. In other words, somehow they’ve already absorbed the lockdown school mindset of the moment, those grim preparations for mass shooters, and they’ve yet to arrive in their first classroom.
As someone who came of age when the Columbine massacre took place, a time when we assumed that it was an isolated incident perpetrated by mentally disturbed young men, I regularly wonder why we aren’t doing more to address the ways in which war and other forms of mass violence continue to affect the hearts and minds of students here and around the world. Isn’t it time to work to change a culture in which the young spend too much of their school and homework time focused on violence rather than on the subjects they came to study?
And, of course, our government is not shy about directly encouraging kids to fight wars. In 2019, for example, the Army set aside some $700 million for recruiting, though it’s not clear how much of this is spent to recruit in schools. Data suggests that schools with a high percentage of lower-income students are visited far more frequently by recruiters than more affluent schools. According to the American Public Health Association, most new U.S. military recruits are in late adolescence and less able to handle high levels of stress, more likely to take uncalculated risks, and more likely to suffer long-term injury and mental health problems as a result of their military service.
I’ve argued with relatives who insist that junior ROTC and the recruiting of teenagers in school should be a source of pride and opportunity, especially for the most disadvantaged kids. Yet when the “opportunity” you’re offering includes the possibility of being maimed or killed, then wouldn’t it make sense to devote a larger slice of our country’s budgetary pie to training more numerous, better-qualified teachers and college counselors, while creating better constructed and supplied schools, so that kids of all stripes have a shot at opportunities that are less likely to kill or maim them?
At home or abroad, whether we know it or not, in the post-9/11 years, war has targeted the young. It’s not a pretty sight.
This essay first appeared on TomDispatch.