JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Merrill House Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome you to our Author in the Afternoon program today.
We are very pleased to have with us P.W. Singer, who will be discussing his book Children at War, and this book is available, and as you can see it has really a stunning cover.
It may be difficult for us sitting here this afternoon to imagine ten-year-olds carrying AK47s and teenagers who strap explosives to their bodies, but in many parts of the world this is an all too common sight, for these are the children who have been abducted, purchased, and even handed over by their own families, to participate in armed conflicts. Deprived of their childhood, devoid of education, and unfamiliar with normal patterns of social behavior, these child warriors are not easily rehabilitated nor reintegrated into their families. Many have been enlisted as suicide bombers in Sri Lanka, others cajoled into fighting alongside guerrilla fighters in Colombia and the Sudan, or even recruited from the madrassas in Pakistan to help bring the Taliban to power during the Afghan civil war.
Although children have been used as soldiers throughout history, it is only within the last decade that we have become more aware of the increasing number of them who are involved in conflicts as both victims and perpetrators. The use of children as soldiers has been universally condemned as abhorrent and unacceptable. Yet, over the last ten years hundreds of thousands of children have fought and died in conflicts around the world.
Children at War is the first book-length publication that discusses this global phenomenon. Our speaker this afternoon tells us not only the where, the why, and the how of the practice of using children in warfare came about, but, most importantly, what to do about it.
Dr. Singer became interested in writing about this issue while researching an earlier work about military outsourcing. At that time he discovered that the adversaries of these new outsourced soldiers were other children. Disturbed and wanting to bring this issue to the public's attention, along with the solutions to solving the problem, he wrote Children at War.
Our guest is a leading expert on 21st century warfare and the rise of new actors in conflict. He is the author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, which was the first book to explore the private military industry. This book was named Best Book of the Year by the American Political Science Association. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs and other publications.
P.W. SINGER: Thank you for that kind introduction.
I thought I would start out this somewhat chilly evening with a chilly quote. This is from a young boy, at the time age sixteen, in west Africa: "I was attending primary school. The rebels came and attacked us. They killed my mother and father in front of my eyes. I was ten years old. They took me with them. They trained us to fight. The first time I killed someone, I got so sick I thought I was going to die. But I got better. My fighting name was Blood Never Dry."
Now, as our moderator mentioned, my research is on changes in warfare, in particular the rise of new actors in 21st century conflict. Children at War looks at a particular aspect of this, a darker side of warfare. In writing it, it was a heartrending work, but I think a necessary work.
As Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, "It is immoral that adults should want children to fight their wars for them. There is simply no excuse, no acceptable argument, for arming children."
There may be no moral excuse, but the reality is that this dark practice continues today and is only growing. And so what this book seeks to do is explain why is this happening, what are the implications of it, and then what can we do about it.
In it I try to leverage lessons from a diversity of fields, everything from military history to neuropsychology. The range of interviews that I conducted for it were from former child soldiers to mercenaries who had been hired to fight them.
Now, in writing it I had three primary hopes. The first is when you are dealing with an issue like this, you simply feel compelled to tell the stories, to let more people know about it; it is almost like an obligation.
The second thing, though, is that I hoped to do it in a manner that does not just evoke empathy but actually leads to understanding, with the idea that if we really understand the real causes and dynamics of what is going on, we will develop effective responses, because we have not had effective responses so far.
Then, finally, I wanted to move this issue past just the moral lens, past the obvious heartbreak of it, and demonstrate how this actually has real-world implications in security itself, how it affects global levels of violence—and not just in distant places that we do not care about, but actually as something are wrestling with every day. And so, in a sense, that we have not only a moral obligation to act, but a strategic mandate to act, and hopefully that will lead to more activity, more action, because security is the new coin of the realm in D.C. these days.
Today what I would like to do is really just walk you through briefly some of the findings from the book.
First, I think it is important to start out with the history of this. The rule once held that children had no place on the battlefield. When we look at the past 4,000 years of recorded military history, they were mere footnotes. They were neither there as targets; they were neither there as participants. The rule today is that no war is complete without them.
And so when we look back in history in terms of this footnote, there are isolated instances where children were present. For example, the ships of Admiral Nelson had the powder monkeys, who were young boys who ran ammunition back and forth. In our own Civil War, at the battle of New Market in 1864, the Confederacy had a unit of 247 VMI [Virginia Military Institute] cadets who fought in that one battle.
But these were exceptions to what the rule used to be. Children were never an integral part, an essential part, of any fighting force. Typically, they were not in combatant rules; they were usually just boys. And then, finally, they were isolated in terms of time and geographic space. Another way to put it is no one rushed out to copy the example of New Market.
Today, though, it is a far different reality. Child soldiers are out there in terms of almost a new doctrine in terms of the way that forces are mobilized and used in combat. There are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers right now serving as active combatants and another half-million who are serving in armed forces not at war.
Another way to think about it is that when you take the entire world's array of armed groups—everything from militias, to armies, to terrorist groups—when you take that collection and count them up, 40 percent of them have combatants under the age of eighteen; 20 percent have combatants under the age of twelve.
Yet another way to think about it is when we look at the array of wars in the world today. Almost 75 percent of them have child soldiers fighting in them. Geographically, child soldiers have fought on every single continent but Antarctica. So there is no other way to put it other than this is a global practice.
Now, some try to quibble with this and say, "Well, aren't fifteen-year-olds considered adults in other countries?"—and this is an important part of this story. The answer to that is a frank no. There are three things to say about this.
The first is the standard of eighteen as the onset of adulthood is not just some Western construct. It is actually the most widely signed international law. Over 190 countries have signed that law.
The second thing is that when we move beyond just international law itself, it is common practice in current policy but also in military history. For example, almost all the nations of the world accord different rights and responsibilities based on whether you are eighteen or younger—for example, whether you get free health care, education standards, voting rights, etc.
When we look at military history, it also holds that kids this young were not in the services, not just in terms of national armies but all the way back to pre-modern armies, to tribal armies. For example, in the Zulu tribe, in their fighting forces it wasn't until you were between the ages of eighteen and twenty that you were allowed to serve as a combatant. In the ancient Spartan armies, young boys were part of the force, but they were shield bearers and shepherds; they did not serve as combatants. In other parts of Africa, it was not until you were married that you were allowed the honor of becoming a warrior.
The third thing to note here is that we are not talking about seventeen-and-a-half-year-olds. Again, 20 percent of those groups use kids under the age of twelve. The youngest ever recorded child soldier was a five-year-old in Uganda. The youngest ever recorded child terrorist was a seven-year-old in Colombia. Two separate surveys found the average age of children in these groups to be just above twelve-and-a-half. So we are talking about kids, what any sane person would describe as kids.
The result of this is, that as our forces are deployed around the world after 9/11, it has not only become a regular but an inevitable occurrence that we would come into contact with child soldiers. In fact, not only contact, but every single place that we have deployed since 9/11 we have come into combat with child soldiers.
Little discussed in the media is the fact that the fact that the very first U.S. combat casualty in the war on terrorism was a Green Beret sergeant who was killed by a fourteen-year-old sniper in Afghanistan. More recently, in Afghanistan we captured a twelve-year-old who had been part of a Taliban ambush of U.S. forces; that was about two months ago.
In Iraq the presence of child soldiers has skyrocketed, unfortunately. Before the war, the regime of Saddam Hussein had created a structure called the Ashbal Saddam, Saddam's Lion Cubs, and this was a training program for young boys between the ages of ten and fifteen. It was seen as a feeder organization into the Fedayeen Saddam. This was the paramilitary force that people may remember actually fought against the invasion, as opposed to the Iraqi army. It was commanded by Saddam's son Uday. The remnant of the Ashbal Saddam has become a part of this insurgency.
During the invasion itself, U.S. forces fought child soldiers in at least three different cities that we have reporting on, but it is during the insurgency that it has taken off. As I alluded to, the post-Saddam Baathist forces have used child soldiers. The radical Shia forces that were centered around Muqtada al-Sadr, called the Mahdi Army, that particularly fought in a pretty pitched battle in Najaf, used children as young as twelve. In fact, their spokesperson extolled the fact that they were using child soldiers, said that it was a sign of how popular they were that not only the old men but the young boys were fighting for them.
And then, finally, we have seen child soldiers present in the Sunni Triangle. For example, in the pitched battle in Fallujah in November, U.S. Marines described the challenges of fighting "children armed with assault rifles."
Perhaps the best indicator of what was to come was the fact that the very same week that President Bush made his "mission accomplished" speech on the aircraft carrier, in the city of Mosul an Iraqi boy who was twelve years old fired on U.S. Marine forces with an AK47.
So this is something that is not just out there in areas that we claim not to care about, but it is something that our soldiers are wrestling with every single day.
Now, the causes of why this has come about are threefold, and it is three forces coming together.
The first is basically we are in the midst of the most prosperous generation in human history, but we are also leaving people behind, and in particular we are leaving a cohort of children behind. Another way to put it is we are seeing a lost generation right now. All the ills of globalization, wars, etc., are falling on children hardest. When you look at the numbers, they are staggering: more than 250 million children are homeless; more than 25 million children are refugees or internally displaced persons.
A particular at-risk group for child soldiers is orphans, and their numbers are higher not only because of conflicts that are spiraling out but also because of disease. By the year 2010 it is thought that as many as 43 million children will have lost either both or one of their parents to AIDS. What this has done is created a new pool of potential combatants.
The second force, though, is what enables this. A couple of generations ago it would not have mattered, but now we have seen changes in technology and changes in warfare itself. In the past you could not have activated this pool to become combatants, but because of changes in the primary weapons of war, while we typically focus on tanks, aircraft carriers, stealth bombers, most of the fighting and more than 90 percent of casualties come from light weapons—rifles, RPGs, etc.
They have changed, though. The military describes light weapons as "man portable." But what has happened in the last couple generations is they have become "child portable." They are lighter through the incorporation of plastics. They are simpler. The AK47 has nine moving parts. They are easier to learn how to use. It used to take weeks to teach someone how to use a weapon effectively; a ten-year-old can learn how to use an AK in just under thirty minutes. They have proliferated. There are more than 500 million light weapons out there floating around the globe in terms of weapon stocks and also in the illegal arms trade. And then, finally, they are far more lethal. That ten-year-old has the equivalent fire power of a Napoleonic army regiment. And so they may not be able to become as effective a combatant as a professional soldier in that half-hour, but they are effective enough to rend civil society apart, particularly when targeting non-armed civilians.
This is all taking place within the third factor, which is changes in the context of warfare, changes in international politics. We live in the era of failed states. We live in the era of conflict entrepreneurs. We live in the era of post-modern warfare, where warrior and civilian are morphing together.
Really the example that illustrates this best is the story of Charles Taylor. It also shows why warlord leaders would see child soldiers as being useful to them.
Charles Taylor was an escaped convict from Plymouth Prison in Massachusetts. He went back home to Liberia, where he was from, and on Christmas Eve he invaded the country. He only had about 125 adult followers. People in the capital city did not even know they had been invaded. This was little more than a gang.
Over the next couple of years, though, Charles Taylor built up his force to the thousands, primarily through child soldiers, either through abduction raids, targeting orphanages in particular, or by recruiting, tricking, convincing kids to join, making fantastic promises. For example, one kid talked about how he was told he would get a Mercedes-Benz if they won the war. This obviously wasn't a reason why he would join an army, and also Taylor obviously did not deliver on that when he did win the war.
In a couple of years, Taylor was running what was called Taylor Land, which was an enclave, a warlord territory, where he was pulling in $300 million a year in illegal trade, particularly in timber, some of it with U.S. corporations.
A couple years later, his forces won the war and he became the president of Liberia. So through child soldiers a petty convict became a king. So we can see why leaders like it.
Now, there are four implications of what this means for international politics. And, obviously enough, they are not good. Beyond just the pure tragedy of it, what are the implications? How is this playing out? How does this affect conflict itself?
The first is, to put it in economic terms, the barriers to entry to warfare have been lowered. Children are targeted as soldiers because leaders see them as a cheap and easy way to recruit and they see them as low-cost expendable assets that they can use in such a manner. And so what that means is that armed organizations are able to multiply out their numbers far above what they would be otherwise. It means that gangs like Taylor's can become effective forces in warfare.
It also means that wars are harder to stop because groups can continually remake themselves. The example there is the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. The RUF, which a lot of people may recall, is the group that in my mind is probably the most evil rebel group in the 1990s. It had a particular calling card of cutting off the arms of civilians. It was completely beaten on two separate instances, except for the fact that its adult leadership, its core of leaders, made its way back into the jungle and it reconstituted itself back up to just over 10,000.
The second thing that happens is that we are seeing the devaluation of ideology itself. The connections between a leader's motivation and the adult followers are broken. In fact, many of these kids are punished if they even ask what cause they are fighting for. One interviewee was beaten when he tried to find out what the cause was, when he questioned it too closely.
And so what you are seeing is groups that could not convince adults to join—for example, it is very hard to convince an adult to join a group so that the leader might seize a diamond mine and profit from it—whereas a kid can be pulled in. We are seeing that a lot of these wars are basically really about personal profit.
Another way to think about it is that the insurgency model is shifting. The Maoist model was the idea of building up popularity and creating your own institutions in society because you would be then a "fish in the sea" and you could mix within it and that was how you would win the war. The new model is predatory: you see civilians as simply a target, as resources, to steal and rape and pillage from.
It also means that fringe movements that would not be viable forces otherwise are now out there fighting. The best example of this is the Lord's Resistance Army, which is in northern Uganda. The leader of the LRA is a fellow named Joseph Kony. Joseph Kony thinks he is the reincarnation of the Christian Holy Spirit. Under his interpretation of Christianity, the ownership of sex slaves is allowed and bicycles are banned.
Kony has about 200 adult followers. Over the last ten years, he has built up a force that at its high point was 14,000, primarily through abducted children, and he has fought the Ugandan army, which is considered one of the more professional armies in Africa, to fairly much of a standstill. So basically we have seen someone who should be a David Koresh-like figure run a civil war.
The third implication is it raises not only the tragedy of warfare but the cost of warfare itself. The casualty rates among children are higher than their adult equivalents, and wars that have children in them have a higher level of atrocities. Not only is there a higher level in terms of those committed on the outside against the populace, but also we have to remember that the use of child soldiers itself and the recruiting mechanisms and the way they indoctrinate, the way they pull kids in, in some cases forcing kids to kill someone in their own home village—that is also a human rights violation. So you see atrocities happening both outside and within.
This is particularly something that happens with girl child soldiers. They are often targeted for sexual abuse, and of course then it is harder for them to reintegrate back into society after the fact.
The fourth and final implication is what I call the "conflict merry-go-round." Basically we are seeing a cycle of violence building up. Children face a harder time reintegrating. Their physical scars are greater. Their psychological scars are obviously far greater; there are higher levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You are talking about someone who is not just a little adult, but someone at a point in their life where their identity itself is being shaped, where their whole moral code is being shaped. And so they are a victim of the most political form of child abuse.
You also see the fact that they have been pulled out of the period where they are developing life skills. You would meet kids in Liberia who do not know how to read, do not know how to write, but can fieldstrip an AK47.
And so you see this spreading like a virus, where child soldiers then end up immigrating in search of work. In west Africa we saw it spread from Liberia, to Sierra Leone, to Guinea, back to Liberia, to Cote d'Ivoire, and we even saw some Liberian child soldiers end up as far away as Congo. As the map there shows, you see these geographic clusterings as they are building out over time.
Another way to think about this is it is the destruction of childhood itself.
So what can we do about it? I will spend the last five minutes trying to wrap this up. Really we have to understand this for what it is. It is not just some evil that bubbled up from the earth. It is a thought-out strategy, a thought-out process. And it is one that, like I said, has spread like a virus.
And so the way we have to deal with it is at each stage of that process: in terms of prevention and deterrence, in terms of dealing with it during warfare itself, and in terms of breaking the cycle of violence and helping to turn child soldiers back into children so that that cycle is ended.
Now, unfortunately, in terms of prevention, there has been no deterrence, and therefore it has not been successful. The model so far has been building up awareness and trying to add to the legal environment that bans child soldiers, and trying to get warlord group leaders to realize that it is a wrong that they are doing.
Unfortunately, it has not been successful. The practice has only grown throughout this period. And, in effect, it is because what we have tried to do is shame the shameless. And so to be more successful we have to move past that. It was useful at the start, but now it is time to move past it.
We have to first deal with the underlying causes. What is bringing children into these areas? What is bringing them into war? That means that investment in things like international aid, heading off global disease spread, special support to at-risk groups like orphans, is not only a question of whether we are generous or stingy, as we talk about it now in terms of our aid. There is also a strategic reason to do it.
And it is something that ties into a lot of other areas. For example, we have already seen orphans from the tsunami being recruited in Sri Lanka, and I expect we will probably see it happen in Aceh in Indonesia as well.
It's the same thing in curbing the spread of international light weapons. The U.S. has been in my mind on the wrong side of this. We lobbied against the conventions to punish the illegal trade of light weapons, and our allies in that effort were Communist China and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. I think we are on the wrong side, and it was because we conflated domestic gun control with international gun control.
I do not think that the membership of the NRA would support that, I do not think they would support the trade of AK47s to child soldier users, but the delegation that the United States sent included board members from the NRA, and it did so.
We also have to take away the advantages of it. We've got to start making the conflict group leaders dance to our tune. What this means is this additive of deterrence that I talked about, bringing some costs to it, rather than just the advantages.
We've got to start prosecuting it for what it is, a war crime. And actually it is the easiest war crime to prove. While you can claim ignorance or disconnection from some massacre that happened elsewhere, it is quite hard for you to claim that you were not aware of the fact that 60 percent of your force was made up of seven-year-olds-to-seventeen-year-olds. You cannot claim it. This is not able to happen.
The second thing, though, is we have got to realize that in some cases we are not going to be able to reach that warlord leader in the field, so we have to go after the enablers, the people that they trust or that they profit from. Part of that is going to entail going after those who trade with them, taking the profits out of it. We've got to start finding their pressure points.
The second area is that we have to face up to the reality of war as it is rather than how we would prefer it to be. Our soldiers are facing child combatants every single day, and they are not getting the intelligence support, the training support, the doctrinal preparation, the equipment, the public affairs backup—you name it, they are not getting it, because it is just simply not even talked about, not even discussed. I will give you two examples of how this plays out.
About a year and a half ago, I got an email from a U.S. Marine officer who was offshore from Liberia. We were about to go into Liberia at the end of that civil war there. He said: "We have seen on the news that there are a lot of child soldiers there, but we haven't gotten anything from Washington. Who are they, how many are there, and more importantly, what should we do about it?"
I emailed back and said, "Yes, there are a lot, 60 percent of the force there is children. It would be important if 60 percent of the force had blue skin, let alone all the particular dilemmas that children present for soldiers." So I sent him a draft of the book.
That is not how it is supposed to be. It makes for a great story to tell here, but that is not the way it is supposed to be.
Another example is the use of non-lethal weapons. The armchair generals in D.C. say, "Well, why should we give our troops non-lethal weapons? Does that mean we'll make them soft?"
Soldiers in the field want them. They do not want them to replace their rifles; they want them as an additive. It gives them extra choices, choices they need out in the field. This was the particular case in Iraq. In the entire U.S. Army, there are only sixty non-lethal weapon sets. The non-lethal weapon doctrine does not even have the words "child soldier" in it. Of that sixty sets total, we sent six to Iraq. What that has meant is there are several instances:
An example was during the invasion in Nazariah [Iraq], where U.S. forces came under fire from children, which they had not even been told was a possibility. In this instance, it was a U.S. Army unit. The platoon pulled back, debated amongst themselves what to do. So they paused, something the commanders did not want. They then called out to the kids who were shooting RPGs at them, said, "Stop." They didn't. They then fired a warning shot. That didn't stop them. Then they shot to kill. That kind of ad hoc solution was one that was not only unsuccessful from the military standpoint but was particularly traumatic for the soldiers themselves.
As one soldier on the scene put it: "Anybody that can shoot a little kid and not have a problem with it, there is something wrong with them. Of course I had a problem with it. After being shot at all day, it didn't matter if you were a soldier or a kid. Those RPGs are meant to hurt us. But I did what I had to do."
They went on to talk about they wished they had had non-lethal weapons. It would have given them another option.
The final area is what to do after the fact. How do we break this cycle? Really it comes down to resourcing. Child soldiers are not lost forever. They are victims of abuse, and it will shape and scar them. But if they get proper support, if they get rehabilitation, if they get reintegration, they can lead happy and successful lives.
I have met former child soldiers, one who is a student at a pretty prestigious university in New England, another who is now a major in the U.S. Marines; but they are the exceptions to the rule because we are not investing enough in this. I will give you two quick examples of that.
In the first UN operation that went into Sierra Leone, there was an estimated 15,000-to-20,000 child soldiers that needed to be demobilized and reintegrated. We sent one child psychologist.
In Afghanistan there were an estimated 8,000 child soldiers fighting for both the Taliban primarily but also some for the Northern Alliance. We did not spend one dime on rehabilitation until two years after we toppled the Taliban, and the only reason we did that was because it was part of the return program for three kids who we had captured who had been held at Guantanamo. So we gave the warlords two more years to tap into that network, that 8,000 kids.
I will end here. The first is to thank you all for coming out and listening to what is a topic that is not cheerful, but hopefully it is compelling. Really, the take-away from me is when we look at history there are countless doctrines, there are countless practices, that have come and gone and that we look at now as just making no sense, as being purely horrible.
For example, a little more than 300 years ago it was considered your right to keep whomever you captured, to keep your prisoner as a slave; that was accepted practice. Little more than a hundred years ago, it was considered an obligation, a "white man's burden," to go out and seize countries, to help raise them up. We now look on these practices as beyond the pale.
So, hopefully, one day we will look at the child soldier practice as a period in time when these rules broke down, as an anomaly, something of the past. But that is only going to happen if we match the will of those leaders who have chosen to do evil to children with our own will to do good.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much for bringing this very important topic to our attention. I would like to open the floor to questions.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: I am reading your book now. You have some very interesting quotations from some of the child soldiers, and some from former child soldiers. I have a couple of observations.
First, you do make in the book the comments that Israel has had to redo its whole thinking regarding taking action against child soldiers. Now it includes anybody over the age of twelve as an adult, since the Palestinians have been using so many of them that the Israeli soldiers have had to go after them.
The other thing is you've got a quote from someone in there saying, "After you have killed the first one"—this is one of the child soldiers speaking—"it is very easy to kill others."
So based on what you are talking about, in terms of rehabbing, I would like to ask you to go a little bit into Chapter 5, how you turn the child into a soldier—that doesn't necessarily mean a uniformed soldier, but a child soldier in one of those rebellious groups that use them so much—and then Chapter 10 of your book, which says how you deprogram them; again, once they have killed, how do you return them to being a child?
P.W. SINGER: The first thing I will touch on is the Israeli example and then broaden it out. When I do these kind of presentations for people in the U.S. military, that sometimes comes up. I actually point to it as a "what not to do" on two levels.
The first is the strategy that Israel has used so far in occupied territories has not been successful in terms of steering children away from conflict. We see this in the fact that it is the Hamas guys who are the heroes, who are having to turn people away from the door.
Part of that is not just actions; it is how it has led to institutions that are controlled by these leaders that help them funnel recruits. So when you decimate state institutions, something fills the void.
So, for example, Hamas runs its own schools, all the way down to kindergarten, which they use to recruit. The walls of the schools have billboards on how great it is to become a martyr. Thus, we have seen more than thirty suicide bombers—actually it is thirty-two suicide bombers—since the year 2000 that have been juveniles. So the strategy is not working in terms of cutting off the pipeline.
The second part is the ROE [Rules Of Engagement] bringing it down to twelve. They have had no public affairs strategy around it, and the result is they get hammered in the press and everyone sees them as "just shooting little kids." That is not successful from their own standpoint. So it is a model that if we don't watch out we could fall into.
On the broader issue, in terms of indoctrination, the book details how children are brought into this and the different methods used. It is everything from regular training techniques that would be familiar to us in terms of what we do for soldiers, to other models.
The Tamil Tigers actually have one of the most sophisticated programs, where first the kids' heads are shaved, so it is not only easier to identify them if they try to escape, but it is also, just like in our military, to give you a new identity: "you are someone different now." They run them through a program from 5 a.m. until 10 o'clock at night, where it is everything from physical training, to learning how to use weapons, to spending the evening listening to political lectures. It lasts four months.
The other model is when you see kids abducted. For example, in Uganda the LRA basically forces them very quickly, sometimes at the point of abduction, to kill someone else or be killed. Often it is a person from their home village.
Again, it is not that they are pure evil; they are doing it for a reason. The reason they are forcing them to kill someone from their village is then they tell them, "You can't go home again. Everyone will know what you have done."
All the kids interviewed describe that first death as the breaking point. That is when they became someone else. You will see lots of coping mechanisms, psychological coping mechanisms, to deal with it—for example, giving themselves what they call jungle names; it is sort of a cognitive dissonance. You see this in gangs and the like, where the kids would give themselves a new name. For child soldiers, it would be everything from "Lieutenant Dirty Beige," this kid who everyone joked never washed and he smelled bad, to the first kid, "Blood Never Dry," which meant that he was always killing. They would say, "It was this other person, it was Blood Never Dry, that was out there killing. Also, when the bullets were flying, they were going to hit him, it wasn't me." it wasn't this individual.
You also see indoctrination through the use of drugs. A lot of the groups force kids to take drugs. Again, it is thought out. First of all, it makes them fearless; they talk about "being on another plane." It was like someone else was shooting at them, someone else was the one doing the killing. And the drugs are often a mixture. In west Africa it was usually a mix of often either heroin and gunpowder or cocaine and gunpowder, and it was thought that the gunpowder made it stronger.
The second part, though, is the idea that it is another way of binding them to the group; they become dependent on the drugs.
QUESTION: I have come across child soldiers a lot, first as a foreign correspondent covering east and west Africa, and then running working for an NGO, where child soldiers were on our books, part of our mandate.
I wonder if you could respond to this question that I have, or observation, and that is that I could understand as a reporter writing stories that nobody was supposed to react and do something positive to stop it. But when I started lobbying here as a member of an NGO and I went to the State Department and I went to the embassies, the American embassies in the countries concerned, I got a very cold shoulder.
P.W. SINGER: That is the challenge on the activism side. There are a couple of things that play out from this.
The first is—and this is where I think I take a different position than a lot of people in the humanitarian community—I do not think we have been as strategic as we should have been, and this is on a number of levels. The first is that too often it gets pigeonholed as a children's issue, and then children's issues are pigeonholed in with women's issues, which is then pigeonholed in an office at the end of the day that does nothing, or a committee in Congress that does nothing.
I will give you an example. I gave a similar talk on the Hill about three weeks ago, and we had people from every committee that dealt with this except Armed Services. Again, that's that disconnect in terms of this is also a military issue.
That leads to the second observation, which is we have to take it beyond just being a children's issue and get people to realize how there are broader implications, how it connects to issues that they care about. In the U.S. government it is also sometimes lumped in under child labor, and therefore it really doesn't move past it.
The second thing is there are natural constituencies that we have avoided because it has been uncomfortable for us. The most natural one is the military itself. The soldiers in the field care about this issue, are wrestling with it, and yet are often held at a distance or not even talked to because of this sort of "they're from different worlds," and they not only don't speak the different language but they are fearful of each other, etc.
That leads also to the third issue, which is operating activism to make ourselves feel good, bashing to make ourselves feel good, rather than trying to solve the problem.
There are two examples here. The first that is the U.S. military was holding kids at Guantanamo. It wanted to get them back to Afghanistan; it did not want to hold them. It reached out to the NGO community. The two parties came together, and the conversation went like this: "You are violating international law by holding them. It's a violation of international law," etc., etc. The military came back with the response: "These are illegal combatants. It is allowed under international law. And by the way, we're treating them really nice, we're not abusing them, they're staying at Camp Iguana."
Camp Iguana was a separate facility from Camp X-Ray, the main camp. They actually were treated rather well. They played bocce on the beach, they learned English and mathematics, they watched DVDs all day. Their favorite film was "Cast Away," which they sort of connected with. For one thing, there weren't a lot of words in it; the other was they had also been plucked from somewhere else and taken to a desert island.
And so they were like, "Look, we are not doing this. Why are you attacking us?"
At the end of the day, though, the army did not want to be doing this; they wanted to get those kids back to Afghanistan. Also, both parties did not want to see the kids cycling back into violence. They did not want to see them become re-recruited. But they were speaking such a different language, and they were so interested in bashing each other, that it took eleven months for them to come to an agreement on it, and that was eleven more months those kids were held.
At a broader level, the way the international coalition [The Coalition to Stop Child Soldiers] has dealt with this issue is that at every opportunity it has been given it has tried to stick its thumb in major states' eyes, in particular those of the United States. And so in the Global Report, for example, in the very same paragraph that talks in its opening sentence about how the United States is using child soldiers—by recruiting seventeen-and-a-half-year-olds who have graduated high school, with their parents' permission, such that by the time they make it through the training programs and are deployed they turn eighteen—the next sentence talks about the Lord's Resistance Army that abducts children from orphanages and forces them to kill someone in their home village. Now, we can argue maybe they are both evils, but they are not the same.
And so we need to be strategic in how we expend our political capital on it. That kind of approach meant that we didn't bring the U.S. onboard. We were already coming from an adversarial standpoint on it.
QUESTION: Could you tell us a little more about the NRA's role in the convention that we failed to support? Who was president at the time? How did they get into that position? What did Congress, if anything, do?
P.W. SINGER: There is a brief section in the book that talks about it, and so I will refer to the footnotes in there so I don't get sued. Basically, there were international negotiations that particularly focused on trying to stop the illegal sale of weapons, particularly to non-state actors. There were also provisions in it, for example, that were trying to get tracking mechanisms, so you would have to have a number put on every weapon that was sold.
Our contingent had NRA board members, including, for example, Bob Barr, the former congressman from Georgia. We did everything we could to shut it down. We were assisted in that by the Chinese and the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein at the time.
Again, it really came down in my mind to conflating two things that are quite different. Gun control in the United States is not international gun control. Ironically enough, the kind of things that the NRA says are needed in the United States—that is, not new laws but enforcement of laws to make sure that legal sales happen to the people who merit it—that was the kind of argument that was being made at the international level, but it was all lumped together as gun control.
That is an example. But it is a broader issue in terms of when we talk about arms control we never talk about the weapons that are actually used; we always talk about weapons that are not used, and we expend all our energy and our assets on that.
Light weapons cause between 90 and 96 percent of the casualties in conflicts. In every war they are the ones that are primarily used. They are the ones that are used against us. We are not out there fighting aircraft carriers; we are fighting people with AK47s that they have bought off the global market from primarily arms dealers that we know about—and, I should add, arms dealers that have been working for U.S. corporations in Iraq, specifically Halliburton.
That goes back to the previous book. Victor Bout is a well-known war criminal, arms dealer, and he has made millions from running a trade into Iraq. Basically, he has been one of the contract air suppliers. His company was the one that got it—and I should add his company that didn't bid for it, so we didn't even get a good charge.
QUESTION: Who was president?
P.W. SINGER: At the time I guess it was Heston.
QUESTION: President of the United States?
P.W. SINGER: That was Bush. That was 2001. But let's be clear. During the Clinton years we didn't do enough on Victor Bout either.
QUESTION: I found your talk absolutely fascinating and horrifying at the same time. I am just curious, from the standpoint of methodology, how did you do this research? How did you know where to go, how to find these children? How were you able to communicate with them and get their stories?
P.W. SINGER: The first thing to say is I am standing on the work of a lot of other people. The foreword to the book talks about that.
One of the challenges of how—and this goes back, in part, to your question of how we have dealt with this issue so far—is that different communities have lots of information, and lots of agendas as well, programming, etc., and they are not talking to each other. And so, for example, you have great reporting from human rights groups that are not looking into the causes. At the same time, the International Labor Organization has phenomenal surveys that have been taken that lay out, for example, from the thousands of kids they have interviewed: "What got you into this? Was it that you lost a parent? Was it that you were an orphan?" There are literally pages and pages of transcripts from interviews by child psychologists and the rehabilitation community.
The first is to say that there is a lot of great work out there, but no one has integrated it. Second, in terms of access, it is really about building up credibility. There are two things. One, they have to trust you.
Then the second is people often see that they can reach an audience that they want to reach. And so, for example, former child soldiers want to see that other people are not pulled into this. They will often say this is something they wrestled with. One even talked about how he fought so that other children wouldn't have to fight.
One guy I interviewed was a former Green Beret who was now working in a private capacity. He actually had trained child soldiers. He had fought them in west Africa and trained them in east Africa. He saw it as "military folks are going to read this," and so he cared aoubt it as a way of getting his knowledge back to the U.S. military. He went on and on about the kind of things that U.S. soldiers should be aware of. Everyone wants to reach a certain audience, and so I think they often see you as the conveyor of that.
QUESTION: Your last comment prompted me to ask you a question. This issue has been bubbling for the last eight years now. You seem to have done a good service by trying to rephrase it and reframe it as a strategic question, but that still seems to me to beg the issue. I mean clearly this ex-Green Beret who is training kids to fight and wants to tell soldiers back home in the U.S. how to fight them, how to deal with them, sets up a really ambiguous problem for the U.S. military, being the most powerful military in the world.
It seems to me that the core of the problem is that the Pentagon itself is ambiguous, extremely ambiguous, about the kinds of fighting people have to do over the next ten or twenty years. Until the Pentagon, as the lead military agency so to speak, takes some more pronounced and public stance against this, saying, "We are going to move towards making this just a no-go area for soldiers," nothing much will happen. The Pentagon has stopped pretty much every convention attempted at stopping child soldiers because of this issue of seventeen-and-a-half-year-olds, afraid that it will tie the United States' arms in getting soldiers they need. I don't see any other way out of it. It has to begin with the Pentagon, rather than the issue of sanctions against rogue leaders or whatever. If nothing happens there, then nothing will happen.
P.W. SINGER: That is a really good question. The first thing I should add is one of the interesting aspects of this guy who was training units within the SPLA. The SPLA is the Sudanese rebel group, so he saw himself as on the "good guys' side." He described the unit that he was training, which was primarily fifteen-year-olds, as "the best soldiers that he had worked with in his eighteen years of experience in Africa," the best overall—not just the best child soldiers but the best overall.
He talked about one incident where an attack helicopter ambushed them, and instead of running, the kids laid out basically a counter-ambush for the attack helicopter. "So these are not just kids" was the way he was trying to push it.
Really the broader question you are asking is: how do we deal with the reality of war as it is rather than how we would prefer it? The Pentagon has been dragged kicking and screaming through the 1990s into this, yet it is still trying to play the game with the two-theater war; our war games were structured for classic desert armor warfare.
The reality is every single place we have deployed troops—and warfare itself—is not like that anymore. It is light weapons, it is insurgents, it is post-modern, it is warlords—you know, it is all these things wrapped together.
You see it, for example, in the way they coined it. It was "military operations other than war." It was "this other thing that we do not want to have anything to do with."
What is going to change it? The photos here of U.S. soldiers in Iraq having to detain kids, having to frisk kids, having to fight kids. We are already seeing that happen. We are seeing that happen within the military. Within the military, though, it is the field level having to battle the people back in D.C.
It is going to take time, but I think it is on its way, and part of this is we have to realize that it is not just a kids issue; it is a strategic issue. You see, for example, the Marines have started. They just built it into a war game. But it is basically reality, reality coming in. It is unfortunate that this is the way it happens, and it means that the first couple of responses are not good because of that.
The other thing is that it is not just the military; it's the intelligence community. The CIA has these sessions where they bring in experts and they say, "What's going to happen in this region ten years from now?" We were doing an exercise—this is not classified, so it is okay to talk about it—a couple years ago on west Africa. I said, "Cote d'Ivoire is next."
They were like, "Cote d'Ivoire? That's the one stable place in the area." "No, because the war is ending in the other areas. It's bad for them." Cote d'Ivoire sunk into violence and you saw Liberian kids fighting there. And so, again, the intelligence community, as we well know, is just not geared up for this new world. It still counts tanks when it needs to be dealing with individuals.
JOANNE MYERS Thank you again for speaking here today on this under-reported subject.