Peter W. Singer, Brookings fellow and author of Corporate Warriors, has a book out detailing the emergence of another new kind of non-traditional conflict actor: child soldiers. A quick read at just over 200 pages (excluding the notes and appendices), like his previous work, Children at War functions as more of a broad backgrounder than a detailed policy prospectus. As someone with only a passing awareness of the phenomenon prior to checking out the book (although Singer points out that child soldiers can be found in conflicts around the world, from Palestinian suicide bombers to Colombian rebels to the fourteen-year old Afghan sniper who inflicted the first U.S. combat casualty in the War on Terror, Africa still remains the global epicenter for the use of children in war, and a gap in my studies thus far), I found it to be an interesting summation of the various factors that contribute to and result from what Singer describes as the "child soldier doctrine". Two articles from last year by Singer and a recent online chat at the Post do a pretty good job of covering his major points, if you'd rather not tackle it book-length.
The spread of this doctrine can have profound affects on the conduct of wars, as Singer elaborates:
As a new source of fighters, children multiply the potential military capacities of groups that choose to adopt the child soldier doctrine. This eases the difficulties groups often face in force generation, thus increasing the likelihood of rebellions and wars. Children's recruitment also allows a proliferation of armed opposition groups with weakened or nonviable ideological bases, which would have prevented their survival just a few decades ago. Moreover, the way in which child soldiers are used means that those conflicts are inherently "messier," featuring atrocities and attacks on civilians. At the same time, child soldier group leaders consider children's lives cheaper. Subsequently, they deploy their recruits on the battlefield in a manner that leaders to a higher casualty ratio.
The ultimate result is that, when children are present, violent conflicts tend to be easier to start, harder to end, and greater in loss of life. They also lay the groundwork for conflict recurrence in following generations.
Singer identifies widespread social disruption born of disease, poverty, and state failure, together with the proliferation of inexpensive and comparatively simple small arms, as underlying causes of the child soldier phenomenon: the former provides the pool from which child soldiers are drawn, and the latter enables them to fight despite their having not yet reached maturity or (generally) receiving much in the way of training. On the demand side, as noted in the quote above, the use of child soldiers — unpaid and poorly equipped, frequently 'recruited' through abduction, and bound to their commanders through traumatizing abuse and raw intimidation — lowers the barriers to entry for "conflict entrepreneurs", who are less interested in seizing political control of a state or maintaining a popular ideology than in exploiting chaos and conflict to profit from commodity and criminal trades.
Given these incentives for conflict actors unconcerned with the rest of the world's moral approbation — the soon-to-be-tried Charles Taylor, for example — is what can be done about it. The last several chapters of the book attempt to address this question, looking at prevention (a challenge, since as Singer asks rhetorically, "how can one shame the shame-less?"; while international law is fairly unanimous in condemning the use of child soldiers, enforcement and prosecution remains spotty), rehabilitation (a long and complex process of demobilization, counseling, and gradual social integration), and also the unenviable task of crafting a combat doctrine for armies confronting child soldiers in war, where your enemy is capable of both wielding an AK-47 to deadly effect and evoking sympathy as a young victim of abuse. Units that come into conflict with child soldiers invariably suffer serious blows to their fighting morale, with higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression. The use of non-lethal weapons, firing for shock effect, and the targeting of adult leaders offers some solutions for commanders that can minimize enemy casualties while still reducing their threat to friendly forces.
Singer outlines some potential long-term solutions in the first of the above-linked articles, points which are repeated at greater length in the book:
* Increasing investment to head off regional conflicts and outbreaks of disease, including the AIDS pandemic.
* Offering greater aid to special at-risk groups such as refugees and orphans.
* Making the recruitment of children a war crime and prosecuting offenders in international criminal tribunals.
* Reducing profits by sanctioning any firms or regimes that trade with child-soldier groups (including even American firms, such as those that traded with the Liberian and Sudanese governments).
* Providing increased aid to programs which seek to demobilize and rehabilitate former child soldiers.
* Helping to curb the spread of illegal small arms to rebel and terrorist groups who bring children into the realm of war.
"In each of these areas," Singer concludes, "U.S. action has fallen woefully short." It's an ugly, disheartening, immensely challenging issue to confront, but Singer's book makes a clear case that unless we attempt do so, the theft and exploitation of the childhood of tens of thousands will continue largely unabated, with serious consequences for both the conduct of war and the endurance of peace throughout the world.