Books: 'Children at War'
Young Soldiers Used in Conflicts Around the World

P. W. Singer
Author/Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution
Monday, June 12, 2006 1:00 PM

Author P. W. Singer , senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and director of the Project on U.S. Policy Toward the Islamic World, was online Monday, June 12, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his book, " Children at War ," which examines the disturbing phenomenon of child soldiers who are fighting in Afghanistan, the Sudan, Colombia, Kashmir, Sierra Leone and other conflict zones around the globe. Singer includes narratives from the child soldiers themselves, many of whom are recruited and indoctrinated to fight against their will. What impact does this frightening practice have on terrorism? Why is the use of these young fighters more prevalent now than in the past?

AUDIO: Singer on child soldiers .

The transcript follows.


P. W. Singer: Many thanks for having me today. I thought it might make sense to start us out with a brief summary of the issue we face.

When we think of warfare, children rarely come to mind. But while warfare has long been the domain of adults, juveniles have been present in armies in a number of instances in the past. For example, young pages armed the knights of the Middle Ages and drummer boys marched before Napoleonic armies. Child soldiers even fought in our own civil war, most notably when a unit of 247 Virginia Military Institute cadets fought with the Confederate Army in the battle of New Market (1864). More recently, U.S. forces fought against small numbers of underage Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) in the closing weeks of World War II.

However, these were the exceptions to what the rule used to be, that children had no place in war. Throughout the last four thousand years of war as we know it, children were never an integral, essential part of any military forces in history. But the rules of war have changed. The participation of children is now not a rarity, but instead a growing feature of war.

The practice of child soldiers is far more widespread, and more important, than most realize. There are as many as 300,000 children under the age of 18 presently serving as combatants around the globe. Their average age is just over 12 years old. The youngest ever was an armed 5 year old in Uganda. The youngest ever terrorist bomber a 7 year old in Colombia. Roughly 30% of the armed forces that employ child soldiers also include girl soldiers. Underage girls have been present in armed groups in 55 countries.

Children now serve in 40% of the world's armed forces, rebel groups, and terrorist organizations and fight in almost 75% of the world's conflicts; indeed, in the last five years, children have served as soldiers on every continent but Antarctica. An additional half million children serve in armed forces not presently at war. The children are often abducted to fight and participate in all the full horrors of war; indeed they are sometimes forced to carry out atrocities that adults shy away from.

The result is that war in the 21st century is not only more prevalent, but more tragic. With children's involvement, warlords, terrorists, and rebel leaders alike are finding that conflicts are easier to start. In turn wars are harder to end, such that the wars drag on, consuming societies and childhood itself for literally hundreds of thousands of children. A particularly troubling aspect then is not only what happens during the fighting, but the legacy it leaves for children after the fighting is done. That is, recovery from the traumas of war is hard enough; it's all the more difficult when the soldier in question is a child.


Washington, D.C.: How many child soldiers are being used currently in Iraq and Afghanistan?

P. W. Singer: The overall numbers of Iraqi children involved in the fighting are not yet known. But the indicators are that they do play a significant role in the insurgency. For example, British forces have detained more than 60 juveniles during their operations in Iraq, while U.S. forces captured 107 Iraqi juveniles determined to be "high risk" security threats, holding most at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

Its important to note that with the global deployment of U.S. force after 9-11, from Afghanistan to the Philippines, child soldiers are present in every conflict zone U.S. forces now operate in. Indeed, the very first U.S. soldier killed in the war on terrorism was a Green Beret killed by a 14 year old sniper in Afghanistan. At least six young boys between the ages of 13 and 16 have been captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in the initial fighting and were taken to the detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They were housed in a special wing entitled "Camp Iguana." As the Pentagon took more than a year to figure out whether to prosecute or rehabilitate them, the kids spent their days in a house on the beach converted into a makeshift prison, watching DVDs (their favorites were Castaway and Call of the Wild) and learning English and math.

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq built up an entire apparatus in the 1990s designed to pull children into the military realm and bolster populace control. This included the Ashbal Saddam ("Saddam's Lion Cubs"), a paramilitary force of boys between the ages of 10-15 that acted as a feeder into the noted Saddam Fedayeen units that proved more aggressive than the Iraqi army during the invasion. During the invasion, American forces engaged with Iraqi child soldiers in fighting in at least three cities (Nasariya, Mosul, and Karbala). This is in addition to the many instances of children being used as human shields by regime loyalists during the fighting.

The implications of this training and involvement in military activities by large numbers of Iraqi youth was soon felt in the guerilla war that followed. Beaten on the battlefield, rebel leaders sought to mobilize this cohort of trained and indoctrinated young fighters. A typical incident in the contentious city of Mosul just after the invasion provided a worrisome indicator of the threat to come. Here, in the same week that President Bush's made his infamous aircraft carrier landing proclamation, an Iraqi 12 year old boy fired on U.S. Marines with an AK-47 rifle. Over the next weeks and months, incidents between U.S. forces and armed Iraqi children began to grow, to the extent that U.S. military intelligence briefings began to highlight the role of Iraqi children as both attackers and spotters for ambushes. Incidents with child soldiers ranged from child snipers to a 15 year old that tossed a grenade in an American truck, blowing off the leg of U.S. army trooper.

In the summer of 2004, radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr directed a revolt that consumed the primarily Shia south of Iraq, with the fighting in the holy city of Najaf being particularly fierce. Observers noted multiple child soldiers, some as young as 12 years old, serving in Sadr's "Mahdi" Army that fought pitched battles with U.S. and British forces. Indeed, Sheikh Ahmad al-Shebani, al Sadr's spokesman, publicly defended the use of children, stating, "This shows that the Mahdi are a popular resistance movement against the occupiers. The old men and the young men are on the same field of battle." A 12 year old fighter in the group commented, "Last night I fired a rocket-propelled grenade against a tank. The Americans are weak. They fight for money and status and squeal like pigs when they die. But we will kill the unbelievers because faith is the most powerful weapon." Coalition forces also have increasingly faced child soldiers in the Sunni Triangle as well. Marines fighting in the battle to retake Falluja in November 2004 reported numerous instances of being fired upon by "children with assault rifles."

So one of the many, many difficulties of Iraq is the presence of children.


Charlottesville, Va.: In your interviews with child soldiers and rehabilitation counselors, did you learn how the child soldiers' warrior identities were transformed and what sorts of identities "replaced" these warrior identities?

P. W. Singer: Hi to Charlottesville, a great city where I lived for a while. Still miss the food at Bang and Mono Loco.

Yes, as you note a particularly pernicious characteristic of the phenomenon is its potential to ruin the lives of children and, in doing so, lay the groundwork for future conflicts that harm society writ large.

The challenge we face is therefore how to reverse the effects of the doctrine, and, in doing so, restore the children's future. The healing takes not one step, but is a process. It involves disarming and demobilizing the children, an arduous process of rehabilitation, and then capping the transition back to childhood through the reintegration with their families and communities.

Groups use all sorts of means to indoctrinate children, be it through brutality, abuse, forcing them to take drugs, political training, watching films of violence, you name it. Many are the same that armies and rebels groups use, but when applied to children are clearly abuse. Children also develop all sorts of coping mechanisms, such as giving themselves "Jungle names" (calling themselves by some sort of nickname like "commander killer," or "blood never dry" that both sounds fearsome and also disassociates themselves mentally from the horrors of war.

Rehabilitation workers work with children to try to break this hold. They try to give them the coping skills they need to recover. There is no one exact means, but they might involve everything from talking with counselors to exercises where they make drawings that help exorcise the demons from the traumas they have seen and experienced. There is also a premium placed on trying to develop the skills they need in returning to community and also preparing the community for their return, as reintegration is the key to success.


Va.: Were you the author of Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers: Global Report 2004 at ? this was a good report.

P. W. Singer: No, sorry, that wasn't me. The coalition is an umbrella group of NGOs from around the world, groups like Human Rights Watch, Save the Children etc. that are working on this issue. Each year they collect a report one what is going on in each country on this issue. It is chockfull of data and a great resource.

My book, Children at War tried to take a different direction and not only look at what is going on, but explore how and why, with the thinking that this more comprehensive would help us to come up with more effective solutions.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Does your book include examining child soldiers in Liberia? It is my understanding there were many young soldiers in Liberia and that often it became very confusing as to who was fighting who as soldiers would often change sides. This has to be a most tragic way to grow up.

P. W. Singer: Yes, it covers the tragedy that went on in Liberia. Liberia has seen two waves of wars over the last decade, much of it driven by this child soldier phenomenon. First, Charles Taylor seized power at the head of a mainly youth rebel army in the early 1990s. he recruited kids both through abduction and trickery, for example telling kids he would give them computers and Mercedes Benz cars if they fought for him, basically taking advantage of their gullibility. Soon, he won the war. By the end of the decade, Taylor faced new foes in the LURD and MODEL, rebel groups who also used child soldiers to eventually topple him in 2003. The UN estimates that some 20,000 children served as combatants in Liberia's war, up to 70% of the various factions' fighting forces.

The war is now over, but the danger is what happens with many of these ex child soldiers if they don't get proper aid and assistance. Children return from these conflicts scarred by the violence they have either seen or been a part of, and have to wrestle with the demons of the past. They often find their homes or villages broken and are faced by family and neighbors that often do not know them, or treat them with suspicion, meaning they must not only recover for themselves, but must to regain the trust of those that should love them. They must rebuild the skills they need to survive, while at the same time battle the various temptations that threaten to pull them back into a world of violence. Their stories can be ones of turning tragedy into triumph, such as Liberian kids who returned to school and now support their families. Or, they can be of tragedy building upon tragedy; In Africa, one can find bands of former child soldiers that now travel across the continent in search of more wars to fight in. Liberian kids ended up fighting as far away at as in Congo


Norfolk, Va.: Mr. Singer,

I am in the process of reading your book "Corporate Warriors" about the growth of the privatized military industry. It is a very written and informative book. I sometimes find it a frustrating read, not because of your writing, but because the subject matter both angers and unnerves me, as it should anyone. Thank you for writing it.

I have yet to read "Children at War" but I do have a question which might be pertinent to this discussion.

Does your research indicate that any PMFs have been directly or indirectly involved in training children as part of "providing solutions" to their employers security problems?

Thank you in advance for any answers you can provide and good luck with future books.

P. W. Singer: Many thanks for kind words on Corp Warriors. It is frustrating to see so many companies that are seeking to profit from war.

The thread that links the two books is that while we have this assumption of war being just men fighting for armies (and therefore fighting for states and patriotism), the reality of war is far different. Corporate warriors looked at how many are now fighting for profit and for businesses organizations rather than for governments. Children at War looks at how war now involves not just men, but increasingly children as well and that these wars too are rarely about politics. The general point is that if we think about war as the way we wish it were, then all our assumptions about it will be wrong and our solutions to it will fail. As Iraq illustrates, you rarely get the war you want.

No, I've not come across any PMFs that use child soldiers. Many have fought them in places like Sierra Leone and elsewhere, but this is par for the course unfortunately in 21st century war. What a strange, sad world we live in where on one side of the battle are soldiers working for a company and the other children abducted to fight.

By the way, my next book will look at another new actor in war and its implications. It will explore the increasing use of robotics and other unmanned systems and what they bode for politics and war in the 21st century. That is, what happens when science fiction becomes science reality.


Marburg, Germany: Among these indoctrinated children will be lots who are to hate and harm Americans and wage a a battle against American interests. My question is, if this deep hatred against Americans gets generally the U.S. people and its government in particular to choose another policy toward Muslim world; a policy full of understanding and right standards?

P. W. Singer: This is one of my great worries of the consequences of what has happened in the five years since 9-11. The U.S. clearly has a problem that many great powers face of being globally unpopular, but in the Muslim world, it is a far different and deeper issue at hand. The U.S. is not simply seen as being mean-spirited or unfair, but now nearly 90% of publics in Muslim states view the U.S. as the primary security threat to their country. Around 60% said weakening the Muslim world was a primary objective of the United States. While we don't like to admit it, this trend is being mirrored to an extent in the U.S. While Americans have long had concerns with radical groups within Islam (crystallizing with the Iranian Hostage crisis), the number of Americans who have a negative view of the entire religion of Islam itself has grown each year since the 9-11 attacks, to now making up almost half the body politic. Even the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, where American troops stopped ethnic cleansing just a decade ago, describes current relations with the United States as "worse than they have ever been before."

The 9-11 attacks were a self-evident violation of all moral and religious codes of conduct, and in their wake the United States should have been able to isolate Al Qaeda from the broader public in the Islamic world, and thus cut it off from the support and recruiting structures that would allow it to thrive. But five years later we find ourselves the ones isolated, and inversely have seen the stature of bin Laden and Al Qaeda rise. While the U.S. and its allies have seized the some of Bin Laden's lesser lieutenants and assets, the movement remains vibrant and its senior leadership largely intact. More critical, though, is that its popularity is greater than ever, its ability to recruit individuals and affiliate organizations to its agenda unbroken, and its ideology spreading across a global network present in places ranging from Algeria and Belgium to Indonesia and Iraq. As the attacks from Bali to Morocco to Madrid to London reveal, its capabilities may even be growing . The primary threat has evolved in the five years from a specific organization that was fairly centralized to becoming self-organized, self-inspired and cellular. The 9-11 attacks were planned at the highest levels of the group in Afghanistan, over the course of almost 2 years, with bin Laden's hand in the tiniest of details. By comparison, bin Laden probably found out about the London bombings via watching on TV, while the only link that the 17 man terror cell recently rolled up in Canada had with al Qaeda was by reading about it on the web. We are witnessing the transformation of the threat of Al Qaeda to the threat of Al Qaeda-ism.

Part and parcel of that is the worry that we have an entire generation growing up in the region, with few job prospects and living in authoritarian states, that only thinks of the US in terms of Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. To steal a phrase from the soul singer Mary J. Blige, we may be seeing the rise of the "Hateration" in the Islamic World, a development which will haunt relations for the next 20-30 years.


Hyattsville, Md.: I haven't read your book yet, but I was wondering if your narratives include child militias in Somalia.

Due to the on-going civil strife in Somalia and lack of schooling, many children were exploited by warlords...and there hasn't been any studies on this area... Any thoughts on this?


P. W. Singer: Yes, the books looks at Somalia a bit as well.

In Somalia, warlords on all sides have used children. This is reflective of a state where the social order has collapsed and you had an effective free for all, with all sorts of actors seeking loot and plunder and using children as a means to an ends.

Why should we in the West care? Well, not only did we have to deal with this challenge in the past --- US forces in the battle in Mogadishu in 93 (captured in Blackhawk Down) reported that amongst the fighters were children, but many now worry that al Qaeda is taking advantage of the continuing chaos in Somalia to create a new base for recruiting and planning, akin to what Afghanistan was. The solution in Somalia is much like elsewhere, we need to help restore the social order and stability. Only then can you end the cycle of violence.


Lyme, Conn.: How are children recruited to serve in militaries? Are they forced into it? Do parents object? Have you interviewed a child military recruiter, and what are their thoughts as they recruit children?

P. W. Singer: Children are recruited through all sorts of means. Some are abducted. Typically, recruiting parties from rebels groups of the like are given conscription targets that change according to need and objective. Some, like the Tamil Tigers, even use sophisticated computerized population databases to direct recruiting efforts, so they target the communities that have the most children. All children are not automatically taken, but only those who meet certain criterion. Those judged too small are often killed in order to intimidate both the local populace and the new recruits. Once caught, children have no choice; usually they must comply with their captors or die.

To maximize efficiency, both state armies and rebel groups target the places that they know children will be both vulnerable and in the greatest number. The most frequent targets are secondary schools, marketplaces, and refugee camps. Sudan is an example of where this happened. In many ways, these tactics echo the naval press gangs of the Napoleonic era that used to sweep through a harbor looking for able bodied men to seize. Now, its children. Another difference is that abductions are not just about building out one's force, but are also instruments of war. Abduction raids often link to rape and looting rampages.

Some children choose to join an armed group of their own volition. However, to describe this choice as "voluntary" is misleading. Leaving aside that they are not yet of the age considered able to make mature decisions, many are driven into conflict by pressures beyond their control, usually economic in nature. Hunger and poverty are endemic in conflict zones and children, particularly those orphaned or disengaged from civil society, may volunteer to join any group that guarantees regular meals. The same factors may also drive parents to offer their children for combat service.

Structural conditions may also oblige children to join armed organizations. If surrounded by violence and chaos, they may decide they are safer with guns in their hands. Revenge can also be a particularly powerful impetus to join. Lastly, some groups may take deliberate advantage of adolescence, a stage in life where identify is still defining. Through propaganda or media distortion, violence may be glorified or fictions created to induce children to self-identify with an organization. This took place in places ranging from Rwanda to Palestine.

CS recruiters do so not merely because they are evil or mean spirited, but usually for a thought out reason. They view children as assets. They see children as cheaper and easier to recruit (they will also fight for causes that adults cant be convinced to, such as for a warlord), easier to force to follow your orders, and less costly to lose. Indeed, in many places (Congo and Myanmar for example) our research came across recruiters who preferred children as fighters because they would follow orders that adults wouldn't.


Vienna, Va.: It's happening more often now because children are seen by terrorists and other evil people as cheap raw material--they are plentiful, don't cost much to feed, can be useful as complements to the adult fighters, and it's no big loss if they get killed. The squalid morality of such thinking is an accurate reflection of the type of people who use children as soldiers.

In order to fight and defeat terrorism, it is likely that we'll have to fight child soldiers on occasion. We will have to be prepared to deal with the reality that our troops must defend themselves, regardless of the age of their opponents. A combat zone is a combat zone, and if we start second-guessing our troops in such situations, it will only lead to more casualties. We saw some of this during the defeat of the Taliban by the U.S. and its allies in late 2001. Some in the media implied that the military was engaging in immoral behavior by killing the child soldiers that the Taliban were sending out in part to cover their retreat. Why didn't the media ask themselves, "What kind of person sends kids out to fight professional soldiers while he runs and hides in a cave?"

P. W. Singer: I think you are right. This is a reality of modern war and terrorism that we have to face. Terrorism, it is said, is the 'weapon of the weak.' Thus, it should be no surprise that children are also present in this dark domain of modern warfare. As on the world's battlefields, children are increasingly present in terrorist groups. Many of these groups have long had "youth wings" to provide broader support in the populace, but now these youths are being used in actual operations to strike at targets behind the battle lines. This is for the same fundamental reasons that child are now on the battlefields, because children offer terrorist group leaders cheap and easy recruits, who provide new options to strike at their foes.

With the U.S. now involved in a global war on terrorism, children's role in this aspect of war should take on added importance to Americans. Captured al Qaeda training videos reveal young boys receiving instruction in the manufacture of bombs and the setting of explosive booby traps. The result is that at least six young boys between the ages of 13 and 16 have been captured by U.S. forces in the war on terrorism. They were housed in a special wing of the detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, entitled "Camp Iguana."

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of contemporary terrorism is the growth in suicide bombing over the last few years, particularly emanating from the Middle East. Here, too, children are present. Radical Islamic groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas have recruited children as young as 13 to be suicide bombers. In Morocco, a pair of 13 year old twin sisters, who had been recruited by al Qaeda linked groups, were caught in summer 2003. They were in the process of trying to suicide bomb a Western business and local government building.

It is important to note, though, that neither terrorism nor children's roles in it are a uniquely Muslim phenomena. Just as there are a variety of terrorist groups across the world, whose members represent nearly all the world's religions, so too is there a broader set of terrorist groups that seek to mobilize children. For example, the "Real IRA," a coalition of dissident IRA terrorists in Northern Ireland, began to recruit boys in the 14-16 year old range in the late 1990s. The youngest reported terrorist was a nine year old boy, who was sent by the ELN in Colombia to bomb a polling station in 1997. Likewise, when Muslim groups began to use child suicide bombers, they were not actually breaking any new ground. Instead, they were following the lead of the Tamil LTTE in Sri Lanka, which has consistently been one of the most innovative of terrorist groups. The LTTE, which has utilized suicide bombers to kill both the Indian prime minister and the Sri Lankan president, is a master at the technique. It even has manufactured specialized denim jackets designed to conceal explosives. Some are specially tailored in smaller sizes for child suicide bombers.

But we cant blame the media for the fact that we have not prepared for this dangerous world. Our intelligence systems ignore this phenomenon and our soldiers get neither the training, equipment or preparation they need to handle it effectively. The same holds true for our communications strategy. We should be making just that sort of argument you make in our public diplomacy ( asking "who sends other people's children out to fight for them") and mobilizing trusted religious and communal leaders against the use of children as terrorists. But we are not. We just ignore it and then get hit with the negative consequences afterwards


Va.: I met a few U.S. Army soldiers who are 17 years old. How can this be? And how would you define a child soldier by how young to how old?

P. W. Singer: A 17-year-old may join the U.S. military upon their high school graduation.

But, by the time they make it through boot camp and then skills training, they will have aged past 18. Even then, they are not allowed to deploy to combat zones until they become 18.

This issue got much (somewhat needless in my mind) focus during the debate over the international convention on child soldiers, as the numbers we are talking about are miniscule (45 by one count) and didn't involve anything like abductions or atrocities. The coalition that focused on this got into a public battle with the Pentagon and in my mind, should have spent it limited political capital on battling the greater abuses (the LRAs and Tamil Tigers of the world).


Washington, D.C.: What gave you the idea of writing this book? Was it a topic you had just come across a lot in your other work? And why do you think it is a topic that is relatively left out of the media? I haven't seen a lot of coverage on this.

P. W. Singer: I first came across this issue in the Balkans, where I met a Bosnian girl in a refugee camp who had served as a sniper. It was quite odd to me as this young girl was the hero of her village. A few years later I was researching my book on private military firms, especially those operating in West Africa, and was struck by the oddity of how you had one side that was an army for hire, which was fighting children. It was not only tragic, but simply didn't fit with the way we were taught to understand war. So it seemed an important topic to tackle.

My hope in writing it was three things:

1) When you come across with an issue like this, you are compelled to tell the stories of tragedy and bravery that few too are aware of

2) but I hoped to do so in a manner that didn't just evoke empathy, but also lead to understanding. That is, only by understanding the causes and dynamics of this appalling phenomenon, can we develop appropriate responses to it.

3) Finally, I wanted to move this issue beyond just heartbreak and show how the supposedly soft issue of children is actually becoming a hard security issue, That is, by looking at this through a new lens, we see that we have not just a moral obligation not to shirk or be "stingy", but also a strategic mandate to act to ensure our own security, something that is important in a period when security is the new currency in political dialogue.

To answer your final question, I think it gets too few media coverage, because it is a difficult issue that takes place often far away. the children are both victims and perpetrators of violence, usually fighting in messy, complex wars. Its hard for media to cover that with its minimal international coverage in this day and age.


Washington, D.C.: In researching your book, did you have the opportunity to interview any soldiers directly? What about aid workers who had worked with these children? What did they say?

P. W. Singer: Yes, on both counts. I've met with child soldiers from around the world, that fought in places ranging from Sierra Leone to Lebanon, and the same for aid workers . What is striking for me is that child soldiers are like any other victims of abuse. they are not lost causes and can overcome the trauma with aid and counseling. For example, one former child soldier I met became a student at a very prestigious university in new England. Another became an officer in the US Marine Corps (he had emigrated here from Lebanon).

I thought it was important for the powerful stories to be conveyed directly, so throughout the book you can find pullout quotes from child soldiers and aid workers from around the world that cover their experiences on everything from recruitment to rehabilitation.


Why use children to fight and die?: I wish I knew. Once it was the father who would die to save his child. Now he puts a bomb on his back and sends him off to die. I guess he can make more. But it shows a society about to die.

P. W. Singer: Yes, it is a sad reflection of a broken society or a society under siege, when you find children being sent to fight and their death celebrated by adults. Indeed, I cant think of any other species that sends its young out to die for it.

In the book there is a quote from a psychologist in Gaza who discusses how parents should want their children to grow up to be successful doctors or lawyers and the like, not be killed before they even have a chance to experience life.


Alexandria, Va.: Are there examples of government forces, vs. fringe or terrorist groups, using child soldiers? If so, are any of these countries allied with us? Or is this a primarily non-government, rebel group activity?

P. W. Singer: Yes.

Non-state actors, such as armed rebel, ethnic, and political opposition groups, are especially prone to using children as fighters. 60% of the non-state armed forces in the world (77 of 129) use child soldiers. But children's use as soldiers is by no means limited to non-state actors nor to armies actively at war. The UN estimates that, in addition to the 300,000 child combatants active as combatants, over 50 states actively recruit at least another half million children into their military and paramilitary forces. This in violation of both international law and usually their own domestic laws. These range from Myanmar to Uganda. Some are indeed allied with the US . By one listing, we giver almost a quarter billion dollars in aid to governments. with child soldier issues. Thus we can use our influence with them to force them to stop. For example, the Colombian military once used children, but no longer does, because of US pressure to stop human rights abuses amongst its units if it wanted aid. Our focus was on child soldiers in this case, but it does show we can influence others if we try.


Arlington, Va,: How are these children received when, if ever, they are reintroduced into their communities? Are they viewed as criminals for their activities, or do they find sympathy?

P. W. Singer: A very good question. Ultimately, a successful reintegration is as much about whether the families and communities are prepared for acceptance, as whether the children have been properly rehabilitated. For instance, in one survey in Africa, 80% of adults did not want their children to mix with children who had once served as child soldiers.

In an ideal world, after a conflict ends, a significant program of sensitization should therefore be put in place to prepare the local society to the challenges and difficulties of reincorporating ex-child soldiers. It is particularly difficult in places where the children may have committed heinous crimes against local civilians.

Efforts must be made to overcome the stigma and stereotypes that surround ex-child soldiers and describe them as perpetrators. Rather, they should seek to reinforce the acknowledgement by society that the children were also victims in the process. Truth and reconciliation programs have been run to some good effect in places like South Africa, but programs more specific to child soldiers are needed. In Sierra Leone, for example, UNICEF set up an agreement with local media to promote reintegration and reconciliation, including even producing radio spots that sought to educate the local populace and keep them informed of related activities. More recently, Voice of the Children was launched. It is a UN-sponsored radio station, dedicated to children's issues. Another example is that children in Uganda are given a public presidential pardon for any activities they carried out while in captivity, providing an official sanction to societal forgiveness and reconciliation.


Walla Walla, Wash.: How does the U.S. military adapt its rules of engagement when children are involved, or does it?

P. W. Singer: So far it had not adopted its ROEs, and this is a major problem. Child soldiers units not only fight and operate differently than adult units, but also the consequences are far different. So, just as you would adopt to whether an enemy was using tanks or infantry, you must adjust for this.

Whenever professional forces face child soldiers, an added dilemma is raised by the fact that they are lethal combatants yet remain victims who have been illegally recruited, deliberately persuaded, or even abducted into military service. Experience has shown that engagements with child soldiers can be incredibly demoralizing for professional troops and also harm unit cohesion. For example, there was little dilemma or controversy over Allied actions against the Hitler Jugend troops in 1945. Yet, the experience was so unsettling to those U.S. Army forces that had to fight the units, that troop morale was brought to some of the lowest points of the entire war, even with victory being in sight. Likewise, British forces operating in West Africa faced deep problems of clinical depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among individual soldiers that had faced child soldiers.

At the same time, fighting child soldiers presents a public affairs nightmare, which adversaries may seek to utilize. A primary worry for militaries facing child soldiers is that a traditional measure of success in defeating their opponent may end up undermining their domestic support, as well as sway international opinion.

Thus, military forces must prepare themselves for a dilemma that is as thorny as they come. To put it simply, troops will be put into a situation where they face real and serious threats from opponents whom they generally would prefer not to do harm. While they may be youngsters, when combined with the increasing simplicity and lethality of modern small arms, child soldiers often bring to bear a great deal of military threat. Therefore, mission commanders must prepare forces for the tough decisions that they will face, in order to avoid any confusion over ROE or the micro-second hesitations, because of shock at the makeup of their foe or uncertainty on what to do, that can prove lethal. I am going to paste in below some lessons learned from a report I did for the US military on this issue:

Historical experience has demonstrated a number of effective methods to handle situations when professional troops are confronted by child soldiers. These include:

¿ Preparation and Intelligence

Rather than wishing the problem away, official policies and effective solutions should be developed to counter the dilemmas that child soldiers raise. Better to deal with them in training, rather than making ad-hoc calls in the midst of crisis. At the same time, intelligence apparatus must become attuned to the threat and ramifications of the child soldier. This is not only important in forecasting broad political and military events, but knowledge of the makeup of the adversary is also a critical factor in determining the best response. Intelligence should be sensitive to two aspects in particular: what method of recruitment the opposition utilizes and the average child soldier's period of service. Those using abduction techniques or with recent cadres will be more prone to dissolving under shock than those with voluntary recruits or children who have been in service for many years.

-Recognize the Threat

A dark, but important, realization for forces in contemporary warfare is that a bullet from a fourteen year old's gun can kill just as well as one from a forty year old's. Therefore, whenever forces deploy into an area known to have child soldiers present, they must take added cautions to counter and keep the threat at a distance. All children are not threats and certainly should not be targeted as such, but force protection measures must include the possibility -or even likelihood- of child soldiers and child terrorists. This includes changing practices of letting children mingle among pickets and putting children through the same inspection and scrutiny as adults at checkpoints.

- Fear Supplements Firepower

When forces do face engagement with child soldier forces, best practice has been to hold the threat at a distance and, where possible, initially fire for shock. The goal should be to maximize efficiency and prevent costly externalities by attempting to break up the child units, which often are not cohesive fighting forces. In a sense, this is the micro-level application of "effects based warfare," just without the overwhelming dependence on high technology. Demonstrative artillery and mortar fires (including the use of smoke), rolling barrages (which give a sense of flow to the impending danger) and helicopter gunship passes have been proven especially effective in breaking up child soldier forces.

- The Leader is the Linchpin

When forced into close engagement, forces should prioritize the targeting and elimination of any adult leaders if at all possible. Experience has shown that their hold over the unit is often the center of gravity and units will dissolve if the adult leader is taken out of a position of control. As forces seek to mop-up resistance, they should focus their pursuit on the adult leaders that escape. Failure to do so allows their likely reconstitution of forces and return to conflict, as has become a recurrent theme in child soldier-fueled conflicts like Northern Uganda or Liberia.

- Non-Lethal Weaponry Gives More Options

An important realization is that total annihilation of the enemy in these instances may actually backfire. Thus, wherever possible, military commanders and policy-makers should explore options for using non-lethal weapons (NLW) in situations that involve child soldiers. Arm-chair generals often ignorantly mock NLW, overlooking that they in no way eliminate away the resort of deadly force. Rather, their availability provides troops in the field with added choices and options. NLWs frequently are a welcome alternative that not only may save lives on both sides, but prove more effective to meeting mission goals. Unfortunately, development and distribution of such weaponry has fallen well behind pace. Indeed, out of the mere 60 non-lethal weapons kits in the entire U.S. military, only 6 were deployed to Iraq. Many international peacekeeping operations lack even one kit.

- Employ PsyOps.

Psychological operations should always be integrated into overall efforts against local resistance, including being specially designed for child soldier units. Their aim should be to convince child soldiers to stop fighting, leave their units, and begin the process of rehabilitation and reintegration into society. At the same time strategy should be developed that ensures that adversary leaders know the their violation of the laws of war is being monitored and the dire consequences they will face in using this doctrine. PsyOps should also seek to undercut any support for the doctrine within local society, by citing the great harms the practice is inflicting on the next generation, its contrast to local customs and norms, and the lack of honor in sending children out to fight adult's wars.

-Follow-up Yields Success.

The defeat of a child soldier-based opposition does not just take place on the battlefield, no matter how successful. A force must also take measures to welcome child soldier escapees and POWs quickly, so as to dispel any myths on retribution and induce others to leave the opposition as well. This also entails certain preparations being made for securing child detainees, something U.S. forces have had no doctrine or training for, even down to not having proper sized cuffs. Once soldiers have ensured that the child does not present a threat, any immediate needs of food, clothing, and/or shelter should be provided for. Then, as soon as possible, the child should be turned over to health-care or NGO professionals. The business of imprisoning juveniles is not the mission of the military and certainly not positive for the health of the organization.

- Protect Our Own.

A force must also look to the health of its own personnel. Forces must be ready to deal with the psycho-social repercussions of engagements with child soldier forces, for this is an added way that the use of child soldiers puts professional forces at a disadvantage. Units may require special post-conflict treatment and even individual counseling; otherwise, the consequence of being forced to kill children may ultimately undermine unit cohesion and combat effectiveness.

- Explain and Blame.

Public affairs specialists must be prepared beforehand for the unique repercussions of such engagements. In explaining the events and how children ended up being killed, they should stress the context under which they occurred and the overall mission's importance. The public should be informed that everything possible is being done to avoid and limit child soldiers becoming casualties (use of non-lethal weapons, psychological operations, firing for shock effect, etc.). At the same time, the public should be made aware that child soldiers, although they are children, are just as lethal behind an assault rifle as adults. Most importantly, they must seek to turn blame on where it should properly fall, on those leaders that not only illegally pulled children into the military sphere, but also send them out to do their dirty work.

At a broader level, governments that want to stay ahead of the issue should mobilize the United Nations, as well as local political leaders and religious experts to condemn the practice for what it is, a clear violation of international law as well as local cultural and religious norms.


Fairfax, Va.: Has this yet reached the "second generation," where soldiers who were conscripted when they themselves were children are now recruiting and indoctrinating other children? It seems like it can only be scarier the second time around.

P. W. Singer: Yes, unfortunately so. I am presently working with a film documentary crew from the History Channel on this topic and one of the kids they came across in Congo was a 17 year old who had been abducted to fight and had advanced through the ranks and now was a commander/recruiter for one of the rebel groups. The book also discusses how we are seeing the literal second generation in places like Uganda and Myanmar, where the kids of child soldiers, who have grown up within the groups, are now becoming soldiers.

I am going to end here as our time is up. Wanted to thank you in the audience, who have been willing to learn more about this terrible, but I think compelling topic.

It certainly is depressing at times, but for me a takeaway is that countless doctrines and modes of warfare have come and gone over the long march of history. For example, it was once thought acceptable to keep captured soldiers as personal slaves. Little more than a century ago was considered an obligation to invade other lands to bring them into your imperial domain, described as a so called a white mans burden.

Hopefully, the child soldier doctrine will someday soon join the many other practices of war whose time has past. Perhaps, history will look back upon this period as an aberration, a short phase when moral norms broke down, but were quickly restored.

But will only happen if we match the will of those leaders who do such evil to children, with our own will to do good.


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