For the last decade, the UN has
been on a crusade to keep teenagers away from guns. This has been particularly
difficult in Africa, where warlords find teenagers easy to recruit into their
armies. Much to its dismay, the UN recently discovered that thousands of
teenagers have rejoined warlord armies this year, after having been
"demobilized" and reunited with their families earlier. But over a
third of these kids resumed their weaponized ways when given the opportunity.
happened is that the UN has rediscovered the ancient practice of children in
armies, and doesn't quite know what to do about it. Their first response was to
start a campaign to expose this despicable practice and put a stop to it. The UN passed a resolution in 2000 forbidding
anyone under 18 from serving in the military. Many nations signed the treaty,
but far fewer ratified it.
At the time
the treaty was introduced, it was estimated that 300,000 "children"
(anyone under 18) were serving with armies is. For a number of reasons, both
historical and technical, the head count for kids in armies is probably higher
now than it ever has been in the past. And the practice of children serving
with armies has a long, long history.
thousands of years, kids went off to war. The younger ones acted as servants,
to help around the camp. The older ones, as they got bigger, worked their way
into the fighting line. About all that anyone in Western nations knows of this
is the medieval tradition of children serving as pages and squires, and ultimately
becoming knights. That was for the children of the nobility. Commoner kids also
had opportunities to become professional warriors if they survived to
adolescence, avoiding death from the ill treatment they faced while living with
callous soldiers and the rigors of living rough while the army was on campaign.
century changed all that. With lighter rifles and automatic weapons, kids could
be armed and sent off to fight at an earlier age. As in the past, many young
boys were fascinated with weapons and violence. "Running off to join the
army" was around long before "running off to join the circus."
There has never been a shortage of volunteers.
the 1930s, kid-size military rifles (the Russian SKS and 9mm machine pistols)
began to appear in large quantities. After World War II, the Russian AK-47
showed up, and became the weapon of choice for child soldiers everywhere. With
end of the Cold War, and the collapse of communist governments, millions of
AK-47s suddenly appeared on world markets. At first, the AK-47s were so cheap
that they were practically given away ("buy a rocket launcher and we'll
throw in a free AK-47..."). Whereas in the past kids had to make
themselves useful, and show they had a minimum of smarts and initiative before
getting a weapon, the flood of AK-47s made it possible to arm the children much
earlier in their military career (within hours or days, rather than weeks or
months.) The hordes of children wielding AK-47s gave new meaning to the term
"wild child." And these kiddie gunsels are more dangerous than the
adults. Children are difficult to discipline under any conditions. But
when the kid has an automatic weapon,
childish petulance takes on a new meaning.
lighter weight weapons came along, the kids in the military were lightly armed
(maybe a knife) and generally responsive to a smack upside the head. Once they
got their guns, discipline became more harsh. One vivid example of this showed
up in the 1963 movie, "Mondo Cane" ("It's a Dog's World").
This Italian "shockumentary" showed odd behavior from all parts of
the world. It was all real; nothing was staged. In one scene, filmed in the
camp of some African guerrillas, a ten-year-old kid is saying something to an
adult that is apparently not appreciated. The adult pulls out a pistol and
shoots the kid in the chest. The body flies back into the bush; all that can be
seen are the kid's shoes - a lesson, no doubt, to other kids in the camp to
show some respect to their elders.
better-organized armies, children served as drummer boys until about a century
ago. In some navies, kids can still serve as cabin boys, a tradition that goes
back many centuries. When children like these are serving in an organized
military unit, they have a degree of protection. At least they cannot be
executed out of hand. The UN got into a snit with the United States and
Britain, which have long allowed 17-year-old boys (and even younger in Britain)
to join up with parental permission.
didn't make much progress against the long standing recruiting practices of
America and Britain. But the real target was guerrillas and irregulars who are
waging war in a medieval fashion. That means these paramilitary units are
living off the land. This has always meant stealing people as well as food and
valuables. But guerrilla movements have always appealed to kids, mainly because
of the ideological and revenge aspects.
know their attacks on the government will usually bring retaliation against the
local civilians. Every time a father is killed by the soldiers, the older sons
(and sometimes the daughters) feel compelled to seek revenge. In many parts of
the world, the "blood feud" tradition is strong and there are few
impediments to a kid joining the local guerrillas to avenge his kin. In these
circumstances it's almost impossible for a 14-year-old not to volunteer. The
UN/NGO campaign plays this down, if they play it at all. Instead, the incidents
of guerrillas forcibly conscripting kids for military service is put out front.
This may make for better PR, but ignoring local customs makes eliminating
underage soldiering a lot more difficult.
Even if the
guerrillas and bandits (sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference) were
persuaded to stop taking kids, it's much more difficult to stop the kids from
joining. Revenge, adventure, altruism and the thrill of wielding the power that
comes from holding a gun will bring the underage recruits in for a long time to