The Wounds Among Us

“Dedicated to all human beings.”

 

“But we can perhaps remember—even if only for a time—that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek—as we do—nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can. Continue reading

Civilian Casualties Are a Feature, Not a Bug, of War

“The first pattern is that forbearance toward the helpless has always been instrumental rather than absolute.” Historians Mark Grimsley and Clifford J Rogers (2002: xii), on treatment of civilians in war over time. 

 

Much of the world’s attention has been focused on two recent tragedies: the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine and the civilian casualties in Gaza. In his Foreign Policy essay “The Slaughter of Innocents”, David Rothkopf couched these events within the concepts of ‘limited war’ and ‘collateral damage,’ writing:

From a purely political perspective, such tragedies, isolated though they may be, instantly dominate the narrative of a conflict because they speak to the heart of observers — whereas government speeches, Twitter feeds, and press releases seem too coldly rational and calculated, too soulless and self-interested. There are no arguments a political leader or a press officer can make that trump horror or anguish. There is no moral equation that offers a satisfactory calculus to enable us to accept the death of innocents as warranted.

I agree with much of this, except for one non-trivial point: tragedies involving civilian casualties are not that isolated, unfortunately. Not all incidents will be nearly as visible as the deaths of four young children playing football on a beach near a hotel filled with journalists, or a commercial airplane shot out of the sky. But they are all tragedies nonetheless. Civilian casualties are a feature of modern war, not a bug.

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Civilian casualties. See references below for sources.

 

And this is not exactly a new pattern or feature of ‘limited war.’ Instead, nearly a century of data suggests that civilians, not soldiers, have suffered the brunt of war, experiencing 67% to 90% of casualties across various conflicts since WW2. And many more civilians suffer through forced displacement, along with its short- and long-term effects on health (Bradley 2014). Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at these patterns, for the very simple reason that war is a sledgehammer, not a scalpel. It cannot easily excise some unwanted faction from a society without also cutting out several times more innocent lives. The real tragedy are not those ‘rare mistakes’ (which are not rare, really) that injure or kill civilians. It is the decision to go to war at all.    Continue reading

Evelyn’s Story

Patrick Clarkin:

I was just reminiscing about Evelyn, who said to me over a year ago: “I was a walking skeleton for five years.”

Originally posted on Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.:

Recently, we attended a going-away party for some friends who are moving to Europe. One of the guests arrived a bit late, along with her husband and daughter. She also brought her 83-year old mother, Evelyn [1], who was the chronological outlier among the crowd of 30 to 50 year-olds and their kids. As the children played and the younger adults socialized I made eye contact with Evelyn, who was standing alone. She smiled back in that kindly, typical grandmotherly way, so I introduced myself. We made small talk and she mentioned how she had recently sold the house that she had lived in for more than thirty years, and how much she loved her new apartment and her granddaughter, and other things grandmothers like to talk about.

From her slight accent, it was obvious that she was born elsewhere. Eventually she revealed that she grew up…

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The Rights of the Displaced

T. Alexander Aleinikoff, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, wrote the following on June 20th (World Refugee Day):

The protection of refugees and other persons forced from their homes is not an act of charity; it is not an act of noblesse oblige; and it is more than a moral obligation that the fortunate owe the less fortunate.

It is a matter of rights.

  • Persons forced to flee have a right to seek and receive asylum.
  • They have a right not be “pushed back” at sea or arbitrarily detained upon arrival.
  • They have rights, under the Refugee Convention, to freedom of movement and to work within countries in which they have been recognized as refugees.
  • Persons forced to flee have a right not to be discriminated against because of their race or their religion or their gender or their sexual orientation.
  • Women forced from their homes have a right not to be forced into survival sex.
  • Children forced to flee because of conflict have a right not to be forced to serve as child soldiers.

 

As persons forced from their homes have rights, so too the international community has responsibilities.

  • Nations must share the burden imposed on countries that have opened their borders to those forced to flee.
  • They are responsible for the humane treatment of asylum-seekers, and the development of fair and efficient asylum systems.
  • And the international community has a responsibility to provide solutions to refugees, internally displaced and stateless persons—who sometimes remain in uncertain legal status for decades.

These rights and responsibilities belong to all of us; they are affirmed collectively to provide for our protection and to remind us of our duties.

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Civilians, Refugees, and the 2nd Indochina War in Laos

In Houa Phanh and Xieng Khouang provinces, the war (in Laos) has reached into every home and forced every individual, down to the very youngest, to make the agonizing choice of flight or death.” (Yang 1993: 104)

Those who suffered the most from the escalating conflict were populations living in the east of the country: overwhelmingly highland minorities, Lao Thoeng and particularly Lao Sung (Mien as well as Hmong), but also upland Tai, the Phuan of Xiang Khouang and the Phu-Tai of east central Laos.” (Stuart-Fox, 1997: 139)

Military Region II (northeastern Laos) bore the brunt of the war for almost fifteen years. Nearly 80% of the refugee population in Laos originated in MR II, including the refugees on the Vientiane Plaine. Almost the entire population of Houa Phan (Sam Neua) and Xieng Khouang Provinces were gradually forced south into the Long Tieng, Ban Xon, Muang Cha crescent.” (USAID, 1976: 210)

 

Displaced Hmong in Laos, probably in the early 1970s. Source: Roger Warner. 1998.

Displaced Hmong in Laos, probably in the early 1970s. Source: Roger Warner. 1998.

 

A consistent feature of war is the harming of civilian lives. The extent of harm is not always easy to ascertain, but is sometimes quantified in the number of “excess deaths” that occur during a war. For example, Hagopian et al (2013) surveyed two thousand randomly selected households throughout Iraq, interviewing residents about their family members before and during the US-led invasion and occupation. They estimated that from March 2003-2011 approximately 405,000 deaths occurred as a result of the war, mostly from violence.

However, such studies always have limitations – recall bias, survivor bias (the dead cannot be interviewed), and logistics in surveying high violence areas – meaning that mortality estimates will never be perfect, and Hagopian et al. gave a range around their figure (a 95% uncertainty interval of 48,000 to 751,000 excess deaths). Whatever the exact number, which we will probably never know, we can still be confident that mortality rates increased during the war years.  

The same challenges apply to all wars, including one that I have been interested in for a while – the Second Indochina War in LaosThe Australian historian Martin Stuart-Fox wrote that: “loss of life can only be guessed at, but 200,000 dead and twice that number of wounded would be a conservative estimate” (1997: 144). Mortality estimates for Laos are further complicated by the fact that it was one the least developed countries in Asia at the time of the war, likely with unreliable census data and other record keeping (though, for those who are interested, see the 1961 Joel Halpern “Laos Project Papers” from UCLA, which contain demographic and health statistics).

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“Love For My Enemies”

When we first met again, what could I say? I was petrified to see him again. As if you killed someone, and a month later you discover he’d been resurrected. But running away from him didn’t help. I needed to ask him for forgiveness. So I went to his house. We talked about normal things, just small talk. After a while I said, “Innocent?” He said, “Yes?” “I have truly offended you. I have come to ask you for forgiveness.

 

– A Hutu man, Wellars Uwihoreye, who asked his childhood friend, a Tutsi man named Innocent Gakwerere, to forgive him for being involved in his mutilation and near death twenty years earlier.

The above came from a very moving essay, “Love For My Enemies.” It’s well-written, interspersed with videos of a handful of Rwandans trying to come to terms with the atrocities committed two decades ago. I find accounts like these to be simultaneously tragic and inspiring. Please go read it.

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Desire and Celibacy

“Because of the values we place on sexuality in life, because of the terrible taboos which surround it, the endless lies, the forlorn wishes, the sad fantasies we wind around it like gauze about a wound (whether these things are due to the way we are brought up, or are the result of something graver – an unalterable quality in our nature), everyone’s likeliest area of psychological weakness is somewhere in the sexual.”       – William Gass

 

With the World Cup in full swing, several light-hearted stories have circulated about which countries have restrictions against sex while their teams are still in contention. Elizabeth Abbott, in her 1999 book “A History of Celibacy” noted that there are several reasons that people have engaged in celibacy over time — including for asceticism, as clergy, to preserve virginity, as a result of coercion (ex. eunuchs), etc. She spent much of the book on several interesting historical figures, including the life of Gandhi and his own views on desire and celibacy.

He wedded very young (age 13), the result of an arranged childhood marriage. At 19 he left India, alone, to study law in England for three years, and he vowed to his wife and mother to shun alcohol, women, and meat (he was a strict vegetarian) while he was away. According to Elizabeth Abbott (1999), one source of strength for Gandhi was the following passage from the ancient Bhagavad Gita.

 

Bhagavad Gita:

If one ponders on objects of the senses there springs
Attraction; from attraction grows desire
Desire flames to fierce passion, passion breeds 
Recklessness; then the memory – all betrayed –
Lets noble purpose go, and saps the mind,
Till purpose, mind, and man are all undone.

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Global Refugee Trends

At the end of 2013, there were more than 50 million displaced people globally, the highest number since WW2. I’m working on another post on how these experiences may impact biology and health, particularly for children. In the meantime, this UNHCR video shows some of the places that are most affected by forced displacement.

“Displacement is brutal. Many children stumble into exile barely alive after weeks in the bush.”

 

Darwin, Oversimplified

ChuckDCharles Darwin recognized early on the potential for people to oversimplify his writing. In particular, he was adamant that not everything in evolution was the result of adaptation by natural selection, though he worried that others would caricature his work in that way. In other words, Darwin was not as Darwinian as he is sometimes portrayed. The following passage comes from the sixth edition of On the Origin of Species (1872: 421):

 

 

“I have now recapitulated the facts and considerations which have thoroughly convinced me that species have been modified, during a long course of descent. This has been effected chiefly through the natural selection of numerous successive, slight, favourable variations; aided in an important manner by the inherited effects of the use and disuse of parts; and in an unimportant manner, that is in relation to adaptive structures, whether past or present, by the direct action of external conditions, and by variations which seem to us in our ignorance to arise spontaneously. It appears that I formerly underrated the frequency and value of these latter forms of variation, as leading to permanent modifications of structure independently of natural selection. But as my conclusions have lately been much misrepresented, and it has been stated that I attribute the modification of species exclusively to natural selection, I may be permitted to remark that in the first edition of this work, and subsequently, I placed in a most conspicuous position—namely, at the close of the Introduction—the following words: “I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification.” This has been of no avail. Great is the power of steady misrepresentation; but the history of science shows that fortunately this power does not long endure.”

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