He never saw it coming. On Jan. 4, 2002, Sgt. Nathan Ross Chapman was the first U.S. serviceman to be killed by hostile fire in Afghanistan. A 31-year-old Green Beret who also served in the Persian Gulf War, Chapman was killed by sniper fire after meeting with local tribal leaders in Paktia province. He knew the dangers he faced but probably never imagined he would die from a bullet fired by a child soldier.
An isolated incident? Sadly, no. Seeing gun-wielding children as young as 7 or 8 shooting at U.S. troops may shock the American public, but war no longer is the exclusive domain of adults. Child soldiers are a growing phenomenon in Third World countries as gun manufacturers have produced ever-lighter assault weapons that can be carried by children. By definition a child soldier is younger than 18. While the United States allows those as young as 17 to serve with parental consent, many Third World countries appear to be robbing grammar schools to support their regimes.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a historic international agreement adopted by the U.N. General Assembly that set the minimum age for voluntary recruitment above 15. It provided governments with additional tools to pressure violators and rehabilitate child soldiers back into civilian life. But, as so often is the case, the U.N. ukase was ignored.
Today, as many as 300,000 child soldiers are engaged in military fighting in approximately 30 countries on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. In addition to Afghanistan, for example, child soldiers are serving in armies in Angola, Uganda, Pakistan, Burma, Sierra Leone, Colombia and Chechnya. Not even little girls are exempt from this conscription. Often they find themselves forced into sexual slavery or used as human minesweepers.
A 13-year-old girl soldier in Honduras quoted in a U.N. study, "Impact of Armed Conflict on Children," put it this way: "I had a dream to contribute to make things change, so that the children would not be hungry later. I joined the armed struggle. I had all the inexperience and the fears of a little girl. I found that girls were obliged to have sexual relations to alleviate the sadness of the combatants. But who alleviated our sadness after [being forced to have sex] with someone we hardly knew?"
The thousands of child soldiers actively fighting are joined by millions of children serving in countries that are not at war. For example, in Iraq thousands are required to serve in the "Saddam Lion Cubs" military units that some analysts fear could create dicey problems for U.S. troops attempting to secure Iraqi cities. Already the numbers of children being recruited are rising in areas where U.S. troops are deployed. Among the mountain guerrillas of Afghanistan, child soldiers constitute "45 percent of their troops--an increase from the 30 percent" a few years ago, says Carolyn Nordstrom, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of A Different Kind of War Story, which examines the impact of war upon children who have been dragooned into African and other bush armies. The Taliban have kidnapped orphans and young children in Pakistani religious schools, for instance, to become trained soldiers as thoroughly brainwashed as the Hitler Youth.
Child soldiers often are kidnapped during military truck sweeps where rogue armies raid towns and grab everything at hand. When people hear the military is coming, "everyone gets their kids off the streets, because if they don't they get drafted that day" Nordstrom says. Others are forced into the war because soldiers are desperate. "The Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda is now composed of 60 percent children" says Peter Singer, coordinator of the Brookings Institution's Project on U.S. Policy Toward the Islamic World, and who worked on the Balkans Task Force for the Pentagon. "If these groups didn't recruit children they would fail. …