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Op-Ed

Tragic Challenge of Child Soldiers

Peter W. Singer

“The rebels told me to join them, but I said no. Then they killed my younger brother. I changed my mind.”

It was with this matter-of-fact description to a Radio Netherlands reporter in 2000 that a 7-year-old boy in Liberia encapsulated the world’s largest, but least understood, case of child abuse.

When we think of war, we typically imagine a world of men and women in uniform fighting for their nation. Children rarely, if ever, come to mind. But the face of war has changed during the past decade.

Children as young as 5 years old make up 10% of the world’s combatants. More than 300,000 underage soldiers serve in conflicts around the globe, from Afghanistan to Sudan, according to United Nations’ reports.

With U.S. forces so widely deployed since Sept. 11, it is not just an issue of tragedy, but a challenge that our soldiers increasingly wrestle with. Indeed, the first U.S. soldier killed from hostile fire in Afghanistan was shot by a 14-year-old sniper. More recently, according to various news reports, U.S. forces have had to confront this problem in Iraq; incidents range from child snipers to a 15-year-old who tossed a grenade into a truck, blowing off the leg of a U.S. Army trooper. More than 100 young Iraqis have been captured fighting against U.S. forces, including boys as young as 12 in the urban warfare in Fallujah and Najaf last year.

Groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have pulled children into the terrorism game. More than 30 suicide bombings since 2000, according to Time magazine, have been carried out by children, and multiple juvenile al-Qaeda terrorists have been detained at the U.S. military prison on Guantanamo Bay in the special “Camp Iguana” facility.

Thus, the problem of child soldiers is far bigger than we think and more relevant to Americans than generally understood. The international community needs to develop a system of punishment and deterrence against those leaders who use children in war (rather than the U.N.’s failed tactic of “naming and shaming” the shameless), as well as provide better preparation, equipment and training for our soldiers.

This shift in warfare also casts a new light on how the United States should think about children, about humanitarian aid—including aid to such special at-risk groups as orphans and refugees—and about these children’s relationship to our security.

We often discuss aid to those in need as a moral issue, as in the case of the tsunami. But we also need to view aid through a lens of security, as a means to deal with the underlying causes of instability, radicalism and conflict. Even the AIDS pandemic and natural disasters bear closer scrutiny. That’s because orphans are the prime at-risk group for recruitment into war.

Some countries where tens of thousands of children were orphaned by the tsunami are conflict zones well known for child recruitment: Aceh (an Indonesian island site of civil conflict between Christian and Muslim militias), Myanmar and Sri Lanka (home of the Tamil Tigers). And tsunami orphans are already being targeted for recruitment.

We need a wider array of programs to bolster rehabilitation and steer children away from violent groups, thus breaking the multigenerational cycle of violence that characterizes most war zones.

Our government’s continuing failure to effectively respond to both short- and long-term calamities, such as mass disease and global poverty, should not simply be viewed as embarrassing or shameful, but as undermining to U.S. national security.

In a world of globalization, terrorism and now, child soldiers, developing an effective aid strategy is not just the moral thing to do. It is an investment in avoiding future generations of violence and thus more conflicts where U.S. soldiers will be facing off against kids.

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