Destroying Childhood

The pernicious legacy of child soldiering

A child has been killed in war every three minutes during the last decade. Many were not civilians. Irregular armies from Sudan to the Philippines, from Turkey to Colombia, from Kosovo to Iraq use child soldiers. They are the shock troops, the cannon fodder, often drugged or drunk on the battlefield, brutalized to commit the most heinous atrocities and sustain the highest casualties. On a massive scale, children are both victims and agents of war, roles that violate long-held and fundamental taboos.

This new reality requires us to question any simpleminded notion we may have of childhood innocence. What do we make of children who are brutal and coldblooded killers? Are they mere tools of coercive adult commanders? Or responsible agents enacting rational choices? How should regular armies react when they encounter children in the thick of combat? And what, if anything, can our society do about it? These urgent questions animate the readable and passionate Children at War, by Peter Singer, Ph.D. ’01.

Peter W. Singer, Children at War (Pantheon, $25)

Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author as well of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, takes as his starting point that child soldiering has become a new standard in contemporary warfare, rather than an exception. Boys and girls, often as young as 10, are recruited to fight and be army sex slaves on every inhabited continent. The phenomenon, he argues, is much more pervasive and troubling than has been acknowledged.

His central claim is that the exploitation of child soldiers is changing the nature of contemporary war. It is not merely a question of ethics, or even of numbers, though the latter are alarming—there are about 300,000 child soldiers by current estimates, just under one in 10 of all present combatants. Rather it is the broader impact of the child-soldier phenomenon on contemporary politics that is radically underestimated. The abundance of child soldiers makes war cheaper and easier to initiate, less logistically burdensome to prolong, and more likely to recur—it creates, in short, a pervasive security threat. A whole generation whose childhoods have been destroyed are growing up with only one usable skill—warfare. In the words of a 19-year-old Mozambiquan: “There is no work for me. I have few skills except using a gun and it’s easy money… I used to be FRELIMO [the government army], then joined RENAMO [the rebel army], then joined FRELIMO. Now I work for myself and my group.”


This tragedy has already had a direct impact on our societies. Child soldiers are fighting in every conflict zone where U.S. forces are engaged. Six current Guantánamo Bay detainees were arrested as child soldiers. The first American soldier killed in the “war on terrorism” in Afghanistan was shot by a 14-year-old sniper. The same week that President Bush delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard an aircraft carrier, U.S. marines were fired on by an AK-47-wielding 12-year-old Iraqi boy.

Despite this reality, the ethical and policy dilemmas surrounding child soldiers have scarcely been discussed. Should professional soldiers treat armed children like any other opponents and go for all-out victory, or attempt to minimize casualties? Five years ago this dilemma confronted some British peacekeepers in Sierra Leone. The squad commander was unwilling to fire when his troops were surrounded by a rogue children’s militia known as the “West Side Boys”—“children armed with AK-47s,” as the commander saw it—so the peacekeepers were taken hostage. Two weeks later, when a British rescue operation freed the soldiers, up to 150 of the enemy children died, perhaps more than if the squad commander had not hesitated initially. As Singer rightly comments, “[T]he core dilemma child soldiers present for professional militaries is as thorny as they come. Troops now face real and serious threats from opponents whom they generally would prefer not to harm.” What’s more, battling children is even worse than ordinary warfare in terms of serious psychological after-effects, including depression and post traumatic stress disorder.

Singer argues that there is a “child soldier doctrine” at work, lowering taboos and spreading from country to country. But are there instead a disparate range of factors? Take the question of recruitment. According to Singer, brute force is “a primary method” of recruitment. Certainly it characterizes some of the best-documented situations. A 14-year-old explains, “I was nine years old. Six rebels came through our yard.… They said: ‘We want to bring a small boy like you—we like you.’ My mother didn’t comment; she just cried. My father objected.… They argued with him at the back of the house. I heard a gunshot. One of them told me, ‘Let’s go, we’ve killed your father.’ A woman rebel grabbed my hand roughly and took me along. I saw my father lying dead as we passed.” The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka routinely use abduction to reach their conscription targets (up to 60 percent of their forces are recruited between the ages of 10 and 16). In Uganda, only 200 of the 14,000 active members of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) are trained adult soldiers; the rest of this rebel force, responsible for 10 years of civil war and more than 100,000 casualties, are coerced child soldiers.

But a second, quite different, phenomenon is the revolutionary zeal that propels disenfranchised children to volunteer themselves, often to avenge their humiliated or decimated communities: “My father, mother, and brothers were killed by the enemy. I became angry.…And to revenge is only to have a gun…. That is the decision I took to become a soldier.” Sixty percent of children serving in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the infamous FARC) are volunteers. So are 57 percent of child soldiers in East Asia, according to UNICEF data. The percentages of teen-agers voluntarily engaged in the “war on terror” are higher. In these cases, children’s involvement in armed combat is an expression of individual agency and political engagement. Given Singer’s own claim that “roughly two of every three child soldiers have some sort of initiative in their own recruitment,” how can forced recruitment be the primary method of enlisting children?

There are other explanations, too, including economic necessity. A third of all children in Africa suffer severe hunger. To quote a 12-year-old: “I don’t know where my mother and father are. I had nothing to eat. I joined the gunmen to get food…. I was with the other fighters for eight months. There was nothing good about that life.”

Finally, there is the phenomenon that anthropologist William Murphy calls “patrimonialism,” a form of affiliation that ties vulnerable children to unrelated but powerful and domineering adults within their communities—a response to the pervasive “protection vacuum” that afflicts so many thousands of orphaned, displaced, or otherwise dispossessed children. AIDS complicates this picture: as elders able to mentor rootless youth are decimated, children attach themselves to adults capable of ordering their universe, however brutally.

Singer may thus be wrong to focus on a unitary “child soldier doctrine.” He is right, however, to argue that several very specific developments have contributed to the growth of child soldiering as an effective global weapons platform today. The proliferation of small arms is critical—cheap, light, and simple weapons which are as child-friendly to use as they are deadly to encounter. Chillingly, he points out that in Sudan an AK-47 costs the same as a chicken, in northern Kenya the same as a goat. Small arms represent less than 2 percent of the cost of the global-arms trade, but are responsible for about 90 percent of contemporary war casualties. Recruiters measuring children to see whether they are tall and strong enough to carry arms have an ever-easier time finding qualifying candidates as the weapons get smaller and lighter.

This practical development dovetails with an equally crucial political factor: whatever the moral stigma of using child soldiers, the political and legal consequences are negligible. Recruiting child soldiers is no longer taboo. The Tamil Tigers, for example, have set up a computerized system for managing child recruitment and established a military unit consisting entirely of child orphans, yet the organization has been included in peace talks about the future of Sri Lanka without prior confirmation that it has ended its recruitment of children.

There is also the question of utility. Because of the terrifying milieus from which many child recruits are drawn and the brutal, brainwashing military induction techniques, children turn out to be devastatingly useful soldiers, “damn near as good as conscript-drafted Americans or Europeans in the use of NATO tactics,” a retired Green Beret officer told Singer. Cheap, plentiful, and effective: it is hardly surprising that the numbers of child recruits appear to be rising.


Explaining the reasons for child soldiering, however, is much easier than suggesting effective solutions. So far, the greatest strides in addressing the problem have been made in the legal sphere, which does not require radical economic or political restructuring. We now have a host of international conventions—on the laws of war, on the worst forms of child labor, on children’s rights—which explicitly focus on eliminating the use of child soldiers. In February 2002, a new Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, came into force. It prohibits signatory states from compulsorily recruiting under-18-year-olds, and requires them to do whatever they can to keep volunteers under 18 from deployment in active combat. Eighty-five countries, including the United States, have ratified this instrument. In another significant development, the statute of the newly established International Criminal Court (ICC) makes recruitment or use of children under 15 for warfare a war crime punishable by the court.

The progress goes beyond getting laws on the books. The UN Security Council now sets aside a day each year to discuss the issue of child soldiers, naming and proposing sanctions against countries that use them and instituting monitoring systems to track the circumstances of children involved in armed conflicts. The ICC, as part of its first investigations, has chosen two conflicts that include massive children’s-rights violations: the LRA-led conflict in northern Uganda and the current war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Child recruiters in these two conflicts may well be the first to be prosecuted. Domestic legislation is also being passed, with tribunals in individual countries providing additional means of prosecuting child recruiters. In Sierra Leone, for example, the prosecutor for the special court set up to prosecute war criminals after the recent civil war has said, “If you go after women and children, you will pay the price.” These encouraging and important steps establish clear international standards and provide leaders with tools for enforcing sanctions and criminal penalties.

But the tragic reality is that no one has yet been convicted of recruiting child soldiers, or stopped from traveling or using a Swiss bank account because of this violation of international law. What use is naming and shaming if (as the Tamil Tigers and the LRA have done) the targets blatantly lie and are indifferent to international censure?

Without effective criminalization, the split between verbal denunciation of child soldiering and de facto support of the practice is likely to continue. Weapons sales and unmonitored aid and trade are a critical part of the problem. The United States, Singer notes, sends a quarter-billion dollars’ worth of military equipment and training assistance per year to states that use child soldiers, such as Colombia and Rwanda. As he points out, stigmatizing and criminalizing commercial transactions with offending states is more likely to be effective than yet more international norm setting. But this is just another example of a broader problem: the familiar reluctance of powerful states to use their political capital to resolve humanitarian issues that don’t impinge on their immediate self-interest.


Another obstacle to effective progress is the unresolved tension in our attitude to children themselves. Most human rights organizations consider all child soldiers innocent victims of adult exploitation. Do we agree? Or do we see at least a subset of the older adolescents as responsible agents, with the ability to make meaningful, moral choices? The former seems to be Singer’s view: he recoils from the idea that children may ever voluntarily decide to enlist. Despite his acknowledgment that most child soldiers initiate their own recruitment, he argues that “[describing] this choice as voluntary…is greatly misleading,” because they are “driven [to enlist] by forces beyond their control.” His argument seems to be the familiar one that constrained consent (handing over your money when you have a gun to your head) is really coercion. It also implies that children, at some fundamental level, lack the power of agency.

But is this always an accurate characterization? Why should we draw this conclusion for children and not their adult counterparts? Surely the process of militarization is an adaptive response to a set of social factors. And the legal category of “child” is one that encompasses a range of actors, with evolving capacity. To deny this, and the role of individual choice and responsibility, may be to discard a potentially important tool in deterrence, attribution of accountability, and social rehabilitation.


Though we know that the physical and psychological scars of child soldiering are devastating, we know relatively little about the solutions. Before 1999, no peace treaty even acknowledged the need for special attention to the issue of child soldiers. How can combatants who have known nothing but armed combat, killing, and brutality since early childhood be weaned from war and rehabilitated? Though many demobilization and rehabilitation programs have been established, progress is slow and arduous. We do not know, for example, whether formal judicial trials would help or hinder child soldiers and their societies in coming to terms with past atrocities, in accepting the children back, and moving forward. We do not know whether demobilized children should immediately be returned to their families (as and when they can be traced), or whether forms of interim care and treatment might be a better prelude to return. A particularly serious issue is the difficulty in securing the release of girl combatants, who are often kept on as sex slaves or domestic servants by military commanders.

The issue now is how to implement change. Singer’s book is a welcome contribution to this process, addressing many of the hardest questions (so much so that it occasionally sounds like a manual for American military officers facing child soldiers in the field). The book presents a powerful challenge to policymakers to follow through more courageously on steps that have been initiated so far and to broaden the scope of intervention. Because the use of child soldiers is not only a moral outrage but a serious security time bomb, is there a glimmer of hope that Singer’s message will make an impact?


Jacqueline Bhabha, Jeremiah Smith Jr. Lecturer at Law at Harvard Law School and executive director of the University Committee on Human Rights Studies, based at the Kennedy School of Government, teaches at both schools. An expert on refugees, she is completing a book on children who cross international borders without parents or guardians (see “Harvard Portrait,” May-June, page 57).  

Read more articles by: Jacqueline Bhabha

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