Published: 1 June 2008
Air & Space Power Journal - Summer 2008
Children at War by P. W. Singer. University of California Press (http://www.ucpress.edu), 2120 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, California 94704-1012, 2006, 278 pages, $16.95 (softcover).
P. W. Singer’s book Children at War is a sad, troubling look at a growing problem in the world today: children serving as soldiers. He looks at the historical precedent concerning the use of children in warfare, from the time-tested concept of bestowing honor and power upon warriors in exchange for guaranteeing protection for the unarmed—especially “the old, the infirm, women, and most particularly, children” (p. 3)—to the point where no civility or honor in conflict currently exists in much of the world. “The participants in battle are often no longer honored warriors, guided by an ethical code, but rather new predators, who target the weakest of society” (p. 4). Interspersed throughout the book are heart-wrenching quotations from child soldiers that make readers want to hug their own children and thank God for being born in a free country under the rule of law.
The numbers of children serving as soldiers are staggering. Singer canvasses the globe with examples such as the Sierra Leone civil war (1991–2001) in which up to 80 percent of all fighters ranged from ages seven to 14, many of whom were abducted (p. 15). He points out that in 68 percent of the world’s current or recent conflicts, children under the age of 18 have served in combat. Particularly disturbing are examples of the brutal methods by which many children are recruited into war: “Now we were in a hideous state—they killed my parents in front of me, my uncle’s hands were cut off and my sister was raped in front of us by their commander called ‘Spare No Soul.’ After all this happened, they told us, the younger boys, to join them. If not, they were going to kill us” (p. 61).
The author does an excellent job of sizing up the problem and addressing many of the underlying causes, such as poverty and the lack of economic and educational opportunity. The solution set, however, is a much more daunting task. Some of the causes have been around much longer than the problem of child soldiers. Singer calls for greater amounts of aid, pointing out that “the United States lags far behind the rest of the developed world in its aid to those less well off” (p. 136). Although that is true for government aid, it fails to account for the significant amounts donated by Americans through nongovernmental charitable organizations. Other, more achievable steps that he offers as part of the solution involve a change in US government policy that would support efforts of the United Nations and other elements of the international community to clamp down on the illegal trade of light weapons and that would criminalize the practice of having child soldiers so, at the least, legitimate state armies would stop using children.
The chapter dedicated to the issues and impact of having to fight against children is perhaps the most important to today’s US military officer. Although it is unlikely that any 14-year-olds will be going one-on-one against any F-22 pilots, it is entirely possible that a child with an AK-47 could make his way to the gate of “Base X.” In fact Iraq, Afghanistan, and other potential US deployment locations are not excluded from the rising use of children as soldiers. Singer correctly points out that current US military training and doctrine do not adequately prepare our personnel to recognize children as potential threats and to deal with the psychological impact of killing children, even in self-defense; for that reason, training and doctrine should be modified accordingly. I recommend Children at War to any US military leader who might deploy personnel anywhere beyond Western Europe.
Col Gregory J. Lengyel, USAF
Air Force Fellow
Brookings Institution, Washington DC
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.