US Catholic Faith in Real Life

No small sacrifice: The effects of war on children

By Kevin Clarke | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

We can’t afford to lose our children to the ravages of war.

Surely the hardest faces to look upon during armed conflict are those of terrified or wounded children trapped by the war-making of adults. While humankind’s inhumanity is not exactly headline news, resorting to armed conflict is always evidence of a profound moral and rational collapse. But there is something exceptionally awful about the suffering and incomprehension of children when fighting begins. The adult world around them has succumbed to some primal insanity, and safety and solace evaporate in a heartbeat. These children have been failed utterly.

Over the clear skies of Syria and the Gaza Strip last November, fresh horrors were being prepared for children on the ground. A new Israeli effort to halt indiscriminate rocket and mortar fire from within Gaza this time left more than 160 dead, including at least 30 children; six Israelis perished as well. In Syria the death toll continued its grisly ascent, but the cruelty of a cluster bomb attack on a playground full of children still managed to shock. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, rebel forces marched on the North Kivu capital city of Goma, sending thousands into flight and directly imperiling more than 200,000 children.

In these and a hundred other places at war around the world, children became suddenly, fatally at risk. We love to claim that children are our future. Why then are we so listless about the violence they suffer in our wars?

The church’s just war tradition has been properly criticized for the amount of bloodletting it manages to rationalize. But the tradition at least insists on noncombatant immunity. It is a sad comment on our times that greater fidelity to this basic limitation would be a huge step forward for human civilization.

With the 20th-century innovation of total war, noncombatants have not only lost immunity, they have frequently become the direct targets of military strikes: London, Nanking, Dresden, and Hiroshima, to name a few. Now we inhabit a zone of doublethink and contradiction over noncombatant lives. U.S. soldiers offer apologies and compensation after wayward strikes in Afghanistan. Israel’s air force drops leaflets over the Gaza Strip, the most densely populated place on earth, urging civilians to flee while its politicians talk of flattening Gaza, home to just under 750,000 children. In many African conflicts children have been the targets of sexual assault, machete mutilations, and amputations, and have been forced to act as child soldiers.

If the world is not civilized enough for something better, something more morally demanding than just war principles, perhaps we can consider smaller, but still significant steps away from depravity. We could begin by setting a minimum in war-making that at least protects the world’s children. The United States, for example, has become reliant on drones in “targeted assassinations” that frequently manage to neutralize not only their targets but anyone, including children, around them.

The United States could further reset moral limitations in combat by announcing an explicit policy of mission cancellation in any instance where a strike could lead to the killing of children, no matter how “high value” the target. Other significant steps to better protect the world’s children include signing on to the bans on cluster bombs and land mines, which continue to kill children for decades after conflicts end. It could also ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Children. The United States and Somalia are the only nations which have not confirmed this international endorsement of the rights of children to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We have accepted “collateral damage” in modern, high-tech combat long enough. Let’s commit ourselves to protecting children during armed conflict. Save the children and we may end up saving ourselves.­

This article appeared in the February 2013 issue of  U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 2, page 47).

Image: Martin Lueders