Family Risk and Resilience in the Context of War and Terrorism

By Wadsworth, Shelley M. MacDermid | Journal of Marriage and Family, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Family Risk and Resilience in the Context of War and Terrorism


Wadsworth, Shelley M. MacDermid, Journal of Marriage and Family


War and terrorism are exerting increasing force on world affairs, with growing implications for families and the scholars who study them. In this review, I consider the implications of mass violence for families, with particular emphasis on families with members serving in the U.S. military and families around the world who live where mass violence occurs. Mass violence poses significant threats to mental health and family functioning, but individuals and families also display striking levels of resilience.

Key Words: family diversity, family stress or crisis, military families, parenting, social context, violence.

There are at least three reasons that scholars of family life should consider war and terrorism. The first is that war and terrorism are exerting increasing force on world affairs, with growing implications for both families and scholars. Since World War II, the global prevalence of war has increased steadily from about 5 to over 30 countries per year (Bellamy, 2004). Second, war and terrorism have generated important scientific insights, such as Hill's (1949) study of postwar family reintegration that led to family stress theory. Third, the research that scholars conduct in the aftermath of war and terrorism can help families by leading to innovations like the new disaster mental health practice recommendations developed following 9/1 1 (Hobfoll et al., 2007).

The breadth of this review required several limiting decisions and the exclusion of many worthy studies. Regrettably, I was able to include only materials available in the English language, which may have resulted in an unintentional bias favoring Western industrialized countries. I also regret my inability to do full justice to the international diversity of family experiences with war and terrorism. The review begins with definitions of war and terrorism and then turns to trauma, the major human consequence for survivors. I then consider two particular manifestations, labeled the ' 'War Away, ' ' where I focus primarily on U.S. military families affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the "War at Home," where I focus on families around the world who live where mass violence occurs. I close by considering resilience and growth and implications for future research.

WAR AND TERRORISM DEFINED

Defining and distinguishing war and terrorism is not always straightforward. Unlike conventional wars, in which government sanctioned combatants fight one another on behalf of nations, modern conflicts are increasingly unconventional, with rising numbers of combatants lacking official status, no clear front lines (Sammons & Batten, 2008), and increasing use of terrorist tactics, such as targeting civilians with random attacks calculated to generate the most widespread fear possible (Wilkinson, 2003). For these reasons, I use the term mass violence to include both war and terrorism (Murthy, 2007).

This review focuses on antistate terrorism, the goals of which are usually nationalist (e.g., Basques seeking self-determination in Europe), ideological (e.g., Shining Path trying to replace Peru's political system), or religio-political (e.g., the Islamic Jihad working to establish a religious government in Uzbekistan; Wilkinson, 2003). Nation-states are not only targets but also supporters, sponsors, and perpetrators of terrorism, sometimes against their own citizens. McCauley (2002) pointed out that in the 20th century, Stalin, Mao, and Hitler together killed 99 million of their own citizens, compared to "only" 500,000 individuals killed by nonstate terrorists [emphasis added].

According to some political scientists, the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center bombings (9/1 1) took terrorism to a new level by convincing nation-states that terrorists can pose significant threats to their security and stability, with the ability to cause very large scale death and destruction, including damage to national economies (Wilkinson, 2003). …

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