The scourge of the child soldiers phenomenon has been an absolute dread on the world’s consciousness. Like a repressed memory, the existence of forced conscription of minors and their use in mass violence is something that many people cannot bear to fully think through.
Part of the work done within the United Nations is to track the trend of child soldiering throughout the world. The UN even has a special position dedicated for this task: the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC). In the CAAC’s most recent report it documented the global patterns of conscription of minors over the previous year. Documented is a massive, 42-page overview of trends from all over the world, covering nations from Afghanistan to Thailand.
What is interesting to note when perusing the “Children and Armed Conflict” report is that the researchers fully unpack the problem of child soldiers, pointing out short- and long-term repercussions that probably aren’t readily obvious to most when considering the issue.
It’s worth covering the highlights of this report to get a grasp of where the world is holding in terms of pure numbers: the region of the world most afflicted with child soldiers remains the African continent. Verified cases of the recruitment and use of children quadrupled in the Central African Republic (299) and doubled in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1,049) compared to 2016 data. South Sudan also saw a sharp rise with 1,221 known cases. The Middle East and other Muslim countries also had their fair share. Child recruitment in Syria (961) and Yemen (842) persisted at “alarming levels.”
One particularly jaw-dropping example was the case of Somalia. Some 2,127 children had reportedly been used in combat, which coincided with a spike in child abduction in the country by the Islamic State-affiliated al-Shabaab. About 1,600 cases of child kidnappings are known to have occurred. Most if not all were likely for the purpose of child soldiering.
The deteriorating situation in many ongoing conflict zones also brought about increases in child soldiers. In Iraq and Myanmar, spikes in armed clashes and violence led to a substantial increase in the number of child casualties, with 717 and 296 cases respectively, although not all of those deaths were necessarily of child combatants.
Old Problem, New Packaging
The occurrence of forced child conscription has been around for quite a while. Thousands of children fought for many sides in both World Wars, the most famous instances being the so-called “sons of the regiments” in the Red Army and the Hitler Youth units, both of which participated in actual combat. Child soldiers began to capture the world’s attention over the past thirty years, as the terrifying stories from African wars began flooding Western media.
The use of children in these wars was etched permanently in minds and hearts through Hollywood productions. Through the recent period, movies such as Blood Diamond, Johnny Mad Dog, and Beasts of No Nation, have captured some of the nightmare that is child conscription.
For developed nations, child soldiering contains pretty much the worst combination of human rights violations and long term societal damage. Forcing children to commit to any form of all-encompassing labor is already immoral. Forcing them into professional killing is the next level. It goes without saying: the actual exposure to violence is immeasurably damaging to children’s development. Anyone with any substantial involvement in military matters knows that even mature adults are not immune to the punishing effects of combat experience. Add to the mix the fact that groups who force children to fight tend not to be as “humane” in their tactics. What is produced is a generation peppered with scarred men whose childhoods were stolen, and then often spent carrying out unspeakable acts of cruelty.
With the various forms of incredible social progress the international community has managed over the past several years, one would have hoped that child soldiering would be on the list of healed afflictions. Unfortunately, as the UN report reveals, it seems the problem has only been growing.
What We’ve Learned
The problem of underage fighters participating in conflict is by no means a new one. In Biblical times the Israelites are repeatedly warned against conscripting their minors, even though all firmly believed God was on their side in all of their wars. The standard was significantly higher than the 17-year-old minimum of the US military—“From twenty years of age and above, those who go out to war” (Numbers 1:3). One of the earliest accounts of a child being coerced into combat is right in the Book of Judges, in the denouement of Gideon’s saga. After successfully defeating his Midianite enemies, Gideon captures the kings Zevak and Zalmuna and presents them in front of his young son, Jether. “And he said to Jether his first born, ‘arise and kill them’. And the lad did not draw his sword, as he was afraid, for he was still a lad” (Judges 8:20). Gideon is forced to carry out the act himself. The fact that things immediately take a downturn for Gideon and his house following this incident, serves as a stark warning from the author on the moral ills of child soldiering. Of course warfare in this period was not the sterile affair it is today. No drone operators in Maryland eliminating enemies on the other side of the world. No looking down the site of a barrel and hitting a target hundreds of yards in the distance. It was overwhelmingly up close and personal. They knew how war can tear at a person’s soul in ways that most of today’s warriors don’t.
Child soldering has come a long way since then. In modern times, the mixture of high outbreaks in tribal conflicts, and the massive proliferation of high efficiency killing machines, added a new layer of horror to the reality of child soldiering. And in many ways, contributed to its growth.
One of the most obvious reasons making child soldiers a more viable options is a purely practical one. Any serviceman with a bit of field experience knows that war equipment is heavy. For a longtime, wielding destructive power meant carrying around almost unbearable amounts of weight. Over the years, technology and innovation have slashed the load of lugging infantry-type assault weapons. In the earlier part of the last century, even the lighter varieties of automatic weapons could easily weigh upwards of 25 pounds without ammunition. A fully loaded AK-47—of which about 75 million exist today worldwide—weighs just around ten pounds. A nine-year-old can certainly handle that.
Another reason why your garden-variety warlord might be willing to recruit children—and in fact may prefer them—is the obedience factor. Even militaries of more “enlightened” countries are often hesitant to accept older recruits for the pretty basic reason that they present more of a discipline risk. Children are much easier to manipulate into following orders and easier to control. If you’re going to be kidnapping your manpower, it could present a real threat to operations to round up a bunch of adults and give them all rifles. They’re more likely to turn the weapons on you than your enemy. Children don’t come with that risk.
Thus many of the most devastating conflicts from the past several decades have included mass numbers of child fighters. The images of young children running across minefields during the Iran-Iraq War still haunts those that can remember the period. Former head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, utilized an estimated 66,000 children in his escapades. His capture and prosecution for crimes against humanity is still sought after by the international community.
Hope for the Future?
The UN report did leave us with some good news to think about. One of the positive effects of international intervention in many of the above conflicts was obtaining the freedom of thousands of child combatants. Engagement with armed forces and groups resulted in the release of over 10,000 children in 2017. In addition, an unknown number left such entities through “informal pathways,” likely meaning the children managed to escape. Once they were freed, many of these kids received rehabilitative help. Over 12,000 former child soldiers were “reintegrated” in 2017 by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN body that deals with all child crisis issues.
Despite all that’s being done, the amount of resources available have not been enough to address the full scope of the problem. In DRC alone, over 8,000 children who have been released from armed groups have yet to receive basic economic support or any assistance with reintegration, all owing to a lack of funds.
With any luck, a bit of awareness can go a long way.
Since the release of the CAAC report, media outlets have been awash with articles discussing various facets of the child soldier problem. Increasing our efforts to subdue this most shocking form of evil is certainly on the agenda for the world’s immediate and long-term stability.