It is doubtful in even the most desperate circumstances that any parent would easily cast their 8-year old son as front-line soldier. The problem: it is not the parents doing the casting. And this issue of child conscription did not just "suddenly appear" overnight. One recent example of the pervasive practice involves a civilian auxiliary organization in Iran called the Basij. The Basij were responsible for the human wave attacks against Iraqi positions as well as the religious conscription of teenagers to be used in them. However, sending the children into minefields created carnage of such magnitude, even the Basij were compelled to change their practices.
Disillusioned with pieces of bodies, charred flesh and bits of bone that remained after contact with a mine, the Basiji changed their tactics. As reported in the Iranian newspaper, The Ettelaat: "Before entering the minefields, the children wrap themselves in blankets and they roll on the ground, so that their body parts stay together after the explosion of the mines and one can carry them to the graves." As we tackle the same concept more than 20 years later and wax poetic about the barbaric practice of child conscription, this example reminds us of where the rubber really meets the road, and how long the drive has been.
But let us back up a bit and define the larger issue. The world does have a certain responsibility in tragedies such as this, but defining the limits of that responsibility remains a Gordian Knot of international law, national sovereignty and confusing legalese. When the United States becomes either directly or indirectly involved in armed conflicts where the majority of the violence takes place within the geographical boundaries of other countries, is there is a responsibility for the rehabilitation of those caught up in the violence? Morally, yes, but legally it's still a little vague.
At the very least, this is a hard commitment to sell once the military objectives have been achieved. But there is a moral obligation and practical reason for not abandoning "social reconstruction" in favor of simply rebuilding the infrastructure and leaving. So, the follow up question and subject of this topic can be paraphrased as, "What responsibility does the world have when we're not even involved?"
War is violent and riddled with collateral damage and casualties. But, to call war "violent" is akin to calling fire hot, restating the obvious. When those involved are not only active combatants, but also children, the imperative to do what we can to rehabilitate and equip these children to lead normal lives becomes paramount. Some argue that nothing can be done for these damaged children and most certainly it is a huge problem. But, beyond the moral obligation to the youngest victims of violence, hundreds or thousands of miles removed from our day-to-day lives, there remains a practical reason to act. But first, let us introduce the major players.
Children are coveted as soldiers primarily because they are easily intimidated and can be brain-washed into obedient soldiers a lot easier than adults. The break-down of the family unit in a war-zone makes it easier to recruit or even kidnap children seeking a surrogate family, food and shelter. But, the psychological damage from violence is more pervasive in a developing psyche, creating amoral monsters that pragmatically see violence as a legitimate means to an end. Even well-adjusted adult soldiers returning from war may have a difficult time readjusting to their former lives. Imagine a child soldier whose earliest memories are of torture and death. There is no "default" position of normalcy to revert to, no "happy place".
The obstacles to their reintegration into society would be massive, but any successful methodology to rehabilitate the "war child" would reap benefits in our own increasingly violence prone society. The roots of violence may be varied, but the expressions of violence are universal. Developing an arsenal of options to identify and deal with children who have killed or have the potential to do so is a socially strategic necessity.
From the rubble of an African civil war in Liberia, scattered amidst the pieces of shattered familial units, the enigmatic figure of a child with an automatic weapon and teddy bear strapped to his back staggers the imagination.
Often drugged and forced to commit atrocities, their minds become warped by a sinister combination of antisocial conditioning and altered brain development. What means do we have of reversing such mental, possibly physical, brain-damage and "re-humanizing" these children? When one realizes that between 100,000 and 200,000 children in more than 20 countries are children soldiers, the magnitude of this tragedy becomes even clearer. It's a perverse adaptation of "A Clockworks Orange" starring hundreds of thousands in the role of "Alex". And it's coming to a theater near you eventually. As the escalating ethnic violence in formerly peaceful Kenya demonstrates, even stable countries are capable of plunging into the abyss of uncontrollable violence. Here in America, peaceful college campuses are no longer exempt from sudden, massive acts of violence and there's NO civil war going on.
How long can any peace last without first removing the stimulus for violence? We've already seen "children fighting wars" in our own streets in the form of gang warfare. We've also seen how rapidly societies can descend into violence, so better understanding the children of "real" warfare in other countries will directly help us to confront variants of that same problem in our own. While Liberia represents an extreme case in of the type of violence that plagues the West, solutions procured from this extreme environment can help in the future rehabilitation of violent gang-members, war veterans and nebulous masses of other disenfranchised and violence-prone youth. It is entirely realistic and pragmatic to assume that if it works on those poisoned by violence in places like Liberia, it can help in the treatment and assimilation of those similarly affected by violence and living just next door. So not only is it a moral imperative to help these war-scarred children, it has practical application in places less torn asunder.
A critical first step towards stabilizing the child combatant issue is to identify countries that use children as soldiers. While not directly confronting the problem, it does identify the potential victims. What the use of children soldiers has given the world is a huge number of hosts by which to export more violence. Violence and war gave us the Taliban and young men willing to kill themselves in order to kill and maim others. The violence of a civil war in El Salvador has exported Latino gang members to L.A. where they perpetuate a violent lifestyle that eclipses even traditional gang violence.
The anarchy that creates children of war metastasizes, spilling the violence beyond international boundaries in the form of jihadists, narco-terrorists and criminal gangs. Many are without futures, skills, education and hope, parlaying their only skill...violence without remorse...into the only career prospects they have: crime or war. It is prudent to try and eliminate those as options.
Recently, child advocate groups have expressed concerns about the possibility of the illegal trafficking of Liberian children after 7 children were sneaked out and into America. While aged ten months to 5 years and spared the fate of the conscripted child, this incident exemplifies the ease by which other children can be ushered out of Liberia, perhaps into fates other than freedom. And the implicit threat that "older, experienced" child soldiers might be exploited internationally for their deadly skill is a legitimate concern. If the fact that Al Qaeda is currently training children as gunmen doesn't drive home the seriousness of this problem, then no real solutions will be soon forthcoming.
Sooner or later, we may have to deal with these war children, all grown up and without stable jobs or empathy. But, there are many opportunities for people with skills such as theirs. By determining now what combination of therapy and education makes them productive citizens, not only might we preempt a possibly violent confrontation over a fence line somewhere, but we also deny an immoral enemy an endless supply of soldiers without pity or conscious. Then we can set about inoculating our own society. If we can somehow help these children soldiers reconnect with their humanity, we can apply it to ourselves and pull out of this spiral of violence. Otherwise, we run the risk of descending into the very same pit of anarchy that consumed those children's souls in the first place.