Recent history has seen a breakdown in a long-held societal taboo—the use of children as tools of war. Today as many as 300,000 children age 17 and under fight in conflicts worldwide.
I was attending primary school.” The young boy speaks in a monotone, masking his emotions as he recounts events that irrevocably changed his life. “The rebels came and attacked us. They killed my mother and father in front of my eyes. I was 10 years old. They took me with them.”
The boy, now 16, lives in a refugee camp in his native Liberia, a small nation in West Africa. Liberia was founded in 1821 on the hopes of freed American slaves, but by the dawn of the 21st century, the country had dissolved into brutal, warlord-driven civil strife that left more than 200,000 dead. One feature of that conflict is that rebel and government forces alike have abducted some 20,000 Liberian children, forcing many of them into frontline combat.
“They trained us to fight,” the boy continues. “The first time I killed someone, I got so sick, I thought I was going to die. But I got better….My fighting name was Blood Never Dry.”
When we think of fighting wars, children rarely come to mind. War is the province of strong and willing adult combatants, from which the young, the old, the infirm and the innocent are to be protected. Exclusion of children from direct and deliberate participation in war has been observed in almost every culture. Warriors typically joined precolonial African armies several years after puberty. In the Zulu tribe, for example, it was not until the ages of 18 to 20 that members were eligible for ukubuthwa (draft or enrollment into tribal regiments). In the Kano region of West Africa, only married men were conscripted—unmarried men were considered too immature. When children did serve in ancient armies, such as the enrollment of Spartan children in military training at ages 7 to 9, they typically did not see combat. Instead, they carried out menial chores: herding cattle, bearing shields and mats for senior warriors. No traditional tribes or ancient civilizations included young boys or girls in their fighting forces.
Exclusion of children from war was simply pragmatic. Adult strength and lengthy training were required to master premodern weapons like swords and longbows. Age restrictions also enabled rulers and elders to maintain control of their younger—and potentially unruly—subjects.
As in Sparta, there were occasions in military history when children proved useful. Boy pages helped arm and maintain the knights of medieval Europe. Drummer boys and “powder monkeys,” small boys who ran ammunition to cannon crews, were a requisite part of armies and navies in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, these youths were not true combatants. They neither dealt out death nor were considered legitimate targets. Henry V was so angered by the slaying of English boy pages at the 1415 Battle of Agincourt that he, in turn, slaughtered his French prisoners.
Perhaps the best-known early use of “child soldiers” occurred during the 1212 Children’s Crusade, a march of thousands of unarmed boys from northern France and western Germany who thought they might take back the Holy Land by the sheer power of their faith. Most never left Europe. Of those who did, all but a few perished from hunger and disease or were sold into slavery by unscrupulous ship captains.
Until recently, there have been few exceptions to the practice of keeping children from combat. Underage boys have certainly lied about their age to join armies in many places and wars, and a few modern states—desperate and facing defeat—have sent children into battle. In America, the most notable instance of youths in combat was the participation by Virginia Military Institute cadets in the Battle of New Market, in May 1864. Union forces had marched up the Shenandoah Valley, hoping to cut the Virginia Central railroad, a key supply line. Facing them, Confederate General John C. Breckenridge had pulled together some 5,000 men, including cadets from nearby VMI. Two hundred forty-seven students, aged 15 to 17, waited until the final stages of battle. Then, in a dramatic charge, they overran a key Union artillery battery. Ten cadets were killed and 45 were wounded.
In World War II, the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) received quasi-military training, then joined the German military forces, often the SS, once they reached age 18. But in the final months of the war, even the boys were ordered to fight in a desperate gambit to hold off Allied troops until new “miracle” weapons like the V-2 rocket and Me-262 jet fighter could turn the tide. Lightly armed and often sent out in ambush squads, scores of Hitler Youth members were killed in small-scale skirmishes. Such episodes were only isolated footnotes to military history. But in recent decades, that pattern has changed.
As the nature of armed conflict has changed in recent years, the practice of using children— defined under international law as those under age 18—as soldiers has become far more common and widespread. As many as 300,000 children 17 and under now serve worldwide as combatants. They fight in about 75 percent of the world’s conflicts. In the last 10 years, children have served as soldiers on every continent but Antarctica, with the largest numbers in Asia and Africa. Moreover, an additional half-million children serve in armed forces that are not now at war.
These are not youngsters on the cusp of adulthood. Eighty percent of the conflicts in which children participate include fighters 14 and under, while 18 percent of the world’s armed organizations have used children 12 and under. The average age of child soldiers in two recent studies, one in Southeast Asia and one in Central Africa, was just under 13. The youngest recorded child soldier was an armed 5-yearold in Uganda.
The presence of girls as combatants in many forces also deviates from historic trends. While no girls served as Civil War powder monkeys or in groups like the Hitler Youth, roughly 30 percent of the armed forces that employ children today include girl soldiers. Underage girls have participated in the armed forces of 55 countries; in 34 of these, girls saw combat, and in 27 nations they were abducted to serve. Girl soldiers are often singled out for sexual abuse, even by their own commanders, and have a harder time integrating back into society at war’s end.
With the spread of such practices, Western conventional military forces have increasingly come into conflict with child soldiers. During Operation Barras in Sierra Leone in 2000, British SAS troops fought a pitched battle against the West Side Boys, a teen militia that had taken hostage a squad of British army troops. As one observer noted, “You cannot resolve a situation like this with a laser-guided bomb from 30,000 feet.” In that battle, one British soldier was killed and 12 were wounded. Estimates of casualties among the West Side Boys ranged from 25 up to 150.
Today, child soldiers are present in every conflict zone where U.S. forces operate, from Afghanistan to the Philippines. The first U.S. soldier killed in the War on Terrorism was a Green Beret shot by a 14-year-old sniper in Afghanistan. During the initial fighting in Afghanistan, U.S. forces captured some half dozen boys ages 13 to 16. They were taken to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and housed in a special wing dubbed Camp Iguana, where they spent their days in a beach house converted into a makeshift prison, watching DVDs and learning English and math. U.S. soldiers continue to report facing child soldiers in Afghanistan. The youngest on record is a 12-year-old boy captured last year after being wounded during a Taliban ambush of a convoy.
Captured al Qaeda training videos reveal young boys receiving instruction in the manufacture of bombs and the setting of explosive booby traps. The Palestinian groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas have recruited children as young as 13 to be suicide bombers and children as young as 11 to smuggle explosives and weapons. At least 30 suicide-bombing attacks have been carried out by youths since Israeli-Palestinian fighting flared up in 2000. Perhaps the most tragic example was a semi-retarded 16-yearold boy whom Hamas convinced to strap on explosives. Israeli security forces in the town of Nablus stopped the boy as he was about to blow himself up at an army checkpoint.
Children’s participation in terrorism is not a uniquely Middle Eastern phenomenon, however. In Colombia, a 9-year-old boy was sent by ELN rebels to bomb a polling station in 1997. Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (aka Tamil Tigers) have even manufactured specialized denim jackets in children’s sizes to conceal suicide explosives.
The widespread presence of child soldiers on the 21st century battlefield stems from three inter- twined forces. First is the social and economic disruption caused by globalization. We are living through the most prosperous period in human history, yet many are being left behind. Demographic changes, global social instability and the legacy of multiple civil and sectarian conflicts entering their second and third generations all act to weaken states and undermine societal structures. For example, more than 40 million African children will lose one or both of their parents to HIV-AIDS by 2010, while the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 25 million children worldwide are now homeless war refugees. Orphans and refugee children are particularly at risk of being pulled into war.
Second, changes in weapons technology have acted as an enabler, making heavily armed child warriors a practicality. The proliferation of light, simple and cheap small arms, like the “child-portable” AK-47, has made them widely available for the price of a goat or chicken in many countries. They are easy enough to use that a child can manage them, and with just a half hour’s instruction, a 10-year-old can wield the firepower of a 19th century infantry company.
Third, we are living in an exceptional period of flux and breakdown of global order, marked in some regions by failed states and the spread of warlordism. Armed conflicts are now driven less by national politics than by religious hatred, ethnic strife or personal profit (e.g., the fighting over diamond mines in parts of Africa). From Foday Sankhoh in Sierra Leone to Mullah Omar in Afghanistan, local warlords see the advantages in converting vulnerable, disconnected children into low-cost and expendable troops who fight and die for their causes. Such groups’ recruiting practices take advantage of children’s desperation, vulnerability and immaturity. Some simply resort to kidnapping.
Those of us living in stable, wealthy nations may have difficulty understanding how a child can be convinced to join an army. But imagine yourself as an orphan living on the street, not knowing where your next meal will come from, and an organized group of adults offers you not only food and safety, but an identity, as well as the empowerment that comes from having a gun in your hand. Imagine the temptation if a group of older boys wearing natty uniforms and cool sunglasses were to show up at your school and force all the teachers to bow down to show who is “really in charge,” then invite you to join them, with the promise that you too can wield such power. Or imagine what happened to a 7-year-old boy in Liberia when a group of armed men showed up at his village. “The rebels told me to join them, but I said no,” he later recalled. “Then they killed my smaller brother. I changed my mind.”
Recruits are run through training programs that range from weeks of adult-style boot camp to a few minutes’ instruction in how to fire a gun. Indoctrination, political or religious, can include such “tests” as forcing the kids to kill animals or human prisoners to inure them to the sight of blood and death. Many are forced to take drugs to further desensitize them. Corrine Dufka, of Human Rights Watch, described the process in West Africa: “It seemed to be a very organized strategy of…breaking down their defenses and memory and turning them into fighting machines that didn’t have a sense of empathy and feeling for the civilian population.” The result is that children, even those who were once unwilling captives, are turned into fierce, skilled fighters.
The battlefield ramifications of this child soldier doctrine are sobering, as rebels and fringe armies can field far greater forces than previously possible. Groups little larger than gangs can sustain themselves as viable military threats. The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, led by Joseph Kony, for instance, has with just 200 adult core members abducted more than 14,000 children, using them to fight a decade-long civil war against the Ugandan army, one of the better forces in Africa, at a cost of 100,000 dead and 500,000 refugees. Kony sees himself as the reincarnation of the Christian Holy Spirit, with a warped spin on the Ten Commandments allows the ownership of sex slaves, but declares that riding bicycles is a sin punishable by death.
Experiences from around the globe show that children combatants can operate with terrifying audacity, particularly when infused with religious or political fervor or under the influence of drugs. A former Green Beret once described a unit of child soldiers in Sudan as the best he had seen in Africa in his 18 years there, recounting how they were able to ambush and shoot down a Soviet-made Mi-24 attack helicopter.
Child soldiers also present a dilemma for professional armed forces: No one wants to have to shoot a kid, yet a bullet from a 14-year-old can kill you just as dead as one from a 40-year-old. During the April 2003 invasion of Iraq, as troops of the 101st Airborne Division worked their way street by street through the residential neighborhoods of Karbala, they came under intense machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire. Several soldiers were wounded, and assorted vehicles including a Bradley armored fighting vehicle, were knocked out of action. In the midst of the fighting, a young boy scrambled from an alleyway. An American machine gunner saw that the boy, later determined to be 10 years old, was carrying an RPG. In an instant, the 21-yearold soldier had to make what would surely be the toughest decision of his life. “I took him out,” he later told an Army Times reporter. “I laid down quite a few bursts.”
Adult soldiers often experience post-traumatic stress disorder after such incidents. “Anybody that can shoot a little kid and not have a problem with it, there is something wrong with them,” the machine gunner later reflected. “Of course I had a problem with it. [But] after being shot at all day, it didn’t matter if you were a soldier or a kid. These RPGs are meant to hurt us….I did what I had to do.”
For the child soldiers, the impact of being plunged into war creates problems long after the end of actual combat. Many suffer long-term trauma that can disrupt their development. For a society at large, conversion of a generation of children into soldiers not only precipitates future cycles of war within the country, but also threatens regional stability. Throughout the 1990s, Liberia went through multiple rounds of civil war in which children haphazardly switched sides. After the fighting ended, many former child soldiers went on to fight in Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast. Some marched thousands of miles to find work as soldiers in Congo.
It is immoral that adults should want children to fight their wars for them,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu said. “There is simply no excuse, no acceptable argument for arming children.” One solution to this practice lies in shrinking the pool of potential child recruits and limiting conflict groups’ willingness and ability to access it. Possible preventive measures include: greater aid to atrisk groups like refugees and AIDS orphans; curbing the spread of illegal small arms; preparing regular adult soldiers to effectively deal with the threat in the field; prosecuting leaders who abuse children; sanctioning firms or regimes that trade with childsoldier groups; investment to head off global disease and conflict outbreaks; and increasing aid to programs that seek to demobilize and rehabilitate former child soldiers.
Perhaps history will look back upon this period as an aberration, a phase when moral norms broke down but were then restored. That will only happen if we match the will of those who do such evil to children with our own will to do good.
For further reading, P.W. Singer recommends: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah, and Adult Wars, Child Soldiers, by Unicef, available for download at [www.unicef.org/publications /index_4269.html].
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.