Don’t try to read this book if you don’t have a strong stomach. Recruiting children (as young as 8 or even 6) for war is a hideously brutal process. If you can imagine it, they’ve done it to the children, and compelled the children to do it to each other in a process designed to tear them away from all other attachments. The child soldiers are often drugged with cocaine or other substances to magnify the feeling of invincibility that youth often have. Modern weapons are lightweight and easy to use, so handling them isn’t an issue for the child soldiers. Fearless (see cocaine, above) and aggressive, they can and often do beat back regular adult forces.
The adults that govern them generally send them first against easy targets like villages, where they loot and rape (a child soldier may be killed for refusing to rape), and kill, leaving a few to escape to spread the news and taking the remaining few captive. Captive children they attempt to enlist; and the child soldiers are made to kill the adult captives as part of their conditioning.
Sick yet? This sort of thing was unthinkable a hundred years ago, and violates millennia of informal rules of war. But it is now expanding, and may be found around the world. The Tamil Tigers (as usual) pioneered some of the terror tactics expanded on by the Iranians and Palestinians: such as using children as suicide bombers. In Africa child soldiers made up a quarter of the factions fighting in Mozambique, form almost the entire force of the LRA, and were ubiquitous in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote dIvoire, Ethiopia, Burundi, and so on. Myanmar has them, the MILF have them in the Philippines, Pakistan has some, and many other places as well. In Columbia FARC aggressively recruits children. And we’ve run into them in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
He spends Chapter 7 on the use of children in terror attacks, and the toxic culture of Palestine.
Armies of children are easily assembled, and are always associated with terrorizing the population and almost never associated with serious ideological issues—the goals of the organizers are money and power.
What shall we do? The UN has made several pronouncements, and many countries signed onto the agreements, with no result: some of the signatories were and are violators.
Those who use child soldiers are, by definition, willing to ignore and transgress already long-standing ethical norms and will unlikely be swayed by new ones. Those who are willing to round up children, send them into battle, and often force them to commit rape and murder are simply unlikely to be persuaded by moral appeals. To put it another way; one cannot shame the shameless.
Of course, some of the lack of traction is due to political dynamics:
As an example, while it is a positive that an international coalition has been built, anti-American prejudices are too often allowed to misdirect its underlying mission to stop the use of children as soldiers.
For example, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers has wasted its political capital by engaging in a long-drawn-out public relations war with the U.S. and British governments. If the group had been more strategic in its thinking, these global powers could have been among its leading supporters. The crux of the dispute was over the presence of a small number of seventeen-year-old recruits in their forces who had volunteered with parental permission (00.25 percent of the U.S. military). While this practice may not be agreeable to all the varied members of the coalition, all can agree that it is certainly not the same as the LRA abducting children and forcing them to slaughter their own families. Despite this, the group made it a focus of its lobbying efforts. Its annual report listed the two practices as equivalent abuses under the same heading.
OK, if people at least pay lip service to the idea that using child soldiers is a very bad thing: that’s a start. What else? The author suggests using the ICC and castigates US suspicions of the court as “unfounded,” despite his having noticed that anti-American prejudice was lively enough to derail a much simpler program. He proposes trying to criminalize the use of child soldiers, and pressuring the companies and governments that do business with the heads of those armies. He uses Taylor as an example, but it looks to me more like a counterexample. Firms from France, Belgium, China, Taiwan, and Turkey helped enrich Taylor. Much of their goods may have eventually wound up in the US, but does anybody seriously think that you can successfully pressure those aforementioned governments to pressure their companies to quit dealing with villains like Taylor? It has been tried already. As for trying to halt the flow of consumer goods from these companies: we’re dealing with pros here, and nests of shell companies are pretty trivial to arrange.
OK, maybe you can find some handle on the warlords’ business dealings. Sierra Leone diamonds could at least theoretically be distinguished from diamonds from other geologic sources, and you could require certificates that they came from legitimate sources. That assumes that you trust DeBeers, of course. I don’t advise you to. Or, for groups that rely on external sources of funding, you can try to dry up their sources. He gives an example the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) who get money from Tamils in Australia, Canada, France, India, Norway, and the UK. Good luck trying to get India to cooperate. He doesn’t give the example of Hamas, but that suffers from the same problem: they depend on foreign money, but there’s no way to dry it up.
Warlords that depend on states for aid or for staging regions (LRA in Sudan, RUF in Liberia, etc) might be vulnerable to pressure on the state to clean up its act. Once again, the examples are counterexamples. Even if Taylor had had the slightest interest in forcing out his pals in the RUF, the Liberia-Sierra Leone border is so porous that his efforts would have been mostly symbolic. Last time I checked, neither Liberia nor Sierra Leone controlled its own airspace.
At the end of the day, though, governments and activists must also acknowledge that these new programs may not be able to fully end the practice of using children as soldiers understatement!, certainly not in the short term. Even if successful, they will take time to mature to effectiveness. Moreover, the threat will likely remain, much as with chemical and biological weapons. Even when their use has been proscribed, there will remain the potential for groups to reassess the matter and use child soldier doctrine in the future. Therefore, militaries must still steel themselves for the hard choices that result from facing children in battle.
And we are ill-prepared. He writes “when U.S. Marines were deployed off Liberia, the epicenter of child soldiers, in August 2003, they had little intelligence on child soldiers and no instructions on how to respond if they came into contact with them (among other information, officers were then provided early drafts of this book).”
It isn’t easy to deal with child soldiers. We instill a warrior ethic in our fighters—most armies do. You don’t shoot children. Germany was asked to “send combat troops to the DRC as part of the refugee protection program in Operation Artemis. Because of the child soldier issue, it balked. It chose not to send any troops, so as to avoid having German soldiers having to face child soldiers.”
How do you prepare for a combat with child soldiers? First you need intelligence: who are you up against and how are they constituted? (Some child soldier units disintegrate in minutes if you can kill the adults. Some don’t.) You need new force protection measures: children must not mingle near checkpoints, for instance. You need to remind the troops that they are fighting people with no regard for their own life, who will take risks adults wouldn’t—and that some of them are veterans of years of brutal fighting. (Oh, and remind the troops never to surrender under any circumstances—though the author doesn’t mention that detail.) And sooner or later the troops are going to have to start killing children. This is demoralizing to the men, and is a wonderful opportunity for opposition news sources like Al Jazeera or CNN to use to sway public opinion against whatever the troops may be doing.
Third world armies are usually ill-trained, and tend to lose out against the wilder child soldiers because of it. If you have to be in a fixed location, “use trenches and wire to shape the battlefield, and stretch the opponent engagement zone (to the 300 meter and beyond distance)” is a simple way to better your odds. Using rolling barrages seems to help freak out some units, and helicopter gunships are especially intimidating (at least until someone learns how to set ambushes). Shock helps.
Singer then goes into a riff on non-lethal weapons, which he has great hopes for in such battles. This seems reasonable: I’d expect them to be more effective on children than on adults. Except that they’ve not been battle-tested even on adults, so . . .
And as he points out, “ forces deployed into such high-threat environments still face real threats and require the capability to ensure their own safety. The irony is that such needs often run counter to the direction many militaries have taken toward lighter and more sophisticated forces.” This is, of course, because of the choice of battlefields. Child soldiers aren’t deployed in tank battles, but in places where the entire brigade can melt back into the landscape—be it jungle or city. For those battles you need lots of boots on the ground. “Peacekeeping operations, which are among the most likely situations for Western forces to come into contact with child soldier-based forces, may be the most ill equipped of all to respond. They are often lightly armed, lacking in the type of heavy weapons that can ‘shock’ or quickly overwhelm foes.”
He suggests using radio/TV/loudspeakers/leaflets to remind warlords that using child soldiers will come back to haunt them at trial, to try to make child soldiers remember their families, and to remind people of the broken taboos and undue sufferings of the children. The warlords and recruiters won’t care particularly (catch me first!), the child soldiers are carefully severed from their families by crimes, and the local population doesn’t have much say when raiders come to town.
Which brings up a point he doesn’t deal with at all. The population as a whole is presumed to be completely defenseless against raiders. But a government could take steps to try to arm civilians, or make it easy for them to arm themselves. A village that can shoot back is a less pleasant target than one where people are armed with nothing more than knives, and recruiting would have to suffer accordingly.
Suggested Guidelines When Engaging Child Soldiers
- Intelligence: Be attuned to the specific makeup of the opposition force.
- Force Protection: All children are not threats, but may require the same scrutiny as adults.
- Engagement: Operate with awareness of the situation’s dynamic:
- Fire for shock effect when possible
- Shape the opposition by creating avenues for escape
- Leader’s control is the center of gravity, so engage adult targets first if possible
- Aftermath: Units may require special post-conflict treatment (akin to what police receive after shooting incidents)
- Break the Cycle: Deployed units should support demobilization and rehabilitation efforts.
He emphasizes that it is important to welcome escapees and POWs (with an irrelevant riff on Abu Ghraib), since you want the child-soldier units to leak as much as possible. In the Philippines a child POW is supposed to be turned over to social workers within 24 hours. That’s nice. I’m not sure how useful that goal is when you’re dealing with large numbers of child soldiers and next to no social workers, such as in Liberia.
Chapter 10 is about “Turning a soldier back into a child.” This is an important goal, because these are deeply damaged children who are easily re-militarized. (Some started on one side, were captured and fought on the other, were captured again and fought on their original side!) Some go freelance, as seems to have happened with Liberian fighters going into Cote dIvoire. And it isn’t just boys. Girls are also fighters, though they’re less likely to be repatriated. Programs to deal with these ex-fighters are badly underfunded. First comes disarmament and demobilization. Neither is permanent, by the way. And he notes that programs that require weapons turn-in “exclude child soldiers who escaped without their weapons or served as spies, porters, or ‘wives’” Of course, programs that don’t require turn-in to somebody leave a lot of AK-47’s buried somewhere. Rehabilitation comes next: trying to reintegrate them into society. This is very hard. PTSD and physical injuries are very common, as are STD’s. Some (RUF members, for instance) were branded with the name of their organization, which sets them up as targets for vengeance unless they can destroy the marks. (He mentions a well-intentioned group of plastic surgeons, who were only able to help 120 RUF child soldiers.) In a continent with few psychiatrists at all, finding child psychiatrists to help counsel the ex-soldiers is merely a dream (if it would help at all). Then, somehow or another the children have to find their place in society. Of course many people fear them.
The most discouraging thing about Chapter 10 is not the magnitude of the problem, but that he does not quote a single instance where the proposed solutions worked. Some individuals we know were healed and redeemed, but he doesn’t mention any numbers on recidivism. We have a new thing in the world, and I’ve no evidence that we can deal with it.
I went into extra length here precisely because this book isn’t for everybody. If you’ve the stomach for it, read it. I think he’s too hopeful in his prescriptions, and I don’t see any good way to intervene everywhere that needs it (who’s going to do it, for starters?).