Children and War: Modern Transitions of Violence

litbonanza.jpgVast changes in warfare have transformed the recent narratives of human conflict and violence. While we generally think of the advent of nuclear technology as the frightening climax of this ongoing story, there are other developments and transitions that go largely unnoticed. Our stereotypes of modern warfare are often grossly simplistic, and fail to acknowledge many of the finer—albeit macabre—points that make up the battlegrounds of war-torn states.

War today has as much to do with children and women as with men; and it tends to take place in developing regions of the world, with roughly 85% of modern conflicts affecting poor countries. Sadly, many of the present models and policies for dealing with armed conflict involving children and women have been ineffectual. Today roughly 300,000 children fight in armed conflict around the world. Many of these children are “abducted or forcibly recruited, while others are driven to join [fighting groups] by poverty, abuse, and discrimination” (1). Global estimates indicate a growing human rights dilemma: “more than 40 percent of the total armed organizations around the world use child soldiers… [while] this number was near zero just a few decades ago” (2). Indeed, “Wars have always victimized children and other non-combatants, but modern wars are exploiting, maiming, and killing children more callously than ever” (3).

By and large, these points go unnoticed by governments, media, and the general public. Indeed, even “within academia the treatment of the phenomenon is at best peripheral” (2).

The concept of the child soldier presents itself as innately contradictory: it challenges many of our deep-seated convictions about human behaviour, including a child’s capacity for violence. Analysts point out that

these new soldiers are not simply children; they can also be callous killers capable of the most terrible acts of cruelty and brutality. Many are adrift, having lost their entire families, including some by their own hands; they may know nothing except a world of violence. At the same time, they are still children whom society has an obligation to protect. (2)

The circumstances surrounding children at war are multifaceted and challenging to say the least. They concern different hemispheres and states, ranging from Latin America to Africa and beyond, and therefore cannot be written off as aberrant tragedies that will disappear if left to their own accord. In fact, “by the turn of the twentieth century child soldiers had served in significant numbers on every continent of the globe except Antarctica” (2).

The child solder reflects a particularly disturbing aberration of warfare nearly unheard of in most traditional cultures: “Even in the most primitive societies, a distinction was made between those who chose to bear the risks involved in the profession of fighting and those who lay outside the field of battle” (2). Indeed, the engagement of children in war and combat has been, until recently, the “single greatest taboo of all” (2). Clearly, “the norms of warfare that once provided a degree of protection for children have eroded—and with tragic consequences” (4).

Recent events have changed the patterns and consequences of warfare: today, the vast majority of people killed in armed conflict are civilians not soldiers. Moreover, millions of children live with severe disabilities and as orphans because of modern armed conflict. Strikingly, almost 50 percent of global refugees are unsettled children of war.

Armed conflict remains different from times past in many important ways. In Sierra Leone, for instance, children make up roughly 80 percent of fighters among the Revolutionary United Front. Girls are frequently recruited into fighting groups by force, used as sexual slaves or directly in combat. In Sri Lanka, for instance, girls are indoctrinated to be used as suicide bombers by rebel groups. Others are forced into wifehood and sexual slavery. A young women’s personal account is revealing:

They picked me and took me away in the bush where I was forced to become a “wife” to one of the rebels. Being new in the field, on the first night I refused, but on the second night, they said, “Either you give in or death.” I still tried to refuse, and then the man got serious and knifed me on the head. I became helpless and started bleeding terribly, and that was how I got involved in sex at that age of 14 because death was near. (2)

In numerous regions rebel and state military groups are directly implicated in using children both “as vulnerable targets and as cannon fodder for armies” (4). It remains difficult to construct a comprehensive picture of what is happening, as the events that affect children tend to take place covertly. Furthermore, children represent a particularly non-vocal segment of the global population. What is clear is that children are becoming a relatively cheap and expendable resource for various militias, as well as drug cartels. The overall state of affairs is summed up below:

The consequences of using children to fight wars are as predictable as they are tragic. Having less experience and training than adult fighters, children are more likely to be killed or injured. Seen as more expendable than adult fighters they are often given the most dangerous duties—including leading near-suicidal “human wave” attacks and mine clearance missions. (2)

The phenomenon of the child soldier is blatantly revealed in the case of Africa where possibly one-third of all armed children reside. Over the past few decades, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, Angola, and others have become particularly plagued by it. Surveys reveal an enormous percentage of children being abducted from their homes and sent into combat. As a recent human security report confirms, Africa has become the “epicentre of the child soldier phenomenon” (4).

The statistics are unquestionably unnerving: 20,000 children have been used for warfare purposes in Liberia, and 30,000 to 50,000 solely in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In these regions and elsewhere, children have been made to actively participate in civil wars and acts of militia violence—acts of genocide in some cases—by various leaders such as warlords and paramilitary groups. In countless examples, children have been made to commit and witness atrocities that defy description: the civil war of the Congo which resulted in the deaths of more than 3 million people is one example of this.

Plainly, the mark of violence stains the mass consciousness of many African nations. Matters are compounded by the fact that these nations have to simultaneously struggle with other pressures such as debt, corrupt governments, and geographic calamities and pandemics. Surveys show that “areas with the greatest rates of violence tend also to experience the highest numbers of deaths from non-violent causes” (5). The acts of “paramilitary organizations, such as the indoctrination of children to kill family members, contribute to [the cumulative] destabilization of societies” (6). The trading of arms from rich states to poor ones further compounds these conflicts.

Attempts to make improvements are often thwarted by certain deleterious social preconditions: For example, the fact that “many officials in new African governments have murky pasts, including ties to militias that committed atrocities during the war” (6), serves only to complicate matters further. Corrupt rulers tend to rehash habits of old, thereby preserving preeminent patterns of violence—sometimes more covertly than before, sometimes not.

Many child soldiers in Africa have yet to reach puberty: reports of five and six year old recruitments are not unheard of. Most are abducted from their villages and sent to training camps where they learn to unhinge from learned or intuitive forms of morality. In Northern Uganda, for example, an estimated 20,000 children have been abducted in the last two decades. The phenomenon is by no means restricted to rebel groups though; numerous African governments are directly implicated in recruiting child soldiers.

The Middle East and Central Asia provide equally disturbing examples of recruitment and use of children in armed conflict. Child soldiers are presently active among numerous Islamist groups and armies in Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Algeria, among others. The phenomenon had its start during the Iran-Iraq war, which set a precedent for neighbouring radical groups. The sequence of events is described below:

In 1984 Iranian president Ali-Akbar Rafsanjani declared that “all Iranians from twelve to seventy-two should volunteer for the Holy War.” Thousands of children were pulled from schools, indoctrinated in the glory of martyrdom, and sent to the front line only lightly armed…Wearing keys around their necks (to signify their pending entrance into heaven), they were sent forward to help clear paths through minefields with their bodies…Iran’s spiritual leader at the time, Ayatollah Khomemeini, delighted in the children’s sacrifice. All told, some 100,000 Iranian boy soldiers lost their lives. (2)

In Iraq, during the Gulf and more recent wars, Saddam Hussein constructed vast recruitment programs—sophisticated in their institutional nature—that targeted boys between the ages of ten and fifteen: “The camps involved as much as fourteen hours per day of military training and political indoctrination…intended to desensitize the youth to violence, and included frequent beatings and deliberate cruelty to animals” (2). Rebel groups fighting Saddam employed similar tactics, targeting street and homeless children. Today, children as young as twelve serve in the Mahdi Army of Iraq.

The situation is equally distressing in other parts of the region. In Sudan, both groups in the civil war have recruited some 100,000 children for combat purposes. In Afghanistan, 30 percent of all children have been active in war, with the Taliban and Northern Alliance relying on children for strategic adaptability and strength.

In Asia child soldiers occupy numerous regions also, with “insurgencies under way in Cambodia, East Timor, India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and the Solomon Islands” (2). Recent statistics of these regions are telling: “Of ongoing or recently ended conflicts, 68 percent have children under eighteen serving as combatants; 80 percent of these conflicts where children are present include fighters under the age of fifteen” (4). By itself, Burma has “one of the highest numbers of any country in the world” (4). In Indonesia and surrounding areas “thousands of Muslim and Christian boys have formed local paramilitary units that protect and raid against the other community” (2). In Myanmar in excess of 75,000 child solders have served in both state and rebel armies. Time and again, children are forced into wars and battles under numerous headings and ideologies, such as communism, nationalism, Christianity, and Islam.

In the western hemisphere Colombia currently holds the worst record, with one out of four combatants being underage. Both paramilitary and governmental military groups employ children for armed combat. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a particularly violent guerrilla group, is among the worst culprits. Other countries also share in the bleak history of child recruitment, including Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru, Ecuador, and others.

The recruitment of child soldiers into armed conflict tends to be systematic, efficient, and meticulous. Obvious similarities and patterns are adopted by various fighting groups. The process begins when the child is removed from his or her home or village. Each step of integration and indoctrination systematically forces the child into a condition of further dependency.

By and large, the only available alternative to the child is death. Its threat is imminent and obvious: those who disobey, or those who are weak, are eradicated by their commanders or “cohorts” in a public manner for all to witness. The futility of resistance becomes quickly apparent: “Abduction is by definition an act of violence… Once caught, children have no choice; usually they must comply with their captors or die” (2).

The abduction process itself is usually abrupt, and acts to sever the child from the familiarity of what was. Villages, homes, orphanages, churches, homeless shelters, refugee areas, and other places of vulnerability are used as targets. In many regions “applicants” are made to pickup and hold a weapon; those who are strong enough to carry arms must join the fighting faction. Likewise, children are assessed routinely based on their physical fitness as measured by their ability to carry heavy objects: Among Ugandan rebel groups, “those [children] who spill stones or collapse are killed” (2).

Following the initial stage of abduction, the child is systematically taught to embrace violence as his or her most basic modality, going on to witness “the furthest extremes of violence, including massacres, summary executions, ethnic cleansing, death squad killings, bombings, torture, sexual abuse, and destruction of home and property” (2). Quickly, children learn to adapt to their new roles as instruments of war, serving a multitude of available roles such as “infantry shock troops, raiders, sentries, spies, sappers and porters” (4). The threat of death ensures an astonishing level of efficiency.

It should be noted, though, that not all fighting groups abduct children in this manner. There are many instances when children join by “volition.” However, even in these cases, the systematic and meticulous nature of the recruitment and indoctrination process still reigns. In virtually all cases, children are misled into a future they know little or nothing about, promised impossible economic fortunes and rewards, and unknowingly led to a point of no return:

Separated from home and family, many child soldiers are recruited through offers of food, camaraderie and protection; some join rebel groups to seek revenge for government assaults on their families…[Often] the threats and privations that children confront in war zones are so great that joining a rebel or official armed group may seem attractive by comparison. (4)

Plainly, children are “drawn into a plague of violence that they are too young to resist and with consequences they cannot imagine” (7). Given the choice between a life of abject poverty and the promise of economic prosperity and stature, many children naively choose the latter. Surveys and interviews with refugee child soldiers confirm this. The point is explicitly made in a report describing how “a set of Afghan boys were so desperate that they literally had to choose between following a cow around to scoop up its excrement to sell as fuel or joining one of the armed factions” (2). Evidently, many children confronted with these situations lack basic resources such as food and shelter; moreover, many have had little to no “exposure to positive role models, a healthy family life, the rewards for socially constructive behaviour, and the encouragement of moral reasoning” (4). Taken together, these factors make it difficult for children to make intelligent choices—assuming of course that they have a choice at all.

Frequently fighting groups “offer what are perceived as glamorous or honourable roles (soldier, hero, leader, protector), as well as membership and acceptance in a group. Many are simply fascinated by the prestige and thrill of serving in a unit and having a gun” (4). In other instances indoctrination begins before recruitment: groups like the Taliban, for example, create strong connections between violence and religion during the primary years of education, before a child is able to think critically. Insidiously, those in power meld morality with violence.

By and large, indoctrination serves to make the child soldier stronger and more resilient in battle, as well to “work to disconnect them from their old lives and commit them to the cause” (2). Through the logic of obedience, the soldier is taught to accept his or her environment, and to think and react not as a child, but as an instrument of whatever particular ideology is at hand. Training methods are heavily reliant on the “use of fear, brutality, and psychological manipulation” (4) to achieve their ends. The disconnected child is locked into a closed system, molded into shape using tactics of punishment and disorientation. In many regions the process has become remarkably efficient.

The prospect of escape for a child soldier is unlikely, as attempts are usually punishable by death, torture, or prison sentence. One boy recounts a moment from his life as a soldier:

One boy tried to escape, but he was caught. His hands were tied, and then they made us, the new captives, kill him with a stick…We were from the same village. I refused to kill him and they told me they would shoot me. They pointed a gun at me, so I had to do it…The boy was asking me, “Why are you doing this?” I said I had no choice. After we killed him, they made us smear blood on our arms. I felt dizzy. I felt so sick. (2)

The entire psychology of indoctrination, then, involves the child systemically disengaging from his or her embedded sense of morality by force. It is a program reminiscent of the social order of gangs and other violent organizations:

Typically, groups…seek to diffuse any sense of responsibility among the children for future violence…dehumanizing their victims, such as by creating a moral split that divides the world into an “us vs them” dichotomy. The overall intent is to create a moral disengagement from the violence that children are supposed to carry out as soldiers…The effect is that many children often emerge from such programs with weakened senses of remorse and obsessions with violence…As one psychologist notes…”It was sobering to think that under certain conditions, practically any child could be changed into a killer.” (2)

Indeed, “victims and witnesses often said they feared the children more than the adults because the child combatants had not developed an understanding of the value of life” (2).

Fighting factions are known to go to extreme lengths to reconstruct a child’s identity. Some groups brand their young soldiers’ foreheads with insignias so that “the scarring became not only a part of indoctrination but also acted as a lifelong stigma intended to keep children from returning to communities where the group was hated” (2). Others conduct ritualized killing sprees in which abducted children return to their villages to watch as their own parents and relatives are murdered, making reintegration with their villages and old identity seemingly impossible. Various psychological and physical control mechanisms tighten and extend the commanding group’s level of power—and by extension, the child’s state of submission.

Once the child has been sufficiently subsumed by the recruitment and indoctrination process—it vary often does not take long—he or she is then “set out on the battlefield, used as quickly as possible” (4), and thus transformed into a refined instrument of war.

In sum, each geographic region afflicted with child soldiers shares unmistakable similarities not only in recruitment techniques but also in strategies of psychological manipulation. The basic methodology seems to be the same: to restructure a child’s personality by disorientation, violence, fear, and ideological indoctrination.

The child soldier phenomenon illustrates how modern warfare has changed over the past few decades, and how the problem of children at war has become international in scope. At present, few war criminals have been brought to justice for their violations against children. Clearly, violence has a very real and encompassing effect on children, and needs to be studied in greater depth and with greater attention if we are to spare future generations from the scourge of war, and create structural safeguards that prevent human suffering.


1) “Global conference to end recruitment of child soldiers.” Unicef, February 5, 2007. link

2) Singer, P.W. Children at War. New York: Pantheon Books, 2005.

3) Graca, Machel. Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. New York: United Nations, 1996.

4) Mack, Andrew [editor in chief]. Human Security Report. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

5) Ellis, Stephen. “How to Rebuild Africa.” Foreign Affairs, September/October, 2005

6) Southall, David P. “Empty Arms: the Effect of the Arms Trade on Mothers and Children.” British Medical Journal, December 21, 2002.

7) Raman, Nachammai. “Outrage over child soldiers in Sri Lanka.” CS Monitor. November 29, 2006
8) Derluyn, Ilse. “Post Traumatic Stress in Former Child Soldiers.” The Lancet, March 13, 2004.

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Currently a sciences undergraduate with interdisciplinary leanings. including photojournalism and international relations. Most recent photojournalist work: a three-month sojourn into the Peruvian Amazon Basin.