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The New Face of Warfare | The Nation

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The New Face of Warfare

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In his book Innocents Lost, Jimmie Briggs recounts picking up the New York Times one morning. Opening the newspaper, he was confronted by a disturbing image--a large photograph of a young Liberian kneeling and howling on a city street, his face contorted with rage as he pointed a gun at the photographer who had captured his image. This was no child's play: The gun was real--an automatic rifle almost as big as the boy himself. As Briggs remembers, however, "More chilling than the weapon he held was what he wore on his back: a pink teddy-bear backpack, a telling symbol of his lost youth." The boy, no more than 11 or 12, was a child soldier, one of the thousands who served during the Liberian civil wars of 1989-2003 and one of the hundreds of thousands of children who have served or are serving in armed conflicts around the globe. Possibly the world's most unrecognized form of child abuse, child soldiering has become a defining feature of modern warfare. This horrifying new face of armed conflict is the subject of three important recent books--Briggs's Innocents Lost, P.W. Singer's Children at War and Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.

About the Author

Fatin Abbas
Fatin Abbas is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Harvard.

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Singer's study leaves little doubt about just how prevalent the phenomenon has become. The statistics he presents speak for themselves. In more than three-fourths of armed conflicts around the world today there are significant numbers of child combatants. At any one time, there are more than 300,000 child soldiers serving with nonstate armed groups. In addition, more than fifty states actively recruit hundreds of thousands of soldiers under 18, in contravention of international law. It is in Africa, considered to be the epicenter of the child soldier phenomenon, that child soldiering is most widespread. Where there is conflict on the continent, one can be sure that children will be found right in the middle of it. In the 1991-2001 civil war between Sierra Leone's government and the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), as many as 80 percent of all fighters were between the ages of 7 and 14. In the two waves of civil war that engulfed Liberia between 1989 and 2003, up to 70 percent of government and rebel combatants were children. In the recent war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), ignited in 1996 by Laurent Kabila's revolt against Mobutu's regime, roughly half the fighters (between 30,000 and 50,000) were child soldiers. Perhaps the group most notorious for its exploitation of child soldiers is the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, which has been waging a bloody war against the government for almost eighteen years. Led by Joseph Kony, a man who claims to be possessed by the Holy Spirit and to be fighting to restore respect for the Ten Commandments (this while breaking every one), the LRA's forces are composed almost entirely of children. The group, Singer informs us, "also holds the ignoble record of having the world's youngest reported armed combatant, aged five."

But while child soldiering is most widespread in Africa, the phenomenon is by no means confined to that continent. In Colombia, a country that has been in the grip of violence for the past sixty years--a cocaine-fueled conflict between the government, right-wing paramilitaries and various left-wing rebel groups, chief among them the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)--between 6,000 and 14,000 children serve either with guerrillas or with the government's paramilitary forces. Forty percent of slain guerrillas in the country are under 18. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam in Sri Lanka--a group that has been fighting for independence for the country's Tamil population for more than twenty-five years--is infamous for its "Baby Brigade," a wing of the movement that recruits, trains and arms children as young as 11. In Afghanistan, it is estimated that 30 percent of children have participated in military activity at some point in their lives. In fact, the first American casualty of George Bush's "war on terror," Special Forces Sgt. Nathan Chapman, was shot dead by a 14-year-old Afghan boy fighting with the Taliban.

While Singer contends that the phenomenon of child soldiering is a recent historical development, Briggs asserts that children have always been involved in war. What both authors agree on, however, is that never before in the history of warfare have children been exploited on such a vast scale. As Singer maintains, at bottom the phenomenon is a telling symptom of troubling economic, political and environmental trends that have been developing over the past few decades. The growing level of global poverty is one of the most significant factors not only in the spread of conflict but also in the spread of child soldiering. The combined effects of globalization, dwindling natural resources, lack of educational and economic prospects and the corruption of a large number of developing-world regimes have today left 3 billion people, roughly half the world's population, living on $2 a day or less. The overwhelming majority of child soldiers are drawn from this poor, uneducated, disenfranchised and marginalized segment of society. Two out of three child soldiers take some sort of initiative in their own recruitment, contrary to the belief that most child soldiers are abducted. In poverty-stricken war-torn regions characterized by insecurity and lack of education and economic opportunity, becoming a child soldier is often the only way to guarantee some level of protection and livelihood. As one Congolese child soldier explained his choice, "I heard that the rebels at least were eating. So, I joined them."

As Children at War demonstrates, the growing poverty, political instability and environmental deterioration that have plagued many developing countries over the past several decades have also coincided with the proliferation and technological advancement of arms. Most of the deadliest wars today are waged with "small arms" or "light weapons," such as rifles, grenades, machine guns and mortars. It is these small arms that have resulted in almost 90 percent of all casualties in recent wars. While historically children were limited in their ability to use weapons because of the sheer strength and skill required to wield them, since World War II technological advances in small arms have made weapons much lighter and simpler to use, allowing, as Singer writes, "the transformation of children into fighters just as lethal as any adult."

Ironically, the proliferation of these deadly small arms is largely the result of the cold war's "peace dividend." After 1989 millions of weapons were declared "surplus" and instead of being destroyed were dumped onto the world market at a fraction of their original cost. Most of these weapons ended up in the hands of illicit organizations, and, as Singer asserts, "were added to the masses of weapons that had already been given to superpower proxies during the Cold War." Rather than resulting in a peaceful "new world order," therefore, the end of US-Soviet confrontation resulted in a sharp increase in the number of internal conflicts. The number of civil wars has doubled since 1989. As Mark Duffield, of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Lancaster, in Britain, has remarked, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought "peace in the West, war for the rest."

Singer also convincingly advances the thesis that the systematic deployment of child soldiers by armed groups around the world reflects the rise of a new type of conflict. He avers that while many armed groups started out "with some ideological or popular goals, often related to the Cold War, that has fallen by the wayside as they struggle to survive." In certain parts of the world, warmaking is increasingly becoming an end rather than a means to an ideological or political goal, primarily because it can serve as "an alternative system of profit and power." In Angola, Sierra Leone and the DRC, for example, winning the war was a secondary goal for many of the groups involved; the primary goal was to capitalize on the chaos. Given the profit-motivated nature of a growing number of wars, therefore, armed group leaders often have no qualms about exploiting child soldiers. Children are cheap and effective, and allow groups with no grassroots support and no clear ideological or popular goals to generate force quickly and brutally.

What's more, armed groups are increasingly targeting children not only because they are cheap and effective but also because their limited psychological development means that they can be manipulated more easily than adults. Upon recruitment or forced abduction into an armed group, children are usually subjected to a brutal regimen of discipline, which may include beatings and abuse under the threat of death. The most important element of the regimen, as Singer points out, is often the ritualized killing of others--either captured victims or other children--aimed at crushing the children's opposition to the group's authority, shattering any inhibitions they may have about killing and beginning the process of desensitizing them to violence and the suffering of others. Given that upon recruitment or abduction, many of these children are so young that they have not yet developed a clear sense of right and wrong, it is only a matter of time before they are transformed into killing machines. In fact, in many conflicts today, child soldiers are feared more than adult ones, precisely because of the horrifying cruelty of which they are capable. Describing what happened to a number of West African soldiers in Liberia, one military expert quoted in Singer's book warns of the ferocity of child soldiers: "They will capture you, strip you naked, run you through the streets, cut off your testicles and fry them in a pan in front of you, fillet you from head to toe and then cut off your head to put on a stake."

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