Experts say war is bad for your health. Duh, you say? Well, the experts are also talking about YOUR health – yes, you! — even if you’ve never been in a war zone and your idea of combat is the daily commute to work.
Even the indirect effects of warfare can produce some far-reaching and not-so-obvious ripples in health. That was a key message delivered by many folks who spoke at a three-day conference, ending today, at the University of Washington entitled “War & Global Health.”
Most of those attending the conference clearly shared the bias that war is bad for health. Since the meeting was co-organized by UW students, I searched in vain for someone wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt so I could ask if war could ever be good for health, if fought to improve social welfare (Cuba does have some pretty good health stats).
All I could find was a guy selling a number of anti-war T-shirts as well as this one pictured below celebrating Somali pirates fighting back against imperialism (at least that’s what he said it meant).
Aside from those who spoke on the direct and obviously tragic consequences of war, one of the more interesting talks I attended was by two UW physicians named Steve – Dr. Stephen Gloyd and Dr. Stephen Bezruchka. The two Steves presented compelling evidence supporting their claim that waging war is neither inherent to the human condition nor necessarily good for the victorious country (Bezruchka’s argument on the health effects of de-militarizing Japan).
It was too complex and data-rich an argument to make here (more from Gloyd), but the two Steves basically argued that wars are primarily driven by the interests of the economically elite and often at the expense of the general population. The U.S., for example, is globally superior as a military force but the data show its health and socioeconomic indicators are low and on the decline as compared to other developed nations. These trends are not unrelated, the two Steves said, and are based on a “structural violence” that causes inequity in societies whose governments continue to use warfare as a primary means of conflict resolution and for extending international economic influence.
Others at the conference talked about the effects of war on children, the lasting emotional scars on both soldiers and civilians, the use of popular health interventions (like vaccination campaigns) to interrupt war, the (again obvious, but terrifying) threat of nuclear weapons and even the problematic tendency to frame social or health efforts as “wars.” One soon-to-be doctor from the UW, Sunil Aggarwal, described the misleading and abusive effects that have resulted from framing efforts to reduce drug abuse as a “war on drugs” rather than as a health problem like alcoholism. The primary aim of this conference, organizers said, was to define war as a preventable threat to health and to educate health professionals how best to reduce the threat.