Children At War III: Beyond The Paralysis Of Pity And The Trauma Of Fighting Children
“Every time I look at them, I think of my son. They are so small. Sometimes, when I am here, I put myself in God’s hands.” UN peacekeeper deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Conventional wisdom would hold that militaries, especially Western ones, face a terrible crux when dealing with child soldiers. On one hand, in recent years, the commander of a band of soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment was unwilling to fire upon what he called “children armed with AK’s” and was subsequently taken hostage along with his men by an infamous child solider group known as the “West Side Boys” in Sierra Leone. Elsewhere, an occasional traumatic experience of American soldiers in Iraq that they disclose to stateside counselors is their horror at having to fire upon lethally armed children fighting in militias and with insurgents.
In “Children At War”, P.W. Singer identifies the paralysis caused by poor or nonexistent training that soldiers receive and the danger it puts them in when they are on the ground as well as the demoralizing effects inflicted upon professional soldiers when forced to fight and kill children. Pity for the enemy has the polar opposite effect of hatred, causing soldiers to question their roles. Are soldiers doomed between paralysis and anguish?
Singer emphatically provides a blend of observations and proposals that prove there is a third option that is more promising for both the success of the mission and the health of both professional and child soldiers.
First and foremost, conflicts with child soldiers are among the most dangerous forces will face. As in experiences with terrorist proxies and insurgents, respect for the traditional rules of war is not likely. Troops must be prepared for false surrenders, hiding among civilians and POW executions by their child opponents. Young soldiers often come to the battlefield with a great deal of combat experience and individual combat skills under their belt from prior flashes of conflict or even other wars within the region.
Forces should focus on the center of gravity for most child soldier forces by recognizing the hold adult (or older teenager) leaders have on their troops. Prioritizing the targeting and elimination of the adult leaders whenever possible is an excellent way to get inside the opponents decision loop and dispel the often coerced cohesion of the child fighters as a unit.
Tactically, traditional targeting and set-piece movements will be less effectual than the imposition of shock and the deliberate creation of avenues and openings to shape the child opponents’ response. Chaos and confusion are more valued than pure destruction; a low-intensity warfare equivalent of “shock & awe” like the use of helicopter gunships (as in Sierra Leone, where one gunship was credited with contributing as much to the routing of child troops as peace keepers and government troops combined). Child soldiers described the Sierra Leone gunship as “a big pyscho thing, spitting death out flying low to the ground”.
Along with such tactics, the continued development and improvement of non-lethal weapons will offer an invaluable tool for soldiers to disarm and apprehend child soldiers rather than exchange armed pleasantries.
In the field, even a successful first encounter with child soldiers, which dissolves an adversary force, is a battle half won if it does not prevent the adult leaders from regrouping. “Follow through” is the key to taking them off the battlefield for good, as well as taking the further step of denying the adults the use of prime recruiting pipelines (which often will direct the course of child soldier group operations) like refugee camps and overcrowded slums.
Lastly, psychological operations must be utilized as a supplement to traditional military operations whether they be peacekeeping or counterinsurgency. Highlighting the breaking of cultural norms, the undue casualties children tend to suffer, and the hypocrisy of adult leaders sending other peoples’ children off to fight for their gain is sure to win some ground in the eyes of the people and the young children themselves.
An epilogue this weekend will be a short look at programs and methods to help rehabilitate child soldiers, which is a massive security and development dilemma across the developing world, as well as the organizations that help make progress in the arduous, lifetime process.