Women and Children in War Zones and Children Born of War

The 25 April marks the one day of the year when Australians are encouraged to stop and reflect on the lives of men lost in the carnage of war. ANZAC day in 2018 is also marked by a thoughtful discussion about the meaning of ANZAC and its connection to Australian values by Richard Flanagan whereby he questions the nationalist fervour accompanying the resurrection of this commemoration in recent decades. Those who were close to the battles and survived war had little to celebrate – they only wanted to remember their mates who did not make it home.  Many were left as mere shells of themselves, unable to resume their former lives, through what they experienced.

ANZAC day also gives us pause to reflect on the impact of war on civilian populations and societies, especially women and children whose lives are overlooked in the exigencies of wartime. The ANZAC obsession in Australia dangerously distorts our history and the true history of war.  Its celebration has become an opportunity to rejoice at ‘the birth of a nation’ forged in war and a foundational story that obscures all others, including the violent dispossession of Aboriginal people across the continent. Rampant nationalism, fuelled by excessive government spending , obscures the real impact of war on human societies. Flanagan says:

…[W]hen veterans struggle for recognition and support for war-related suffering, you begin to wonder what justifies this expense, this growing militarisation of national memory or, to be more precise, a forgetting of anything other than an official version of war as the official version of our country’s history, establishing dying in other people’s wars as our foundation story.

 The true impacts of war on human societies

The extreme numbers of military casualties of war reminds us of its true cost. For example, in WW2, the Pacific War against the Japanese was hard fought with the U.S. reporting 41,592 total dead or missing of all U.S. Army ground troops in the Pacific and southeast Asia, with another 145,706 wounded. Australian battle casualties for the whole of WW2 number over 27,000 Australians killed and 23,000 wounded in action. Japanese military casualties in the Pacific War number more than 1.5 million. If there is another world war, the casualties will far outweigh these figures and wars are now developing in such ways as to increase civilian casualties. The reality is that people die too soon, lives are shattered, dreams and hopes of love and family are shredded, whole communities suffer. And thus we are left with the memories of men who made the ultimate sacrifice.

What can be easily forgotten in the rush to glorify war, is that war causes more than these horrendous human deaths – the impact of war goes far beyond the battlefield. War has a de-humanising and de-civilising impact on the men who are trained for battle and who have this experience, such that they can prey on the civilian populations with whom they come in contact during and after their war experiences.

Civilian populations within the home fronts feel the impact of criminal behaviour from men who have been trained in such a way as to disregard the lives of others, and who suffer post-traumatic stress from what they have endured. They also experience privations and dislocations in their lives that are compounded by new contacts, relationships, intimacies and sexual relations with foreign military personnel.

Sex crimes in war

Evidence exists for the hypersexualisation of men in war zones. Mary Louise Roberts, professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, is author of  What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II FranceThis book makes the story of what has been seen as an important, liberating, war more complex and arresting through a close examination of the impact of U.S. troops on French society. The book is in three sections: Romance, Rape and Prostitution. Through examination of these three routes to sexual intimacy, it charts the decline in relationships between the civilians of what was Nazi occupied France and the liberating U.S. military forces. The liberation of France became a sexual conquest of that country. While 153 men were convicted of rape the various estimates of actual rapes are much higher, as many as 12,000.

Consensual sex between adults increases during wartime; people facing the possibility of death or invasion by enemy forces want to live life while they can. Roberts found a U.S. Army report that estimated 80 percent of single men and 50 percent of married men would have sex during their stay in Europe. In wartime, the usual protocols surrounding sexual behaviour can vanish. An example is the ubiquity of sex in public, sometimes in the daytime. The Mayor of Le Havre in France complained of this as a common occurrence and there were several arrests for this in Brisbane during WW2.

However, research has also shown that war and sexual violence go hand in hand and sex is used as a weapon of war. Other men, women and children become victims to sex crimes. Historically rape was viewed as one of the spoils of war. It occurs wherever war is and whenever it happens, and it is only in 2008 that the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1820 that rape and other forms of sexual violence in war constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.

It is also the case that prostitution follows war. Military commands are involved in making sure that there are sufficient facilities for the sexual activity of their troops in order to keep them calm. Hypersexualisation is also evident within the military itself. Recently with the entry of women into combat battalions the evidence exists for sexual harassment and assault. Almost one quarter of U.S. female troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan claim to have been sexually assaulted while one half claim sexual harassment.

Most damning is the research findings of the Save the Children Fund, that the majority of victims of rape and other sexual violence in war zones are children. The situation for women and children has become extreme, with the number of wars and conflicts around the world increasing dramatically, and civilians located in war zones more than ever before. In response to this there are now agreed Principles for Global Action – Preventing and Addressing Stigma Associated with Conflict Related Sexual Violence.

 Children born of war

There have always been children born as a result of war, through the imposition of occupying forces and through allied troops, or peacekeeping forces being stationed amongst civilians. Such children are conceived in a variety of circumstances, including in transnational love relationships developed by people whose lives might not normally have intersected. They are also conceived through prostitution and as a result of rape. Research indicates that children born of fathers who are a part of foreign military forces, whether enemy or allied, and regardless of the circumstances of their conception, have difficulty integrating into their home society. As do their mothers. They are often scorned and ostracised, the children locked out of educational and employment opportunities as they grow. This is a growing rather than a disappearing problem and key researchers have developed recommendations for future research and policy around children born of war.

Children born of war in Australia

Many Australians would be surprised to know that potentially thousands of children were born in Australia during WW2 in the Pacific. Between 1941 and 1945, approximately one million U.S. military personnel were stationed in Australia, and Australia also hosted many thousands who came to Australia in between military operations, for medical assistance or rest and recuperation. Of these as many as 100,000 were African American and the Australian government viewed their entry into Australian society with trepidation. The imperative of the time was to keep Australia white.

The children born to Australian women and U.S. servicemen who were white were often conceived within marriage or imminent marriage and the U.S. and Australian governments developed a warbride scheme. White women were largely protected by incorporation into the white patriarchal state through marriage and were able to accompany their husbands to a new home in the U.S.

However, the requests for permission to marry made by African American servicemen were most often ignored or rejected. The U.S. government also normally excluded Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander women from migrating to the U.S. In turn, Australia’s White Australia Immigration Policy excluded African American men who wished to return to their families.

The racial exclusion and segregation regimes practised by both the U.S. and Australia meant that many children of colour were left in Australia with their unwed mothers. Being unmarried at the time of the birth of your child meant a grave social stigma for these women. The children have grown up under the brutal shadow of ‘respectability’ with mothers who were shamed and silent about the circumstances of their child’s birth. And who were often heartbroken, suffering from abandonment and associated psychological issues.

Children born of war in Australia express feelings of abandonment, of being only half of what they could be if they had grown up with their fathers. They have suffered racism and ostracism during their lives, sometimes from within their own families. Those born of white mothers may now identify with the Indigenous community in Australia but they do not fit neatly into this by government definition. While they are disadvantaged due to race, they are not able to seek assistance through targeted government programs.

Importantly, meetings with the children born of war and their families, as part of the research project Children Born of War: Australia and the War in the Pacific 1941 – 1945 has revealed that these children hold a great deal of compassion for the children born of war in historical and contemporary settings. They understand the stigma, they have lived it themselves and the trauma of their lives is transgenerational and is experienced by their children and grandchildren. They hope for recognition and recompense for all children born of war.


On this ANZAC day it is salient to pause and reflect on the horrors of war, that the impact of war extends far beyond the battle field, that women and children are often mobilised for the war effort and victimised in ways that injure them for life, that ordinary human beings are often stretched beyond psychological endurance by the privations and the exigencies of war.

We need to understand that war as an accepted, honourable part of human endeavour has to be resisted for the brutalising, inhumane forces it unleashes. We need to move beyond the glamour and glorification of war to grapple with the real lives and real mistakes of the people caught up in it.

It is true that we should not forget the men whose lives have been cut too short by war, who made the ultimate sacrifice, mostly through no choice of their own. We should not forget too, the women and children who have been killed, wounded and abused. And those left behind. All who survive carry the scars of war with them for the rest of their days.

It is not appropriate to make ANZAC day an opportunity for mindless nationalism and the celebration of war for its own sake. This is the ultimate disrespect for our war dead who paid the highest price for their involvement in war and invariably did not want to die. War is ultimately a zero-end game. No-one nation truly wins in wartime, there is far too much suffering, destruction and death. And death is final for the dead.


* Photo courtesy Don Carter. The photo above is of the baby Don Carter and his mother Stella Carter. Don Carter is a child born of war in Australia WW2, and his father, an African American stationed in North Queensland, tried several times for permission to marry Stella. Eventually it was granted on the condition that Stella be counselled that she could never migrate to the US and neither could her child.


See also

Teaching Nationhood: An Asian-Australian Story


Dr Victoria Grieves-Williams, Honorary Indigenous Research Fellow at the University of Sydney is the lead CI on the ARC DI project Children Born of War: Australia and the War in the Pacific 1941 - 1945. She is an Aboriginal person; an historian engaged in intersectionality and interdisciplinary ways to progress critical Indigenous theory. She has published on Aboriginal philosophy and Indigenous wellbeing, Aboriginal history, environmental humanities and the relationship of Aboriginal people to the Australian state.

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