Child Soldiers: Mental Consequences and the Morality of the Subject

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The twenty-first century has seen the continued recruitment and deployment of child soldiers. Such number more than 300 000 in the contemporary world. Children and young adults are particularly involved in civil wars; or in situations of potential anarchy where the traditional restraints normally imposed by codes of honorable warfare and chivalry are absent. The 1998 Statute (the Rome Statute) of the International Criminal Court has banned the conscription and enlistment of children under 15 years of age into armed forces for use in combat and other operational military activities. The International Labor Organization Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention 182, enacted in 2000, commits all States who ratify to take measures to prohibit and eliminate this “worst form of child labor” which includes armed conflict.

The child soldier of today is involved in a triad of anarchic civil war, light-weight weaponry, and drug or alcohol addiction. He is usually involved in a military/gang-like situation, dangerously armed, and is bonded to a group of other combatants led by an older teenager. Such kill with the absence of any identifiable conventions of war. Children and young adolescents who are exposed to violent trauma inevitably develop behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and social problems, sometimes for life, after the specific circumstances of combat which led to their recruitment, have passed. Most child soldiers have never been to school and almost all are illiterate. Ongoing national and international advocacy, to prevent, ban, and rehabilitate child soldiers has become a critical global, humanitarian and public health goal. War is arguably the most catastrophic event known to humankind, entailing particularly grave consequences for children in terms of survival, development and well-being. Children are not exclusively the passive victims of conflict between armed groups; in fact, they have been increasingly recruited by such groups, assuming both secondary and more active combat roles.

While children have been part of armed groups throughout history, evidence suggest that we encounter more often children in armed conflict. A NATO report argues that Western forces are encountering more often child soldiers as they intervene in failed states. A report released in November 2004 by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers found that children were fighting in almost every major conflict, in both government and opposition forces. Not only does child recruitment breach international laws but recruiting them for military purposes can also have serious consequences for both the children involved and for the entire society. When children are engaged as soldiers, spending their formative years immersed in systems of violence and constructing their values and identities under the guidance of these armed groups, they can become vehicles of violence rather than citizens who can build stable peace. Child soldiering should thus be a high priority for the international community interested in promoting peace and stability as well as for academics.

Surprisingly, until recently, the literature on the use of child soldiers was sparse, with a heavy bulk of the work conducted by members of the think-tank and civil-society communities rather than by academics. Fortunately, academic research on the use of children in armed conflict has expanded over the past few years. The disciplines involved include anthropology, science, economics, psychology and sociology, among others. This literature, although extremely interesting and helpful in identifying important causal mechanisms, suffers from some important limitation: most studies (but definitely not all) have focused their investigation on one or a limited number of cases, i.e. a limited number of former child soldiers are interviewed, the recruitment practices of one or two armed groups are examined or only a limited number of countries are examined. As a result, they can provide no or only very limited comparative perspective, restricting the generalizability of the findings as well as the possibility of identifying more universal patterns. Consequently, we currently have a very limited view of the state of the art on the topic of child soldiering, making it difficult to identify research areas that are relatively unexplored and underdeveloped.

Generally, one can divide the academic literature on child recruitment into four main approaches: those who investigate the influence of general and structural factors, those who emphasize the importance of the supply side of child soldiering, those who examine the demand side and those who are primarily interested in the consequences of child soldiering. The existing literature provides several structural explanations for the use of child soldiers in armed conflicts. These explanations tend to link broad social, political and economic conditions to the costs associated with recruiting and employing child soldiers in conflicts. Although many different explanations are discussed, three (interrelated) factors are repeatedly mentioned.

General and Structural Factors

First, several authors have pointed to the influence of the technological advancement of personal weaponry and the proliferation of small weapons. Singer argues that such advancements have facilitated the transformation of children into fighters as lethal as adults, increasing the likelihood of child recruitment. The small arms argument, however, is heavily debated. Researchers have pointed out that many children are often sent into battle unarmed or solely armed with traditional weapons, and that the lack of existing data on illicit arms trade means that testing of this potential causal linkage is extremely difficult.

Second, certain scholars have emphasized the influence of globalization. Honwana argues that, due to social and economic crises associated with globalization, many low-income countries experience a widening of existing inequalities thereby straining and weakening the ‘social fabric’. Honwana further argues that this has impacted the capacity of households and communities to nurture and protect children. Ultimately, this trend has resulted in the commodification of children, a revaluation that has brought about an increase in child labor, including child soldiering. Related to this globalization argument is the idea that the state’s poverty level is the driving force behind child recruitment. Sometimes this is even cited as the cause of child soldiering. Many young soldiers enlist to ‘counter their feelings of helplessness, vulnerability and frustration’. However, this explanation is too simplistic: there are many more poor children who do not become child soldiers, even in war zones.

Lastly, the sheer number of children – that is, the abundant supply – constitutes another frequently mentioned structural variable. For example, Africa is the world’s youngest continent. As a result, both rebel groups and governments may have an easier time recruiting children. A version of this argument examines the relationship between the size of the orphan population within countries and the usage of child soldiers. However, I did not find any significant relationship between orphan rates and child soldier usage.

Supply-Side of Child Soldiering

Two central points of criticism regarding the structural understandings can be raised: first, it neglects individual agency in social and political processes, and second, it cannot explain the significant variation in child soldier rates across countries and armed groups over time and space. Consequently, many scholars have turned to supply factors, i.e. factors influencing the enlistment of children. These supply motivations are various, complex and can be generally divided into push and pull factors.

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Push factors are negatives that children escape by joining an armed group. Many studies have pointed to the lack of educational opportunities as one example of such a factor. Peters argues, based on his ethnographic research in the Congo, that whenever normal educational opportunities are blocked, young people begin to seek out other educational opportunities, often ending up in military schools. Along the same lines, a lack of employment opportunities can also invoke a sense of despair and/or can make fighting in the armed conflict seem like a viable job option. Other scholars have argued that children often join to escape insecure situations. For example, they may want to leave home to escape (sexual) abuse.

Equally compelling are the pull factors, which are positive rewards and incentives for joining armed groups. Besides the obvious promise of money and security, some children are attracted to armed groups by the ‘adventure’, ‘the sheer fun of belonging’, a desire to become ‘famous and admired’ or simply because they believe in what they are fighting for or want to take revenge. It can reasonably be conjectured, however, that both pull and push factors and the interactions between them play a crucial role.

Demand Side of Child Soldiering

Whereas the supply-side explanations offer theories of willingness, demand explanations primarily explore the opportunity aspect of the phenomenon. Scholars working in this strand of research investigate factors influencing the decision of recruiters to enlist children. Recruiting children would not seem to be a very good business model for an armed group: they can be undisciplined, they lack the necessary weight-bearing abilities and tactical and strategic judgment that might be necessary in combat situations, they are psychologically unprepared for the sustained hardships of war and consequently they are more likely to defect. Despite all these shortcomings, many armed groups do recruit children.

Several interrelated solutions to this puzzle are offered. The first centers on troop shortages and the need to maximize recruitment. Recruiters often target children based on the simple need to fill ranks, especially when armed forces face shortages of traditional adult recruits. A related argument is that some armed groups consider child recruitment to be an act of social inclusion that proves the universal character of their cause. As such, the participation of children is seen as a huge moral and political victory: it represents the group’s capacity to incorporate new social layers.

Second, some scholars argue that the answer lies in the differences in behavior and decision-making between children and adults. They assert that children possess certain characteristics that make them more effective fighters in comparison to adults. For example, children are more malleable, adaptable and obedient; thus, they are more readily indoctrinated and deceived and are consequently easier to control and retain. For instance, Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO) consciously recruited children on a large scale because they were considered to be more ready to obey and their moral judgments were easier to suspend. The idea that children are unable to evaluate the consequences of their actions, that they score higher than adults in terms of sensation-seeking and risk-taking behavior and that they often feel that they are invulnerable has been partially confirmed by psychological research and experiments performed by behavioral economists. Lastly, some authors have argued that certain groups focus on the recruitment of children due to the moral shock it creates on the battlefield. One can especially find this line of reasoning in the literature on the use of children by terrorist organizations.

Consequences of Child Soldiering

In comparison to the number of studies focusing on the supply and demand sides of child soldier recruitment, relatively few scholars have examined the consequences of child soldiering. Several studies examining the individual consequences of child soldiering have demonstrated that children often experience mental health problems following their association with combat forces, especially those who were exposed to violence and returned to situations of limited family and peer support and/or community stigmatization. It is important to note, however, that not all the evidence is gloomy. Some scholars have suggested that a child’s response to stressful conditions is often less intense than might be expected, and that impacted children sometimes show signs of positive adaptation, competence and even post-traumatic growth. For instance, Belsky et al. suggests that some children in particular due to their biological (genetic), temperamental and/or behavior characteristics are more vulnerable to the adverse effect of negative experiences (i.e. war exposure), whereas others are relatively resilient with respect to them.

Apart from these individual psychological changes, former child soldiers also endure other challenges. Such as the economic and educational consequences of being abducted, finding that in comparison to youth who were not involved in the conflict, economic and educational impacts were widespread and persistent among those who were abducted. However, not all effects are negative. Forced recruitment leads to greater post-war political participation among former child soldiers; for example, such recruitment increases their likelihood of voting.

A second issue that is often examined is the effective reintegration of former child soldiers with the help of Disarmament Demobilization Reintegration programs. Due to a lack of comparative data, most research exploring this topic involves in-depth case studies on individual DDR initiatives. For instance, strong enforcement of local-level child-protection mechanisms have been used to provide follow-up care for demobilized children. In addition to these two major strands, a few academics have examined the consequences of using child soldiers – not only for the armed groups, but also for society at large. Child soldiering influences the military effectiveness of armed groups and the duration of conflict, concluding that child soldiering increases the strength of rebel organizations. Others have shown that the risk of conflict recurrence increases with child soldiers recruited by rebel groups in an earlier dispute; counterintuitively, the presence of DDR programs is unlikely to influence conflict recurrence at all.

The scholarship reviewed above reflects not only the diversity of the researchers interested in child soldiering and the numerous causal mechanisms proposed to explain the supply and demand sides of the phenomenon, but also the various methodological and disciplinary approaches employed to examine the topic. For instance, a great deal of impressive ethnographic work has been conducted in the attempt to identify individual supply-side factors. Additionally, clinical and social psychology has significantly contributed to the strand of research examining the consequences for former child soldiers. Political scientists have led the way in investigating repercussions for society in general and conflict dynamics. At the same time, the state of the art presented here illustrates how our methods of examining child soldiering are limited.

Until recently, most of the reviewed studies focus on one or a limited number of cases of child soldiering, restricting the generalizability of the findings as well as the possibility of identifying more universal patterns. Identifying these patterns can help us not only in predicting the occurrence of child soldiering but also set in place measures that might prevent its occurrence. More importantly, due to this lack of comparability, the reviewed studies often suffer from some form of selection bias. For instance, some scholars have focused solely on prominent armed groups, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda or the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, both of which are known to recruit children on a very large scale.65

In doing so, they fail to consider armed groups that refrain from using children. The same form of bias can be found in studies examining the individual consequences of child soldiering: much of this research exclusively investigates former child soldiers, neglecting children who were not involved with the belligerents and those who are still active in the group. Although these shortcomings are understandable and although this work has been extremely helpful in identifying potential causal mechanisms and expanding our existing theories, omitting countries, armed groups or even particular groups of children severely constrains the discovery of more general factors and patterns that might not only increase our academic understanding but might also be needed to set up preventive measures. For instance, it might be the case that conflicts in which few or no children are recruited share commonalities that make such recruitment more difficult. Moreover, there might be important difference between child soldiers that were active as fighters (i.e. child combatants) and those children that were primarily used in support functions. It is also possible that the severity of the mental problems suffered by former child soldiers does not differ greatly from that of children not enlisted by any armed group but merely growing up in a conflict situation. Similarly, the factors influencing the recruitment of children may be no different from those impacting the recruitment of adults.

One of the reasons of this general lack of large comparative work has been the difficulty associated with getting accurate (individual or cross-sectional time-series) data on child soldiering.67 It is only recently that large comparative data sets have been compiled. For instance, in the field of political science, Beber and Blattman68 categorise the percentage share of child soldiers in 40 randomly selected Sub-Saharan African armed groups.69 Haer and Böhmelt70 extended this coverage by compiling a data set on the level of child soldier usages by armed groups (government and rebel groups) for more armed groups over a longer period of time (1989–2013). In the field of psychologists, one can see the intention of increasing the number of observations across time and space. Boothby et al.71 extended the data collection effort by examining, as one of the first, the long-term psychological, social and economic effects of child soldiering over a period of 16 years. It is important to note, however, that all of these data collection efforts might suffer from some sort of a bias. For instance, the comparative information collected by Beber and Blattman72 or Haer and Böhmelt73 is based among others on reports published by advocacy groups. These groups might have the incentives to exaggerate the proportion of child soldiers. At the same time, the data might be biased in favour for the more known (and perhaps also large) groups.

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