Academic journal article Military Review

Fighting Child Soldiers

Academic journal article Military Review

Fighting Child Soldiers

Article excerpt

On today's battlefield, U.S. soldiers often encounter civilians of ambiguous status-refugees, members of relief organizations, soldiers masquerading as noncombatants, and children. Increasingly, however, these children are combatants, and U.S. troops must face the psychological effects that come with having to fight them.

It is immoral that adults should want children to fight their wars for them. . . . There is simply no excuse, no acceptable argument for arming children.

-Archbishop Desmond Tutu1

THERE IS NO moral excuse for sending children into battle, but the dark reality is that this terrible practice is a regular feature of modern warfare. Some 300,000 children under the age of 18 (both boys and girls) are now combatants, fighting in approximately 75 percent of the world's conflicts.2

Among Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's human-rights violations was his policy of recruiting children into Iraq's armed forces, in clear violation of international law and moral norms.3 Already, U.S. and allied forces have faced child soldiers in the fighting around Karbala and Nasariyah.4

Since the mid-1990s, thousands of Iraqi boys have attended military-style summer boot camps. During the 3-week-long sessions, boys as young as 10 years old went through drills, learned the use of small arms, and received heavy doses of Ba'ath political indoctrination. The camps were named after resonating current events to help galvanize recruitment and add to the political effect. For example, the 2001 summer camp series was titled the Al Aqsa Intifada, to link it with the symbology of the Palestinian uprising that started earlier that year.5 Beginning in 1998, the military directed a series of training and military preparedness programs toward the entire Iraqi population, including boys as young as 15. The preparedness sessions, which generally ran for 2 hours a day over 40 days, mandated drilling and training on small arms.

The Ba'athist regime's reasons for training and recruiting children were manifold. A common method for totalitarian regimes to maintain control is to militarize society and set it on a constant war footing. Such actions allow for a controlling hierarchy and help divert internal tensions toward external foes. Hussein's regime was no exception. Approximately half of the Iraqi population is under the age of 18, roughly 11 million out of 22 million citizens. This significant youth cohort represented a deep pool of potential forces, as well as a potential threat, if not organized toward the regime's goals. Most important, recruiting, training, and indoctrinating children offered the opportunity to deepen the regime's reach into its society.

In Iraq, in addition to broad training programs, the regime organized several child-soldier units. The first appeared to fall under the Futuwah (Youth Vanguard) movement, a Ba'ath party initiative formed in the late 1970s aimed at creating a paramilitary organization among children at the secondary school level. In this regime-run program, children as young as 12 were organized into units and received military training and political indoctrination. Units of this force were deployed in the losing stages of Iraq's war with Iran between 1983 and 1985.6

The Ashbal Saddam (Saddam Lion Cubs), a more recent organization, was formed after Iraq's defeat during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when the regime's hold on power became shakier.7 The Ashbal Saddam involved boys between the ages of 10 and 15, who attended military training camps and learned the use of small arms and infantry tactics. The camps were reputedly quite intensive, involving as much as 14 hours a day of military training and political indoctrination. The camps also used severe training techniques such as frequent beatings and acts of cruelty to animals to desensitize the youth to violence. The exact numbers of the Ashbal Saddam are not known, but there were an estimated 8,000 members in Baghdad alone. …

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