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Children at War

P.W. Singer

Children at War

Author:P.W. Singer

By Nicole Leistikow | Posted 2/9/2005

After reading P.W. Singerís Children at War, you begin to listen to the news differently. Disturbing incidents in which children are shot by soldiers in Iraq or Israel become even more disturbing after you learn that, in 75 percent of conflicts around the world, children are not only victims but combatants.

The facts are disheartening but important. The traditional laws of war, which saw children as innocents to be protected, have broken down. Now, kids as young as 5 are valuable commodities, enabling demagogues like Liberiaís Charles Taylor, who was unable to attract enough adult followers, to take over entire countries at small cost. Abducted from their families, children can be traumatized into fighting for no salary. Once hyped up on drugs packed into an open cut on their temple or arm, as Singer describes it, children become fearless risk takers, useful for bearing the brunt of enemy fire or revealing the presence of land mines. And since cheap small arms have flooded the world markets, children who once were too small or inexperienced to use weapons can now use them with lethal effect. An AK-47 is $12 in South Africa, Singer tells us, and is so simple and lightweight that it takes about 30 minutes to train a child to use it.

Interspersed with quotes from former child soldiers, Singerís book maintains a successful balance between harrowing facts and the problemís human face. One of the biggest challenges for mature soldiers is just that, he writes, the psychological trauma of looking into the face of a 7-year-old with a machine gun and treating the child as an enemy. Singer notes that little has been done to prepare troops for conflicts in which a majority of the enemy is underage. In 2003, before U.S. marines went into Liberia, where 60 percent of fighters were children, a draft of Children at War was reportedly a main source of advice.

The solutions arenít simple, the author is quick to point out. That kids are low-cost, psychologically malleable, and lethal soldiers means wars are becoming easier to start, more deadly, and harder to end. Although nonlethal weaponry remains an avenue to be explored, Singer asserts that our troops and our public need to get used to seeing child casualties. And finally, the simple presence of a majority of underage children in an army should be a war crime, he argues, and prosecuted as such.

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