Talk Is Cheap: Getting Serious About Preventing Child Soldiers

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

January 1, 2004


On January 4, 2002, Sergeant 1st Class Nathan R. Chapman became the first American serviceman to be killed by hostile fire in the War on Terrorism.2 A Green Beret, Chapman’s mission was to coordinate with local tribal elements in the Paktia province in Afghanistan.3 Chapman’s unit was ambushed, and he was hit by sniper fire.4 While many Americans expected the War on Terror to claim casualties, one aspect of the battle surprised many: Sgt. Chapman’s killer was an Afghani child.5

The threat of child soldiers continued in Afghanistan after Sergeant Chapman’s death. On July 28, 2002, a grenade fatally injured Sergeant 1st Class Christopher Speer, a special forces medic, while on operations near the town of Khost in eastern Afghanistan.6 His killer was a fifteen-year-old Al Qaeda member, originally from Canada.7

Little more than a year later, U.S. forces came in contact with child soldiers once again. In April 2003, during the war with Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq, American soldiers were forced to fire on and kill Iraqi child soldiers in at least two separate instances.8 Some of these child soldiers were as young as ten years old.9 Incidents with child soldiers continued during the guerilla campaign that followed the invasion.10 U.S. Army briefings warned of the threat from child soldiers,11 ranging from child snipers12 to a fifteen-year-old who tossed a grenade in an American truck, blowing off the arm of an Army trooper.13

These incidents, though tragic, should not be surprising. The sad reality is that underage soldiers are now an almost inherent feature of the modern battlefield. Children as young as six years old now comprise as much as 10% of the world’s combatants.14 Underage soldiers serve in 75% of the world’s conflicts.15 They fight in places like Afghanistan, Colombia, Congo, Iraq, Liberia, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, and Sudan and, with the new “war on terrorism,” increasingly face off against the United States and other Western armies.16 Indeed, at least five underage boys suspected of being Al Qaeda terrorists or Taliban fighters have been imprisoned at the U.S. military prison on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.17

The use of children as soldiers heightens both the frequency and savagery of conflict. It makes conflicts easier to start, tougher to end, and more likely to recur.18 Even worse, the trend appears set only to magnify in the coming years. What then should be the proper response?

This Article looks at potential ways to prevent and deter the practice of child soldiers. To be effective, any effort against the use of child soldiers must seek to realistically understand the doctrine that drives it. Child soldiering stems from a set of deliberate choices and strategies designed to benefit from using children in war. By understanding the causes, as well as the resulting dynamics, one can develop more nuanced strategies that attack the very heart of the practice.