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Children at War

Defense Strategy, Human Rights, U.S. Military Peter W. Singer, Director, 21st Century Defense Initiative Veterans Vision

Fall 2002 — On January 4, 2002, Sergeant 1st Class Nathan Chapman became the first American serviceman to be killed by hostile fire in Afghanistan. The Green Beret trooper was on a mission to coordinate with tribal elements in the Paktria province, when his unit was ambushed and he was hit by sniper fire. While Americans were prepared for the eventuality that our soldiers might die in the war against terrorism, one aspect of the battle caught many off guard. Sgt. Chapman's killer turned out to be a 14-year-old Afghan boy. As tragic as this incident was, there should be nothing shocking about it. Underage soldiers are now a regular feature of the modern battlefield, present in the majority of the world's conflicts and armed organizations. As a result, our forces must prepare now, so that they do not later find themselves ill-equipped or untrained for the terrible dilemmas that accompany them. The Child Soldier Doctrine: While warfare has long been the exclusive domain of adults, child soldiers (defined as children under the age of 18 who are engaged in political violence) have been present at a few instances in past conflicts. A unit of VMI cadets fought at the Civil War battle of New Market in 1864, the Hitler Youth fought Allied forces in 1945, and Cold War rebel groups such as the Viet Cong also had small numbers of teenaged fighters. However, these child fighters were exceptions to what the rule used to be. Their use as soldiers were isolated in time, geographic space, and scope, and children were never an integral, essential part of the forces engaged.

Children. Moreover. Unpopular armies and rebel groups are able to field far greater forces than they would be otherwise. The result of this general spread of child soldiers is that the possibility of American forces facing opposition forces made up of children is not only a likely. Yemen. These include Afghanistan (the Taliban targeted orphans and young students in Pakistani religious schools. where immoral leaders seek to convert vulnerable. for example. such as the AK-47). though. using them to fight a decade long civil war. The reason for the new presence of children on the battlefield is the combination of two forces: changes in weapons technology (particularly the proliferation of light. Conflicts where children are present tend not only to feature massive violations of the laws of war. Lastly. consequence of any US military deployment. the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda has a core of just 200 adult members. who fight and die for their own causes. for recruitment). child soldiers are also present in the number of areas to which US forces have deployed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. or madrassahs. simple. and cheap small arms. Indeed. Just this sort of underage reserve could complicate a "clean" takeover of Iraqi cities in any potential American invasion. but also higher casualty totals. Georgia. and the Philippines. thousands of youths between the ages of 10-15 serve in the "Saddam Lion Cubs" units and reportedly train in small arms and infantry tactics.000 children. the effect of plunging children into a culture of war can cause long- . especially with the spread of warlordism and failed states. In Iraq. has changed greatly in the last few decades.000 children (both boys and girls) are presently serving as combatants. This dynamic has made possible a new mode of war. For example. As many as 10% of those soldiers fighting around the world may be underaged. but nearly inevitable. through strategies of abduction or indoctrination. as young as 6 and 7 years old. disconnected children into low-cost and expendable troops. these figures do not include the additional half million children who serve in armed forces not yet in war. many groups little larger than gangs are able to sustain themselves as viable military threats through the use of child fighters. In sum. over the years. and the breakdown of global order. The ramifications of this "child soldier doctrine" are quite dangerous. Moreover. fighting in approximately 75% of the ongoing conflicts around the world.The nature of armed conflict. it has abducted over 12. But. some 300. are serving as combatants on every continent but Antarctica.

The core dilemma of child soldiers is as thorny as they come. Supporting such efforts is not simply the moral thing to do. but is also in the US's self interest." A few weeks later. Therefore. At the same time though. To put it simply.. the results were not so optimal. "It is immoral that adults should want children to fight their wars for them. 2) taking the profits out of the practice by sanctioning any who trade with child-soldier groups. the US government must support all local. regional." There may be no moral excuse. the hard reality is that our soldiers must be trained and prepared for what to do in the eventualities in which they do come face to face with child soldiers. professional troops put into this situation face real and serious threats from opponents whom they generally would prefer not to do harm. warfare is not only more tragic. and up to 150 enemy dead. and international efforts that seek to end this terrible doctrine. The battle left one British SAS trooper dead. The entire unit was taken hostage when its squad commander reportedly refused to open fire on what he described as "children armed with AK47s. Indeed. but the dark reality is that this terrible practice continues apace. In sum.term trauma that can disrupt their psychological and moral development. 3) providing aid to programs which seek to demobilize and rehabilitate former child soldiers. scores wounded. including many children. In late 2000. but also more likely and more bloody. in one of the first Western military engagements with child soldiers. no acceptable argument for arming children.There is simply no excuse. These include 1) criminalizing the practice by prosecuting those leaders who abuse children in this way. mainly made up of children. when children are present. a patrol of British Army soldiers operating in Sierra Leone was surrounded by a rogue militia. and lays the groundwork for generations of future strife. and 4) helping to curb the spread of illegal small arms to rebel and terrorist groups who bring children into the realm of war. for the doctrine's spread can only have negative harms to US soldiers. . British special forces had to launch a rescue assault.. The Dilemmas and Responses to Children at War As the Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu said.

they must seek to turn blame where it should properly fall. though. they are instead foes towards whom professionals can and should expect to feel a great deal of empathy. traditionally outside the scope of war. experience has shown that engagements with child soldiers can be incredibly demoralizing for professional troops and also can present a public affairs nightmare (one can only imagine the effect of images of US forces fighting child soldiers would have on CNN). All children are not threats and certainly should not be targeted as such. At the same time.On one side. so that we deal with them in training before we face them in the field. Therefore. on those foes who send children out to do their dirty work. rather than ignored at the price of lowered morale and possible harm to unit cohesion. These include finding strategies that seek to sever the child soldier recruiting pipeline. Spokespersons should also be sure to stress the context under which the incidents occurred and the overall mission's importance. the quandary of child soldiers is that one's opponents are children. and even the incorporation of non-lethal weapons into commanders' force options. but force protection measures must include the possibility—or even likelihood—of child soldiers and child terrorists. ferocity. child soldiers often bring to bear a great deal of military skill. While they may be youngsters. our intelligence . particularly if the control of the adult unit leader is broken). Consequently. tactics that can break down child soldier forces (child soldiers units are more prone to dissolve under pressure. When US forces are put in the tragic position of having to fire on and even kill children for their own protection. official policies and effective solutions must be developed to counter the dilemmas that child soldiers raise. At the same time. they must take added cautions to counter and keep the threat at a distance. This means that the child soldier problem presents new impetus for research into better responses. when US forces deploy into an area known to have child soldiers present. Rather than hated enemies. and even years of combat experience. Most importantly. the after effects of such incidents must be straightforwardly faced. The essential point is that rather than wishing the problem away. This includes changing practices of letting children mingle among pickets and putting children through the same inspection and scrutiny as adults at checkpoints. a bullet from a fourteen year old's gun can kill just as well as one from a forty year old's.

but knowledge of the makeup of the adversary is also a critical factor in determining the best response. the dilemmas of children at war are as hard as they come. Children are now a reality of contemporary warfare. Those using abduction 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. the onus is on our leaders. The only question is whether our troops will be prepared to do the right thing when they face them. 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.apparatus must become attuned to the threat and ramifications of the child soldier. Conclusions While the topic of children may seem from the outside as too "soft" an issue for the military to consider. This is not only important in forecasting broad political and military events. In the interim. . Only then can we actually fulfill the historic conviction that children have no place in war. to do all that they can to end this terrible practice. in government and the military.