Fighting Child Soldiers

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

May 1, 2003

There is no moral excuse for sending children into battle, but the dark reality is that this
terrible practice is a regular feature of modern warfare.
Some 300,000 children under the age of 18 (both boys and girls) are now combatants, fighting
in approximately 75 percent of the world’s conflicts.

Among Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s human-rights
violations was his policy of recruiting children
into Iraq’s armed forces, in clear violation of international
law and moral norms. Already, U.S. and allied forces have faced child soldiers in the fighting
around Karbala and Nasariyah.

Since the mid-1990s, thousands of Iraqi boys have attended military-style summer boot camps. During
the 3-week-long sessions, boys as young as 10 years old went through drills, learned the use of small arms, and received heavy doses of Ba’ath political indoctrination.
The camps were named after resonating current events to help galvanize recruitment and add
to the political effect. For example, the 2001 summer
camp series was titled the Al Aqsa Intifada, to link it with the symbology of the Palestinian uprising that started earlier that year. Beginning in 1998, the military directed a series of training and military preparedness programs toward the entire
Iraqi population, including boys as young as 15. The preparedness sessions, which generally ran for 2
hours a day over 40 days, mandated drilling and training on small arms.

The Ba’athist regime’s reasons for training and recruiting children were manifold. A common method
for totalitarian regimes to maintain control is to militarize
society and set it on a constant war footing. Such actions allow for a controlling hierarchy and
help divert internal tensions toward external foes. Hussein’s regime was no exception. Approximately half of the Iraqi population is under the age of 18,
roughly 11 million out of 22 million citizens. This significant youth cohort represented a deep pool of potential forces, as well as a potential threat, if not organized toward the regime’s goals. Most important, recruiting, training, and indoctrinating children offered the opportunity to deepen the regime’s reach into its society.

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