Child Soldiers

Three emotionally powerful and difficult reads

Child Soldiers

They are not difficult because the language is complex or the stories convoluted, on the contrary, in all three books the language is clear and straightforward and the narrative is plain. What is difficult is to hear the horrific truth of children torn from school and family waging war with automatic weapons.

A long way gone     A Long Way Gone: Memoirs Of a Boy Soldier / Ishmael Beah
The West African nation of Sierra Leone was torn by civil war from 1991 to 2002. The country is still struggling to overcome the effects of this eleven-year conflict. This is the memoir of one of the participants. Beah remembers the war coming to his home when he was about twelve. When rebel soldiers attacked his village, he and his brother were separated from the rest of their family and began wandering through the jungle with some other boys trying to survive and stay away from the fighting. Captured and terrorized by rebel soldiers or by villagers who thought they might be spies or soldiers they escaped again and again. During one of these escapes Ishmael was separated from his brother, and then fell in with another group of boys. Eventually they came to a village protected by government soldiers.

When the rebels began to close in on the village the army impressed all the male villagers including the boys. They were given army shorts, t-shirts, and green headbands for uniforms and AK-47s. They were taught how to creep though the jungle, how to use and care for their automatic rifles, how to fire rocket propelled grenades, and how to use their bayonets. As Beah remembers it, “over and over in our training [the corporal] would say that same sentence: Visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you.” [The emphasis is in the original text.] Vivid images of revenge where reinforced by readily available marijuana, cocaine, “brown-brown” (cocaine mixed with gunpowder) and “white capsules” that Beah remembers having kept him awake for days on end. Thus boys aged ten and up were turned into brutally efficient soldiers who visited on rebel villages the same atrocities of which they had been the victims. Beah rose to the rank of junior lieutenant.

Then, unexpectedly, one day their commander ordered the boys to line up, put down their guns and get in the truck with civilians from UNICEF. They were taken to a rehabilitation center where they experienced drug withdrawal and how to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. The balance of the book is the story of an uneasy transition back to civilian life and eventual flight out of the county.

A Long Way Gone is told very clearly and affectingly by the author. The difficult part is listening to Beah’s eyewitness accounts of mutilated bodies and the other losses of the war: food, shelter, family, community and the inability to not live in deadly fear of your fellow human beings.

War Child     War Child: a Child Soldier's Story / Emmanuel Jal; with Megan Lloyd Davies

This, too, is a narrative of a vicious civil war told by a child who was both a victim of racial and religious brutality, but who was also drawn into it, and perpetrated it on others. It is a memoir of a survivor who through faith and grace was able to turn hatred into healing. But, is also a memoir of a boy with a machete who used his hatred to kick and hack a wounded man to death as the soldier pleads for mercy. It is a difficult and powerful, but it is not without hope.

It was a war fought in part by twelve-year-old boys with automatic weapons larger then they were. After two decades of fighting the only true winners were the foreign arms dealers. And it is a conflict that still smolders in the oil rich province of Darfur to this day. 

This memoir of a Lost Boy who mercifully survived is an also an individual’s view of humanity at its extremes: mass brutality and sporadic individual mercy. In Sudan the political and military power to control the economic riches of its oil fields perverted religious ideals of peace and respect for humanity into a genocidal religious war, pitting citizen against citizen, Christian against Muslim, tribe against tribe, and the haves against the have-nots. At the conclusion of the book are a page and a half of acknowledgements, thanks to those who using the same religious ideals acted otherwise and saved a life, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Children at War     Children At War / P. W. Singer

Singer’s sober political analysis of what he terms the Child Soldier Doctrine give objective proof to the two personal narratives above and puts them in a global context. Beah and Jal’s autobiographical accounts are not unique or unusual in their brutality, nor are they limited to their particular conflicts or continents. They have become in the past decades the common lot of boys and girls from impoverished parts of every continent on the globe. His book includes over thirty pages of endnotes and includes the words of former child soldiers who fought in Columbia, Lebanon, Liberia, Kashmir, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and Sudan. It begins with a quote from a seven-year-old: “The rebels told me to join them, but I said no. Then they killed my smaller brother. I changed my mind.”

Why did the “recruitment and employment of child solders…one of the most flagrant violations of the norms of international human rights [and] contrary to the general practices of the last four millennia of warfare” suddenly become so prevalent? Singer cites three main causes. The first is poverty. The booming global economy of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries left many people behind. “Indeed, three billion people, roughly half the world’s population, currently [2005] subsists on $2 or less a day.” He then goes on to translate this poverty into its results:, illiteracy, inadequate housing or the complete lack of housing, lack of access to safe drinking water, malnutrition, disease, and civil war.

The second is the technological advance in small arms: automatic rifles, land mines, and rocket-propelled grenades, are now light enough and simple enough to use and maintain that even a child can do it. “The ubiquitous and Russian-designed Kalashnikov AK-47, which weighs 10 ½ pounds, is a prime example. Having only nine moving parts, it is brutally simple. Interviews reveal that it generally takes children around thirty minutes to learn how to use one. The weapon is also designed to be exceptionally hardy. It requires little maintenance and can even be buried in dirt for storage…Thus, a handful of children now can have the equivalent firepower of an entire regiment of Napoleonic infantry.”

With the end of the Cold War a number of weak government began to totter as the funding they had been receiving from the superpowers disappeared. This made them more vulnerable to attacks by rebels. However, the rebels could no longer count on support from superpowers either, and so they turned to crime to generate income. Drug trafficking, kidnapping and protection rackets proliferated, and as they did so, ideological concerns began to disappear and war become “an alternate system of profit and power.” War becomes not a means to an end, but an end itself. “Highly personalized or purely predatory armed groups, such as warlords, which are focused on asset seizure, are particularly dependant on this new doctrine of using children.”

Most child soldiers come from the poorest part of the population. About a third of them are abducted by armed bands the other two-thirds join to avoid starvation, occasionally encouraged by their parents because they are unable to care for them. “A good portion of girl soldiers who join as ‘volunteers’ cite domestic abuse or exploitation.” Many join to revenge the death of family member usually one or both parents. Once enlisted they are then indoctrinated. Their “training typically uses fear, brutality, and psychological manipulation to achieve high levels of obedience.” Abducted recruits are often forced, “to take part in the ritualized killing of others very soon after their abduction. The victims may be POWs for the other side, other children who were abducted for the sole purpose of being killed in front of the recruits, or, most heinous of all, the children’s own neighbors or even parents. The killings are often carried out in a public manner, such that the home community knows that the child has killed, with the intent of closing off any return.”

Having broken down the child down physically and psychologically, he or she is then filled with basic infantry tactics. Some are given more specific duties as spies, or couriers, or suicide bombers. Girls are often assigned to be “wives” of adult officers. Soon all are sent out to attack, generally, civilian targets that are poorly defended. Typical orders are to kill everyone in a village and then burn it to the ground. Singer quotes a UNICEF worker who said, “Boys will do things that grown men can’t stomach. Kids make more brutal fighters because they haven’t developed a sense of judgment.” They are also assigned to be shields for their commanders or cannon fodder in what are termed human wave attacks. “The tactic is designed to overpower or wear down a well-fortified opposition through sheer weight of numbers. The very value of children is that they are extra targets for the enemy to deal with and expend ammunition upon.”

Singer concludes his book with recommendation on how to prevent children from becoming soldiers and how former child soldiers can be rehabilitated. He also warns that training for American soldiers must include how to fight them. “The hard reality is that our soldiers must be trained and prepared for what to do in the certain eventualities in which they will come face-to-face with child soldiers.”