For most of human history, children have been little more than footnotes in the annals of warfare.
In the Middle Ages, young pages armed clashing knights. Drummer boys led Napoleon’s armies into battle. In the American Civil War, boys occasionally donned uniforms, most notably when a unit of 247 Virginia Military Institute cadets fought with the Confederate Army in the 1864 battle of New Market. In the closing weeks of World War II, as U.S. forces advanced, Hitler pressed the youth of Germany into service at the front.
The nature of armed conflict, however, has changed dramatically in the past few years. Now the presence of children is the rule, rather than a rarity. The result is that war in the 21st century is not only more tragic, but more dangerous. Warlords, terrorists and rebel leaders alike are finding that conflicts are easier to start and harder to end when children are involved. Children, it turns out, are relatively easy to recruit and indoctrinate, and they are more than capable of wielding the deadly tools of modern battle.
The practice of arming children is far more widespread than most people realize. Around the globe today, there are as many as 300,000 combatants under the age of 18. They serve in 40 percent of the world’s armed forces, rebel groups and terrorist organizations and fight in almost 75 percent of the world’s conflicts. An additional half-million children serve in armed forces that are not presently at war.
Some try to quibble with these alarming numbers by raising questions about cultural standards of maturity. According to this way of thinking, a 15-year-old boy in some cultures may be as ready for warfare as an 18-year-old in others.
The problem with this argument is that the 18-and-below definition of childhood is not some Western construct (as many warlords and apologists would have it), but rather the international legal standard, agreed upon by more than 190 countries. It is the age that almost every nation in the world uses to award or withhold public rights and responsibilities—such as the right to vote or to receive free education or health care. It was also a standard for many pre-modern armies, including the Zulu tribe in Africa and the Spartans of ancient Greece.
Even if you allow for some age variation, however, the children fighting today’s wars are getting younger and younger—beyond what any sane person would possibly defend. Eighty percent of conflicts where children are present include fighters under the age of 15, and 18 percent of the world’s armed organizations have employed children 12 or under.
In separate studies in Southeast Asia and Central Africa, the average age of child soldiers was determined to be just under 13. The youngest ever documented was an armed 5-year-old in Uganda.
And it’s not just boys who have been drawn into the fray. About 30 percent of the armed forces that employ child soldiers also include girls; underage girls have served in the armed forces in 55 countries in recent years. In 27 of these, girls were abducted to serve, and in 34 they saw combat. Girl soldiers are often singled out for sexual abuse and have a harder time reintegrating into society when the wars end.
With the rise of this phenomenon, Western forces have increasingly come into conflict with children on the battlefield. The first notable instance was the British Operation Barras in Sierra Leone in 2000. There, British SAS special forces fought a pitched battle against the “West Side Boys,” a teen militia that had taken a squad of British Army troops hostage.
The global war on terror launched after 9/11 has also cast a spotlight on the use of children by terrorist groups. Captured al Qaeda training videos reveal young boys receiving instruction in the manufacture of bombs and the setting of explosive booby traps. The Palestinian groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas have recruited children as young as 13 to be suicide bombers and as young as 11 to smuggle explosives and weapons.
At least 30 suicide bombings have been carried out by young people since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flared up again in 2000. In one particularly galling episode, Hamas convinced a semi-retarded 16-year-old boy to strap himself with explosives. He was caught by Israeli police in the town of Nablus, just before he was expected to blow himself up at an Israeli army checkpoint.
It is important to note that neither terrorism nor children’s roles in it are a uniquely Muslim or Middle Eastern phenomenon. The youngest known terrorist, for instance, was a 9-year-old boy in Colombia, sent by the ELN rebel group to bomb a polling station in 1997. The Tamil LTTE in Sri Lanka, which has used suicide bombers to kill both the Indian prime minister and the Sri Lankan president, has manufactured specialized denim jackets to conceal explosives, tailored in small sizes for child bombers.
Child soldiers are present in every conflict zone U.S. forces now operate in, from Afghanistan to the Philippines. Indeed, the very first U.S. soldier killed in the post-9/11 war on terrorism was a Green Beret killed by a 14-year-old sniper in Afghanistan. U.S. soldiers continue to report facing child soldiers in Afghanistan; the youngest on record was a 12-year-old boy captured last year, after being wounded during an ambush by Taliban fighters.
At least six boys between the ages of 13 and 16 were captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in the initial fighting and taken to the detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They were housed in a special wing called “Camp Iguana.” For more than a year, the kids spent their days in a makeshift prison on the beach, watching DVDs and learning English and math. In addition, several more detainees between 16 and 18 are thought to be held in the adult facility at Guantanamo known as “Camp X-Ray.”
In Iraq, the problem has quietly grown to dangerous levels. Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraq built up an entire apparatus designed to pull children into the military realm. This included the Ashbal Saddam (“Saddam’s Lion Cubs”), a paramilitary force of boys between the ages of 10 and 15 that acted as a feeder into the notorious Saddam Fedayeen units.
The Fedayeen were led by Saddam’s son Uday and proved more aggressive than the Iraqi army in fighting U.S. invasion forces; their remnants now make up one of the contending insurgent groups. During the invasion, American forces fought with Iraqi child soldiers in at least three cities: Nasariya, Mosul and Karbala.
Beaten on the battlefield, rebel leaders have sought to mobilize this cohort of trained and indoctrinated young fighters. A typical incident took place in the city of Mosul the same week as President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech in May 2003, when a 12-year-old Iraqi boy fired on U.S. Marines with an AK-47 rifle. Over the next weeks and months, the number of incidents involving American forces and armed Iraqi children increased, ranging from child snipers to a 15-year-old boy who tossed a grenade in an American truck, blowing off the leg of U.S. Army trooper.
As the fighting picked up intensity last spring, child soldiers served not only in Saddam loyalist forces, but also in both radical Shi’a and Sunni insurgent groups. Radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr directed a revolt that consumed the primarily Shi’a south of Iraq, with fighting in the holy city of Najaf particularly fierce. Observers noted multiple child soldiers, some as young as 12, serving in Sadr’s “Mahdi” Army.
Indeed, Sheikh Ahmad al Shebani, al Sadr’s spokesman, publicly defended the use of children, stating, “This shows that the Mahdi are a popular resistance movement against the occupiers. The old men and the young men are on the same field of battle.”
Coalition forces have increasingly faced child soldiers in the dangerous “Sunni Triangle” as well. Marines fighting in the battle to retake Falluja in November reported numerous instances of being attacked by “children with assault rifles” and wrestling with the dilemma of returning fire.
As one U.S. soldier fighting in Karbala put it: “Anybody that can shoot a little kid and not have a problem with it, there is something wrong with them. Of course I had a problem with it. After being shot all day, it didn’t matter if you were a soldier or a kid, these RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades, which the children were attempting to fire at his unit) are meant to hurt us. … I did what I had to do.”
The overall numbers of Iraqi children involved in the fighting are not yet known. But the indicators are that they do play a significant and growing role in the insurgency. For example, British forces have detained more than 60 juveniles during their operations in Iraq, while U.S. forces have captured 107 Iraqi juveniles determined to be “high risk” security threats. Most were held at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.
Ending the tragedy of children at war is thus not only a moral obligation, but a strategic mandate. An international alliance of non-governmental organizations, known as The International Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, has brought needed attention to the issue, but little will happen until governments—and especially the United States—get involved.
Those seeking to halt the practice must move beyond mere persuasion—how can you shame the shameless who recruit children to war?—and work instead to address the underlying causes and motivations. The key is to reduce the pool of potential child soldiers and limit the ability and willingness of groups to recruit them.
Long-term solutions include:
- Increasing investment to head off regional conflicts and outbreaks of disease, including the AIDS pandemic.
- Offering greater aid to special at-risk groups such as refugees and orphans.
- Making the recruitment of children a war crime and prosecuting offenders in international criminal tribunals.
- Reducing profits by sanctioning any firms or regimes that trade with child-soldier groups (including even American firms, such as those that traded with the Liberian and Sudanese governments).
- Providing increased aid to programs which seek to demobilize and rehabilitate former child soldiers.
- Helping to curb the spread of illegal small arms to rebel and terrorist groups who bring children into the realm of war.
In each of these areas, U.S. action has fallen woefully short.
Ignoring this problem is no longer an option. The only question is whether our troops will be properly equipped, trained and supported to deal with this change in contemporary warfare. The burden is on leaders, in government and the military, to do all that they can to reverse this terrible practice.
The rule once held that children have no place in war. It is up to us to make that a reality once more.