Lest We Forget, Marriage Is Often a Forgotten Casualty of War

Veterans seldom return home unscathed by their wartime experiences, and as they attempt to reintegrate into civil society, resuming or reshaping intimate relationships is among their biggest challenges.
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Each Nov. 11, we pay tribute to our veterans of wars past and present for their service, their courage and their sacrifices. But these men and women seldom return home unscathed by their wartime experiences and as they attempt to reintegrate into civil society, resuming or reshaping intimate relationships is among their biggest challenges.

No matter how just the cause, war is a hell that takes a heavy toll on veterans' marriages. This is especially true of combat soldiers, whose first marriages are much likelier to end in separation or divorce than non-combatants. It is also true of officers, and of women, now 11 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

What's wrong? Are broken marriages an inherent risk of military service? The sad answer is yes. By delving into military history, we can document the profound impact of war on historical marriages. After the Civil War, and despite intense anti-divorce sentiment, the divorce rate skyrocketed. In the newly-united nation, officials ordered studies to determine why the Republic was emulating ancient Rome and other decadent societies.

The answers lay closer to home, and resonate to this day. As men enlisted and left wives and families at home, their relationships changed. And in the thick of the horrors, banalities, and brief joys -- camaraderie and life-saving bonds -- of war, so did their values. Meanwhile their waiting wives shouldered new "manly" burdens, and grew more confident and assertive.

At war's end, reunited couples took stock of each other. Many husbands were severely injured or disabled. Combat soldiers fighting on the ground were often wounded in the buttocks, pelvis or genitals and the National Archives Pension files are filled with records "of impotence and depression related to loss of sexual function" that darkened many veterans' marriages.

Rampant alcoholism and drug addiction, the "soldier's disease," wrecked havoc on marriages. So did venereal disease, contracted from prostitutes known as "horizontal refreshments." Symptoms included incontinence and impotence, and "No one knows how many Union and Confederate wives and widows went to their graves, rotted and ravaged by the pox that their men brought home," writes Civil War medical historian Thomas Lowry.

Some demobilized husbands had grown closer to their wives through letters describing their experiences, including their fears, hopes, and emotional responses. Others, alienated by years of separation and hardship, had difficulty reconnecting with spouses. ("While you all was Haveing Such good times... on the 4th. we was Shooting Rebels," one young soldier observed.) Some women had had extramarital sex. Others, expecting their husbands to die in combat, entered new relationships. Some sold themselves to survive. When many veterans and their waiting wives reunited, they made each other miserable until they finally sought relief in separation or divorce.

The rising divorce rates associated with World Wars I and II had similar causes: draft notices that pushed (often very young) people to marry on the spur of the romantic, patriotic moment; enforced separation; wartime adulteries; and the severe psychiatric conditions diagnosed in more than half a million soldiers. As they had in the Civil War, many veterans and their spouses reunited at war's end and then divorced.

Like veterans of previous wars, those on active combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan are much likelier than non-combatants to divorce. In life and death situations, the connections they form with each other may interfere or compete with their conjugal bonds. Increased deployment rates add greatly to the strain. Back home, veterans are subject to the vicissitudes of today's economy. They have difficulty finding and holding jobs. As many as one in four is homeless.

Officers, lonelier and weighed down by additional responsibilities, divorce at far higher rates than enlisted men. So do women, at nearly three times the rate of their male counterparts. New mothers are further stressed by being required back at work just four months after giving birth. "If the Army wanted you to have a family they would have issued you one," they joke.

PTSD, once dismissed as cowardice, hysteria or shell shock, afflicts millions. One of these "walking wounded" is retired Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who commanded a United Nations mission in 1994's blood-torn Rwanda. Dallaire has attempted suicide, is depressive and insomniac, and is tormented by flashbacks. In the tortured minds of PTSD sufferers, the terrible past still exists and they incorporate it into their lives as a reality only they can see.

Stricken veterans account for one fifth of the US's suicides. Many commit violent crimes and abuse substances. They struggle with interpersonal relationships and with integrating back into their families. No wonder their divorce rate is so high, and so worrisome to their compatriots and to Department of Defense officials, who are coming to understand that among the most serious casualties of war are their soldiers' right to emotional stability and social reintegration.

'Lest we forget....

Lowry, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell, p. 108.
Newton Scott to Hannah Cone, July 23, 1863, www.civilwarletters.com.

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