The Enduring Cost of War

The Russian aggression against Ukraine shows once more that we have not learned the lessons of history and are paying a high price for it. Future generations will also pay a significant price for our generation’s sins: fractured and destroyed families; poor social and health services; and a polluted environment. Children with mental and developmental problems are the clearest examples of the intergenerational effects of war.

The tremendous stress of war increases the chances of interpersonal violence, particularly against women. When the victims of violence are pregnant women, the intergenerational effect manifests as the increase of still births and premature births among them. Mothers who were the children of Holocaust survivors were shown to have higher levels of psychological stress and less positive parenting skills. During the siege of Sarajevo, perinatal mortality and morbidity almost doubled, and there was a significant increase in the number of children born with malformations.

By analyzing the number of people killed indirectly by the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, a report by the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs estimates that the war in those countries resulted in 3.6 – 3.7 million indirect deaths, while the total death toll in those same countries could reach at least 4.5 – 4.6 million, and counting.

Stephanie Savell, the Costs of War’s Co-Director and author of the report states, “wars often kill far more people indirectly than in direct combat, particularly young children.” Almost all the victims, says Savell, are from the most impoverished and marginalized populations. Most indirect war deaths are due to malnutrition, pregnancy and birth-related problems, and infectious and chronic diseases.

According to the report, more than 7.6 million children under five in post-9/11 war zones are suffering from acute malnutrition. Malnutrition has serious long-time effects on children’s health. Among those effects are increased vulnerability to diseases, developmental delays, stunted growth, and even blindness, reports UNICEF. Those children affected with malnutrition are also prevented from achieving success in school or having meaningful work as adults.

Although using doctors, patients and civilians as a human shield is a war crime, they are frequent targets of uncontrolled violence. Now in Sudan, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reports that their staff in multiple locations, have been repeatedly confronted by fighters entering health facilities, and stealing medicines, supplies, and vehicles. It is estimated that 70 percent of health facilities in areas in conflict are out of service, and 30 among them are targets of attacks.

In U.N.-sponsored health missions, I was able to see the consequences of war in countries such as Mozambique, Malawi, Angola, El Salvador and Nicaragua, a sobering experience that left painful memories. The sadness and feeling of helplessness I saw in the eyes of women and children still haunt me.

Repeated violence has numbed us to its consequences, our senses overwhelmed by cruelty. Faced with the tragic complexity of life, we are unable to savor its sweet moments of care and tenderness. Eager to escape brutal reality we watch the latest TV news and then mindlessly change the channel to a baking show.

But does war only produce negative effects? What we see now in Ukraine is that the Russian aggression against people of all ages -both soldiers and civilians- has produced millions of displaced people, but it has also given rise to the solidarity of Ukraine’s neighbors, who at high personal and social cost have provided refuge to tens of thousands of families fleeing the war.

Ukrainian women of all ages have also taken up arms to defend their country from Russian aggression. Currently, more than 60,000 Ukrainian women serve in the military, while tens of thousands more are helping their country as journalists, paramedics, teachers, and politicians. At the same time they continue being the center of support for their families. Because men are on the front lines, women must keep hospitals, schools and even villages themselves in operation, often without basic supplies. Although these actions are an example of the best of the human spirit, they do not erase the harrowing cruelty of war.

In his poem “The Dance,” the poet Atom Yarcharian, better known as Siamanto, who was killed by the Ottoman military during the Armenian genocide, expresses the horror of war,

                        The Dance

In a field of cinders where Armenians

were still dying,

a German woman, trying not to cry

told me the horror she witnessed:

“This incomprehensible thing I’m telling you about,

I saw with my own eyes.

From my window of hell

I clenched my teeth

and watched with my pitiless eyes:

the town of Bardoz turned

into a heap of ashes.

Corpses piled high as trees.

From the waters, from the springs,

from the streams and the road,

the stubborn murmur of your blood

still revenges my ear.

Don’t be afraid. I must tell you what I saw,

so people will understand

the crimes men do to men.

For two days, by the road to the graveyard . . .

Let the hearts of the whole world understand.

It was Sunday morning,

the first useless Sunday dawning on the corpses.

From dusk to dawn in my room,

with a stabbed woman,

my tears wetting her death.

Suddenly I heard from afar

a dark crowd standing in a vineyard

lashing twenty brides

and singing dirty songs.

Leaving the half-dead girl on the straw mattress,

I went to the balcony on my window

and the crowd seemed to thicken like a forest.

An animal of a man shouted, ‘you must dance,

dance when our drum beats.’

With fury whips cracked

on the flesh of these women.

Hand in hand the brides began their circle dance.

Now, I envied my wounded neighbor

because with a calm snore

she cursed the universe

and gave her soul up to the stars . . .

In vain I shook my fists at the crowd.

‘Dance,’ they raved,

‘dance till you die, infidel beauties.

With your flapping tits, dance!

Smile and don’t complain.

You’re abandoned now, you’re naked slaves,

so dance like a bunch of fuckin’ sluts.

We’re hot for you all.’

Twenty graceful brides collapsed.

‘Get up,’ the crowd roared,

brandishing their swords.

Then someone brought a jug of kerosene.

Human justice, I spit in your face.

The brides were anointed.

‘Dance,’ they thundered–

here’s a fragrance you can’t get in Arabia.’

Then with a torch, they set

the naked brides on fire.

And the charred corpses rolled

and tumbled to their deaths . . .

Like a storm I slammed the shutters

of my windows,

and went over to the dead girl

and asked: ‘How can I dig out my eyes,

how can I dig, tell me?’ “

Armenian; trans. Peter Balakian and Nevart Yaghlian

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”