Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism

By Glazer, Ilsa M. | Anthropological Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism


Glazer, Ilsa M., Anthropological Quarterly


David M. Rosen, Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005, 199 pp.

David M. Rosen is a cultural anthropologist and practicing lawyer. His timely study, Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism, is in the finest tradition of cultural and legal anthropology. It is an eloquent, meticulously documented study, artfully crafted, deeply considered, and most certainly challenging. Methodologically, it weaves ethnohistorical detail, faceto-face interviews, and analysis based on the author's familiarity with the settings of his case studies. It is a critique of the humanitarian view of child soldiers and a stinging analysis of the politicization of the issue of child soldiers by the UN and NGOs.

Humanitarian groups1 seeking to end warfare and to protect children serving as combatants have created a new myth, according to Rosen. They have valorized twentieth century warfare as rule-bound, with clear political objectives, well-defined beginnings and ends, and clear distinctions between civilians and soldiers. These were international conflicts and wars of national liberation, costing more than 100 million lives. In contrast, in this century, wars are postcolonial small-scale civil wars and ethnic conflicts. Humanitarian groups characterize these new wars not as authentic political movements, but as "irrational and atavistic explosions of hatred" (162, f.n. 35), terrorism targeting civilians, in which children are deliberately manipulated by adults to join armed conflicts for the first time in history. Adults who recruit children should be tried for war crimes. Some of the children committed terrible atrocities. Humanitarians and legal scholars debated whether such children should be held culpable for their war crimes, and decided that they were demons because they were victims, and should be protected from criminal liability. The humanitarians and lawyers adopted the Piaget model of childhood accepted in psychology, education, and social work. The Piaget model conceives of children as pre-logical, immature, innocent, vulnerable and helpless. The humanitarians, however, extend Piaget's model well beyond the early childhood years that were Paiget's concern, adopting the "Straight 18" definition, that a child is a person from infancy to the age of eighteen. Rosen accepts the so-called "Straight 18" definition of "child" as humanitarian groups do. For him it is a heuristic device to show how unrealistic and difficult a definition it is. He then systematically challenges the assumptions of the humanitarian groups about the nature of warfare and children's roles as combatants. Three case studies of child soldiers and the circumstances under which they fought are Eastern European Jews, Sierra Leoneans, and Palestinians.

To begin, Rosen shows clearly what anthropologists have demonstrated for decades, that the concept of "child" and the qualities associated with "children" are culturally specific. Chronological age has no fixed meaning in nature or culture. The Piaget model is inappropriate-even for Western society, as current anthropological, sociological and historical research on the agency of children reveals. The agency model rejects the idea that children are pre-logical or irrational. Even young children are far more "sophisticated, knowledgeable, rational, and skillful than is assumed in the general culture or in the popular developmental models..."(133). By the age of fourteen, research shows, children are as competent as adults to make major decisions concerning their own welfare (135). A second issue is that child soldiers are not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, "children" were used in pre-industrial warrior societies. Teens were used among the Maasai, Dinka, Yanomamo, Cheyenne, and many other ethnic groups. Youth fought in virtually every African war of liberation from colonial rule. Younger boys and teens were used among the British from the Middle Ages ever onward, by Americans in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. …

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