- Children Born of War in the Twentieth Century by Sabine Lee
By Sabine Lee.
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017. xii + 312 pp. Cloth, $110, e-book $110.
In the 1980s, the United States passed a series of legislative changes that gave preferential immigration status to “children of United States Citizens,” allowing more than 21,000 Vietnamericans born during the Vietnam War (1955–75) to immigrate to America. Sometimes known as the bụi đời (“dust of life”), these young men and women were the children born of American soldiers and local Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War. Targets of Vietnamese hatred toward America and facing rejection in their country of birth, they were traveling to America in search of a place to finally call home. “Instead of saying welcome to these children,” declared then-US president Ronald Reagan in 1982, “we should say welcome home.”
But Reagan’s welcoming words were to ring hollow, with very few of these young people finding the refuge they were hoping for in their father’s land. As Sabine Lee observes in her recent book Children Born of War in the Twentieth Century, children born of war (CBOW)—“children fathered by foreign soldiers and born to local mothers during and after armed conflict”—have faced ostracism and disadvantage for centuries, often irrespective of where they live (1). Even when individual circumstances have prevailed over economic hardship or social disadvantage, CBOW have been haunted by questions of identity and belonging, growing up in single-parent or adopted families where their father remains unknown or barbarized.
Since the late 1990s, the lives and experiences of CBOW during the twentieth century—estimated to number at over 500,000—has increasingly come under sustained academic inquiry (3). Arising from a recent EU-funded research project and contributing to the burgeoning field of CBOW, Children Born of War in the Twentieth Century is a well-contextualized situational analysis and introduction to research on CBOW. Examining women’s experiences of wartime sexual violence as well as the legal and social challenges faced by CBOW during and after the Second World War, Vietnam War, Bosnian War, Rwandan Genocide and Lord’s Resistance Army, and recent UN peacekeeping missions, Lee “aims to investigate the situation of CBOW since the Second World War and thereby to provide a historical synthesis that moves beyond individual case studies and to explore circumstances across time and geopolitical location” (6). Emphasizing [End Page 153] the relationship between mother and child, the reception of CBOW within different communities, and the challenges caused by inadequate or contradictory human rights and government legislation, Lee’s book takes an expansive and interdisciplinary approach to the study of CBOW and their families over the last eighty years.
Yet, while Children Born of War in the Twentieth Century pursues several important lines of inquiry about the legacy of wartime sexual violence and the legal and social challenges faced by CBOW, the reader often longs for further primary evidence. Although the jacket claims that the book is “based on extensive archival work” and Lee writes that she will “where possible, include those voices of CBOW,” autobiographical and contemporary sources authored by children remain disconcertingly absent from the five case studies (6). Many historians have recognized that locating children’s voices in the archives can be difficult; however, even if archival records authored by CBOW do not exist, it is unclear why Lee did not pursue extensive oral history interviews. If CBOW are frequently a “hidden” group in post-conflict societies, the inclusion of their voices, where possible, is central to a project that aims to understand and explain their experiences—individually and collectively.
Moreover, although Lee demonstrates a strong familiarity with the existing literature and debates relating to CBOW, especially in the first chapter, one would have liked to see further engagement with recent discussions among historians of children and youth. For example, readers might have expected at least some reflection of what constitutes childhood or a “child soldier.” Are sixteen- year-old boys fighting for Hitler’s Volksturm really children? And who are the “children of child...