The New Face of Warfare

The New Face of Warfare

Child soldiering has become a defining feature of modern warfare. And the United States has been all too complicit in the trend.


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.

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.”

While Singer’s book provides an admirable overview of child soldiering, Briggs’s and Beah’s books present the human faces and stories of the soldiers themselves. Briggs spent six years traveling around the world and speaking to child soldiers and their families in Africa, South America and Asia, collecting their stories in Innocents Lost.

In Colombia, Briggs speaks to Gueso, a 16-year-old fighting with one of the government’s paramilitary militias in Medellín, northwest of the country. By the age of 8, Gueso had already learned how to use his first weapon, a .38 pistol. Within hardly a year, he had killed his first victim: “I stabbed a guy in the neck,” he boasts cheerfully to Briggs. Wired on cocaine and alcohol during the interview, he keeps saying to Briggs, “Sometimes I feel like killing.” Like most of the children who join rebel or paramilitary forces in Colombia, Gueso became involved with the paramilitaries largely as a result of poverty, lack of education and unemployment. “I’m not afraid to die, but I’m afraid to die so young,” he tells Briggs. “You can’t think about the future here, because the future is a coffin.” The tragedy is that for children like Gueso, the future is a coffin whether or not they become child soldiers.

Briggs’s book also highlights the plight of an often overlooked group of child soldiers–girls. About 30 percent of armed groups who exploit child soldiers also use girls, and their situation is often worse than that of boy soldiers because they are routinely subjected to rape and sexual abuse by their fellow soldiers and also by their enemies. Not surprisingly, former girl soldiers are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as their male counterparts. In Sri Lanka, Briggs meets Sebastiana Figerardo, a widow and the mother of seven children, the youngest of whom was Ida, a girl who joined the Tamil Tigers at the age of 17 after two of her brothers were murdered by government-aligned militias. While the Tamil Tigers are one of the few armed groups that prohibit sexual relations among their members, Ida was fated for an end of devastating sexual violence. After serving four years as a Tiger guerrilla, she decided to surrender to the government and go home. Assured by government security officers that no harm would come to her from the police or state-aligned forces, she returned. Within months, however, five masked men arrived early one morning at the family house. A neighbor who saw the men before putting on their masks identified them as government soldiers from a local army camp. The soldiers beat, gagged and tied Sebastiana, her other children and grandchildren, and dragged them to the courtyard in front of the house. They then turned to Ida. As the vicious assault on her daughter commenced only a few feet away, Sebastiana managed to free her hands and feet, and ran screaming to the local police station, begging the police to come and help. “We cannot come now,” they replied calmly. “You need to go home.” By the time Sebastiana returned home, her daughter was dead. An autopsy would show that she had been repeatedly raped, shot in the genitals and mutilated. Faced with the horrific murder of her third child, Sebastiana tells Briggs simply, “I have lost all faith in human beings.” The five soldiers who carried out the assault have still not been brought to justice.

A Long Way Gone, Beah’s harrowing account of the civil war in his native Sierra Leone, provides the fullest picture of just how inexorable the plunge into war is for many children. “The first time I was touched by war,” recalls Beah in this deeply eloquent and moving memoir, the first ever to be written by a former child soldier, “I was twelve. It was in January of 1993.” Not long after the outbreak of hostilities between the government and the RUF in 1991, Beah’s village was attacked and destroyed by rebels, and he was separated from his family amid the turmoil. As village after village fell prey to the destruction and chaos of war, he and a number of friends took refuge in the forests of Sierra Leone, in order to escape the fighting. It was only a matter of time before the boys–hungry, homeless and in constant fear for their lives–were drawn into the war. Captured by soldiers, they were given an ultimatum: Stay and fight with the army or fend for themselves against the rebels. Detained in a village surrounded by rebels, Beah and his companions were left with little choice. Beah recalls one boy, Alhaji, explaining the dilemma they faced and insisting, “‘The rebels will kill anyone from this village because they consider us their enemy, spies, or that we have sided with the other side of the war…. It is better to stay here for now.’ He sighed. We had no choice. Leaving the village was as good as being dead.”

For the next few weeks, Beah and the others went through a strict regimen of indoctrination and training. The leaders of Beah’s contingent spent hours lecturing the boys about the rebels, instilling hatred for them. Beah remembers one lieutenant telling them, “They have lost everything that makes them human. They do not deserve to live. That is why we must kill every single one of them. Think of it as destroying a great evil.” The indoctrination soon began to have an effect. Listening to one of the lieutenant’s lectures, Beah recalls, “I stood there holding my gun and felt special because I was part of something that took me seriously and I was not running from anyone anymore.” In training, the boys learned how to kill. Captured rebels would be tied up, and Beah and other boys would then take part in throat-slitting competitions: “The person whose prisoner died quickest would win the contest.” Once they began regularly engaging in battles against the rebels, they were given marijuana, cocaine and “brown brown”–a mixture of gunpowder and cocaine–to increase their energy and fearlessness in combat.

Within weeks of this daily cycle of indoctrination, violence and drugs, the boys became inured to killing. “The idea of death didn’t cross my mind at all and killing had become as easy as drinking water,” recalls Beah. “My mind had not only snapped during the first killing, it had also stopped making remorseful records, or so it seemed.” Surrounded and trapped by chaos, Beah quickly adapted to war as a way of life: “The villages that we captured and turned into our bases as we went along and the forests that we slept in became my home. My squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector, and my rule was to kill or be killed…. I felt no pity for anyone.”

If Beah’s memoir depicts how easily children are lured into combat, it also examines how difficult it is for them to emerge from it. At the age of 15, after two years of serving with the army, Beah was suddenly demobilized under a UNICEF program aimed at rehabilitating child soldiers. His commanders ordered his gun to be taken away, and he and several boys were shipped to a rehabilitation center in Freetown, the capital. For Beah and his companions, the transition to civilian life would prove to be a battle in itself. Habituated to the chaos and lawlessness of war, desensitized to violence and addicted to drugs, the boys at first could not adjust.

In the rehabilitation center, the problems started immediately. Child soldiers who had fought for the army, such as Beah, suddenly found themselves face to face with child soldiers who had fought for the rebels, and the two sides instantly turned on each other. In one twenty-minute fight, six boys–mostly from the rebel side–were stabbed and shot to death with weapons the children had smuggled into the center, and the two groups had to be placed in separate compounds. Beah and his companions also turned on the center’s staff, infuriated at having to take orders from “sissy civilians.” They attacked and beat the cooks, cleaners and nurses responsible for them. When there was no one else to fight, the boys fought one another: “We would fight for hours in between meals, for no reason at all. During these fights, we destroyed most of the furniture and threw the mattresses out in the yard.”

Denied cocaine and marijuana for the first time in years, the boys also began to suffer from withdrawal symptoms. Beah remembers, “My hands had begun to shake uncontrollably and my migraines returned with a vengeance. It was as if a blacksmith had an anvil in my head.” All of the fear and anxiety suppressed during his years as a soldier began to surface, and he was plagued by nightmares and anxiety attacks. “I would dream that a faceless gunman had tied me up and begun to slit my throat with the zigzag edge of his bayonet. I would feel the pain that the knife inflicted as the man sawed my neck. I’d wake up sweating and throwing punches in the air.”

Slowly, however, things began to change for Beah. With the friendship and guidance of one of the nurses, he managed to overcome his drug addiction and his predilection for violence and finally began sharing and coming to terms with his war experiences. His progress was such that he was asked to become a spokesperson for the center, representing it to outside donors and agencies. He was chosen to go to the United Nations in New York for a conference on issues affecting children around the world. There, he met Laura Simms, a facilitator at the conference. Before Beah left, Simms gave him her number and address and told him to keep in touch. Little did Beah know then that Simms would eventually become his adoptive mother. Back in Sierra Leone, UNICEF was unable to locate Beah’s immediate family members, who most likely had perished in the war. However, he was reunited with an uncle who lived in Freetown and was welcomed with open arms by that family. Beah moved in with them and began attending school regularly for the first time in years.

Finally, it seemed, Beah had escaped the war for good. But the war–which had been confined to the villages and rural areas–followed him to the capital. Soon after moving in with his uncle’s family, Beah awoke one spring morning in 1997 to the sound of gunshots. The radio announced that a contingent of the army and the RUF had united and overthrown the civilian government. Over the next months, Freetown turned into a war zone. The united soldiers and rebels, or “Sobels,” as they were called, began blowing up bank vaults and occupying schools and university campuses. Armed men looted most of the food from shops and markets, leaving the population on the brink of starvation. Groups of gunmen roamed the streets raping and killing people at random. For most of the city dwellers, venturing out of the house meant risking death. For Beah, there was the added fear that if he was captured he would be forced to become a soldier again. All the progress he had struggled so hard to achieve over the past year was on the brink of disintegrating.

He decided to take action. “I had to leave, because I was afraid that if I stayed in Freetown any longer, I was going to end up being a soldier again or my former army friends would kill me if I refused. Some friends who had undergone rehabilitation with me had already rejoined the army.” He managed to make a collect call to Simms in New York and asked her if he could come and live with her if he managed to get out of the country. She agreed. Beah succeeded in sneaking across the border to Guinea and made it to Conakry, the capital. The rest, as they say, is history. Beah ended up in New York, where Simms adopted him. He went on to finish school and graduated from Oberlin College in 2004.

Most child soldiers, however, are not so lucky. Attempting to emerge from war with no education and no economic prospects, often stigmatized and shunned by communities because of their participation in war and with no family or social support, many children relapse into soldiering, perpetuating the cycle of war and sowing the seeds of violence for generations to come. Since its publication, Beah’s book has become something of a sensation: It has reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list and has been featured by Starbucks, which is selling the book in its cafes across the country–and, soon, around Britain. While the attention the memoir has generated attests to an emerging interest in and concern for the plight of child soldiers, this interest also indicates a shift, if not a decline, in moral sensibility. We are no longer shocked by children being killed in war but by children killing in war.

Yet even the moral indignation aroused by the phenomenon of child soldiering has not been enough to stop, or even contain, the trend. So far, international efforts to halt the exploitation of children as soldiers have been woefully ineffective. While the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)–which bans child soldiering–is the most widely ratified convention in the world, many signatory states pay lip service to it while continuing to recruit and exploit child soldiers. And while these states as well as nonstate armed groups are largely responsible for the continuing spread of child soldiering, developed countries also share the blame. The United States has played a particularly shameful role in blocking almost every international effort aimed at curtailing child soldiering. Not only is it one of two countries (along with Somalia) that have refused to ratify the CRC; in recent years it has opposed international efforts to limit the illicit trade in small arms, the very trade that is fueling so many of the conflicts in which child soldiers are involved. P.W. Singer points to the 2001 UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms as an example. At the conference, the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied the Bush Administration to oppose any UN measures to make international small arms sales more transparent. How regulations on the international trade in small arms could affect Americans’ right to tote guns–the NRA’s fixation–is inexplicable.

The International Criminal Court, established in 2002 to prosecute those responsible for human rights abuses and war crimes, is another international instrument with the potential to counter the exploitation of child soldiers. The ICC’s mandate treats the use of child soldiers as a war crime and allows for the prosecution and punishment of armed group leaders who exploit children. In its crusade to exempt itself from any sort of international accountability, however, the United States has been rabidly opposed to the ICC, going out of its way to impugn the court’s credibility.

Speaking in Paris at a recent conference on child soldiers, Beah insisted that “no one is born violent. No child in Africa, Latin America or Asia wants to be part of war.” Beah’s message is yet to be heard. Until underlying causes such as poverty and the spread of small arms are addressed, and as long as those who exploit child soldiers go unpunished, children are destined to remain a fixed feature of warfare, helping to perpetuate instability and violence in the developing world. Ironically, at a time when many intellectuals fret over “just war” theory–the waging of war according to moral principles–the use of child soldiers is more widespread than ever. Things are awry indeed when society’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens are made to fight the wars of adults and are turned into murderous aggressors in the process.

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