Children at War

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

September 1, 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.

The nature of armed conflict, though, has changed greatly in the last few decades. In sum, some 300,000 children (both boys and girls) are presently serving as combatants, fighting in approximately 75% of the ongoing conflicts around the world. As many as 10% of those soldiers fighting around the world may be underaged. Moreover, these figures do not include the additional half million children who serve in armed forces not yet in war. In Iraq, for example, 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. Just this sort of underage reserve could complicate a “clean” takeover of Iraqi cities in any potential American invasion.

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, but nearly inevitable, consequence of any US military deployment. Children, as young as 6 and 7 years old, are serving as combatants on every continent but Antarctica. Moreover, child soldiers are also present in the number of areas to which US forces have deployed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. These include Afghanistan (the Taliban targeted orphans and young students in Pakistani religious schools, or madrassahs, for recruitment), Yemen, Georgia, and the Philippines.

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, simple, and cheap small arms, such as the AK-47), and the breakdown of global order, especially with the spread of warlordism and failed states. This dynamic has made possible a new mode of war, where immoral leaders seek to convert vulnerable, disconnected children into low-cost and expendable troops, who fight and die for their own causes.

The ramifications of this “child soldier doctrine” are quite dangerous. Unpopular armies and rebel groups are able to field far greater forces than they would be otherwise, through strategies of abduction or indoctrination. Indeed, many groups little larger than gangs are able to sustain themselves as viable military threats through the use of child fighters. For example, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda has a core of just 200 adult members. But, over the years, it has abducted over 12,000 children, using them to fight a decade long civil war. Conflicts where children are present tend not only to feature massive violations of the laws of war, but also higher casualty totals. Lastly, the effect of plunging children into a culture of war can cause long-term trauma that can disrupt their psychological and moral development. In sum, when children are present, warfare is not only more tragic, but also more likely and more bloody, and lays the groundwork for generations of future strife.

The Dilemmas and Responses to Children at War

As the Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “It is immoral that adults should want children to fight their wars for them…There is simply no excuse, no acceptable argument for arming children.” There may be no moral excuse, but the dark reality is that this terrible practice continues apace.

Therefore, the US government must support all local, regional, and international efforts that seek to end this terrible doctrine. These include 1) criminalizing the practice by prosecuting those leaders who abuse children in this way, 2) taking the profits out of the practice by sanctioning any who trade with child-soldier groups, 3) providing aid to programs which seek to demobilize and rehabilitate former child soldiers, and 4) helping to curb the spread of illegal small arms to rebel and terrorist groups who bring children into the realm of war. Supporting such efforts is not simply the moral thing to do, but is also in the US’s self interest, for the doctrine’s spread can only have negative harms to US soldiers.

At the same time though, 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. Indeed, in one of the first Western military engagements with child soldiers, the results were not so optimal. In late 2000, a patrol of British Army soldiers operating in Sierra Leone was surrounded by a rogue militia, mainly made up of children. The entire unit was taken hostage when its squad commander reportedly refused to open fire on what he described as “children armed with AK-47s.” A few weeks later, British special forces had to launch a rescue assault. The battle left one British SAS trooper dead, scores wounded, and up to 150 enemy dead, including many children.

The core dilemma of child soldiers is as thorny as they come. To put it simply, professional troops put into this situation face real and serious threats from opponents whom they generally would prefer not to do harm.

On one side, a bullet from a fourteen year old’s gun can kill just as well as one from a forty year old’s. While they may be youngsters, child soldiers often bring to bear a great deal of military skill, ferocity, and even years of combat experience. Therefore, when US 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.

At the same time, though, the quandary of child soldiers is that one’s opponents are children, traditionally outside the scope of war. Rather than hated enemies, they are instead foes towards whom professionals can and should expect to feel a great deal of empathy. Consequently, 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).

This means that the child soldier problem presents new impetus for research into better responses. These include finding strategies that seek to sever the child soldier recruiting pipeline, tactics that can break down child soldier forces (child soldiers units are more prone to dissolve under pressure, particularly if the control of the adult unit leader is broken), and even the incorporation of non-lethal weapons into commanders’ force options.

When US forces are put in the tragic position of having to fire on and even kill children for their own protection, the after effects of such incidents must be straightforwardly faced, rather than ignored at the price of lowered morale and possible harm to unit cohesion. Spokespersons should also be sure to stress the context under which the incidents occurred and the overall mission’s importance. Most importantly, they must seek to turn blame where it should properly fall, on those foes who send children out to do their dirty work.

The essential point is that rather than wishing the problem away, official policies and effective solutions must be developed to counter the dilemmas that child soldiers raise, so that we deal with them in training before we face them in the field. At the same time, our 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 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.


While the topic of children may seem from the outside as too “soft” an issue for the military to consider, the dilemmas of children at war are as hard as they come. Children are now a reality of contemporary warfare. The only question is whether our troops will be prepared to do the right thing when they face them. In the interim, the onus is on our leaders, in government and the military, to do all that they can to end this terrible practice. Only then can we actually fulfil the historic conviction that children have no place in war.