Some Effects of War and Genocide on People

Since I was born in New York City in 1941, I did not experience WW II and the Holocaust directly. I have, however, come to realize that these events deeply affected me and are so deeply connected in my mind that I include genocide* as a form of war.

War and genocide are the most irrational activities that societies engage in. They cause death, destruction, displacement of people, and contribute to climate change and food shortages. They waste resources that could be used for the benefit of people. They have devastating and long-lasting effects on people that are not always recognized, addressed, or fully understood. I will describe some of the emotional damage of war and genocide.

Emotional pain
People who have experienced war or genocide directly are often overwhelmed by feelings of fear, grief, discouragement, and hopelessness. They may become silent, pessimistic, or anxious. After a war, people who have experienced war/genocide usually do not have the opportunity to heal emotionally from their experiences. They can sense a boundary that they cannot cross in showing deep emotions to friends and families. They often give up on healing emotionally from the trauma and develop coping strategies. They may resort to drugs or alcohol to numb their feelings. One man, who was a child during the genocide in Rwanda, was telling me about the horrors that he saw. When I asked him what he was feeling at the time, he said “I decided to never cry about it.” Combat veterans who have told their stories at workshops that I lead have confided to me afterwards that they hadn’t told their story to anyone in the 30 or more years since they returned from war.

Relationships are damaged
Veterans returning from combat may act out their anger on members of their families. They may not be able to trust anyone but combat buddies. Marriages can be destroyed. Family relationships, between people who are in favor of a war and those who oppose it, may also be broken. People who were in the resistance to an invading army will often not trust collaborators and vice-versa. This lack of trust may be transmitted to their descendants. I knew a man from the Netherlands whose grandfather was a Nazi collaborator during WW II. I invited him to a Healing from War workshop that I was leading in the Netherlands and he signed up. At the last minute he called me and said that he was not coming because it would be too hard for him to talk about his grandfather.

Descendants of people from countries who fought each other in a war may find it difficult to develop trusting relationships. The same is true for descendants of people on different sides of a civil war, or descendants of the targets and agents of genocide. Many of the current problems facing our society are harder to solve because of the unhealed painful emotions (fear, anger, grief, etc.) from previous wars.

Effects on young people
Just finding out about war or genocide confuses and scares young people. And adults rarely have the time or attention to listen to youngsters’ feelings. At the end of World War II, I went to a victory parade. There were large crowds. I was 4 years old and was sitting on someone’s shoulders so that I could see the parade. I was fascinated by the uniforms, the patriotic music, and the military marching. And then there came the soldiers, marines, and sailors on crutches or in wheelchairs. Some had bandages over their eyes. I was very confused and sad. But I did not ask my parents about it. I would have cried and I knew that they did not approve of me crying.

Effects can last a long time
I first became aware of this in the early 1970s when I was leading a 5-day workshop for educators. On the last day, I asked participants to pair up and talk about their next steps. I then asked a few people to tell us about the challenges they faced. One woman said that she was going to teach in a boys’ school for the first time after teaching in girls’ schools. She said, “I am terrified.” I listened to her for a while and then asked, “What does the situation remind you of?” she said, “I don’t know” As she continued talking, I returned to that question several times, with the same response. I was about ready to give up asking the question, but decided to ask it one more time. This time she answered and said between sobs: “I was a young girl in Berlin. My mother was a Jew. My father was a Nazi. He took me to the parades of the Brown Shirts [a paramilitary Nazi organization that terrorized the citizens of Germany]. They were very noisy and I was very scared. I am afraid that the young boys will make a lot of noise.” She continued crying for a long time. And that was 30 years after the war ended!

Some people believe that war is inherent in humans. I disagree. Human beings innately like each other and are curious about each other before they get hurt and are taught to be fearful of others. The picture below captures this idea.

children reaching for eah other

I can imagine a world without war. John Lennon could too. He wrote, “Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion too. Imagine all the people living life in peace.” You can listen to Imagine.

If war is not inherent and is so harmful to humans, why have we not been able to end it yet? What will it take? More about that in future posts!

Reflection. Pair up with a friend, and each take a roughly equal amount of time to talk about the following, or write in a journal: When did you first realize that humans fought wars or committed genocide? How did you feel? What are other memories of learning about war – from movies, TV, books, newspapers, overhearing conversations? How did you feel at those times?

* Genocide is acts intended to systematically destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Genocide does not have to succeed in exterminating a people in order to be labeled genocide. Genocide can take different forms: killing members of the group; causing them serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting on them conditions calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction; imposing measures to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. [Adapted from the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948]



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