Americans who favor traditional marriage and family life—sometimes referred to as “social conservatives”—tend to be lumped together politically with those who favor hawkish foreign policies. In many cases, this categorization is no doubt accurate: many social conservatives do favor American military interventions. The association between concern for marriage and the family and a hawkish foreign policy is a misguided one, however: war threatens marriage and those who wish to preserve traditional married life should be cautious about endorsing it.
War threatens marriage most directly by killing husbands and wives who serve in the armed forces, leaving spouses bereaved. War can also threaten marriage in more subtle ways by increasing the likelihood of divorce or marital strife. Guides for military personnel and their families on how to handle deployments and homecomings show an awareness of how relationship problems can arise. One book warns “Restoring trust and closeness with partners can take time. Family members need to be aware of how difficult homecoming can be for a service member.” Another contains testimony from one combat veteran who says “Even when I’m happy, I’m sad. That war is like a permanent dent in my heart and mind…I have a wonderful wife, who has stood by me through all my depressions and explosions (not to mention my ten years of drinking) and a beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter, too. But am I happy? Hardly ever.” The same book quotes a veteran’s wife: “He loves you, but he doesn’t trust you and he wants to run away from you—that’s the double message you get from a combat vet.”
A guide for military personnel contains a chapter titled “It Looks Like I’m Going to Be Single Again” and opens “You’ve heard about sailors who are served divorce papers after stepping onto the pier after a 6-month deployment. You’ve heard about service members who came home to find their spouse living with another person. You probably know someone who came home to find a spouse pregnant with someone else’s baby.”
The ominous tone of these books for troops and their families is consistent with the history of American wars over the past century: widespread marital breakdown has tended to follow many of these wars. The American divorce rate, which stood at 1.2 divorces per 1,000 people in 1917, the year the United States entered the First World War, had risen to 1.6 by 1921, the year the United States signed its separate peace in that conflict. The increase seems modest in isolation but is striking given that the increase during 5 wartime years was equivalent to the divorce rate increase during the previous 16 peacetime years. Moreover, the divorce rate never returned to its pre-war levels but generally stayed around 1.5 for the following decade.
The spike in divorce following the Second World War was more dramatic, as might be expected given the millions of men who served in the military and the millions more men and women affected by wartime mobilization. The divorce rate, which stood at 2.2 in 1941, rose during the war years until it reached 4.3 by 1946—almost double what it had been the year the United States entered the war. One judge estimated that 1,000 divorce cases were being heard every month in New York State in 1947, despite that state’s famously restrictive divorce laws. Other combatant nations, such as Britain and France, also experienced a post-war spike in their divorce rates, while Sweden, which was neutral during the war, did not. The American divorce rate would not return to pre-World War II levels until the late 1950s. When the increased numbers of divorces are combined with those of marriages ended by a spouse’s death in the war, the Second World War is shown to have had, as historian Roderick Phillips put it, “a ravaging effect on marriage in Western society.”
The divorce rate would rise again during and after the Vietnam War, although that rise was part of a larger pattern of legal and social changes and the war’s role is less clear. Since Vietnam and the end of the draft, war and military service has affected a much smaller portion of the American people. Nevertheless, among those who do serve in America’s wars, the experience might still come at a cost of marital stability. Between 2001 and 2004, during the early years of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the number of divorces among active-duty army officers and enlisted personnel almost doubled—from 5,658 to 10,477—even as total troop strength remained the same. Among Army officers, the divorce rate tripled between 2002 and 2004, from 1.9 percent (1,060 divorces out of 54,542 marriages) to 6 percent (3,325 divorces out of 55,550 marriages).
Various theories about why wartime service makes divorce more likely have been proposed: wartime conditions might make couples marry impulsively and unwisely; long separations could have a negative effect on marital stability and encourage infidelity; and wartime traumas might create relationship problems after the war. Academic studies of World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam veterans have produced contradictory results that support different theories and in some cases even call into question war’s negative effect on marital stability. One theory that multiple studies support, however, is that combat experience is associated with marital instability.
Cynthia Gimbel and Alan Booth of Pennsylvania State University conclude “combat exposure has a statistically significant moderate relationship with marital adversity” (marital adversity as they measure it includes divorce, non-divorce separation, domestic violence, and infidelity). William Ruger, Sven Wilson, and Shawn Waddoups of Wesleyan University, Brigham Young University, and the U.S. Foreign Service, respectively, conclude that “combat significantly raises the probability of marital dissolution.” Even two researchers who found that Vietnam veterans did not suffer from marital instability made an exception in the case of “soldiers who experienced the most intense combat situations.” Combat experiences might lead to later marital problems because veterans suffer trauma from their exposure to violence or are more likely to engage in anti-social behavior in peacetime.
The toll military service can take on married life has led to the creation of resources to aid military personnel and their spouses in coping with these experiences. The guides cited above are examples of such resources; another notable example is the Department of Defense-funded website Military OneSource, which features information for troops and their families on “deployment, reunion, relationship, grief, spouse employment and education, [and] parenting and child care.”
Such resources are valuable and show a welcome awareness of the marital problems wartime deployment can cause. An even more valuable response to these problems is to prevent them from ever arising by keeping American military personnel at home and out of wars or other conflicts. Social conservatives who wish to protect marriage should be among those leading such a response.