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The Invisible Soldiers: Child Combatants

Weekly Defense Monitor| Volume 2, Issue No.12

March 26, 1998

As so often happens in human events, there is this week a tragic and bitter juxtaposition between two seemingly unrelated events in widely separated places: the President’s 11 day visit to Africa and the most recent instance of multiple murders involving children.

The President flew into Kigali, Rwanda to spend three hours at the airport with the leaders of that ethnic war torn nation in which over half a million people, mostly Tutsis, were slaughtered by Hutus. The world in general and the U.S. in particular, said the President, were too slow to recognize the carnage that engulfed Rwanda and too slow to react to stop it from spreading. But the warning signs were there and had been present for some time. Indeed, the head of the UN mission in Rwanda has testified before the International Court that with 5,000 trained soldiers and an appropriate mandate he could have prevented thousands of deaths.

Mr. Clinton also visited Uganda where, along with seven African heads of state, he pledged to help find remedies for many of Africa’s ills. Uganda itself is still in the grip of a civil war in its north where a rebel group called Lord’s Army operates. One of its major tactics is the abduction and impressment of children and adolescents into its ranks as fighters. In many rural areas the government is unable to protect villages from these marauders. The result is a generation, or part of a generation, taught to fight, to kill or be killed (for the children are told they will die if they do not kill).

Rwanda and Uganda are not the only ones facing the problems of a society that finds children deeply enmeshed in the culture of violence and guns. Burundi and Zaire, Congo, Angola, and Sierra Leone are other African nations which are struggling to overcome the same militarism. And one could point to other third world nations on other continents struggling to resensitize themselves to the horrors of war and genocide.

It is at this point that this week’s tragedy in Jonesboro, Arkansas comes into focus. We as a society tolerate and even encourage an aura of militarism that, prima facie, is an encouragement to use guns and other forms of violence to "solve" problems.

As a society we also provide the means to enact violence. Pictures in major American newspapers show one of the two children in custody in connection with the Arkansas killings aiming a weapon as a small child. Such exposure and obvious approval by adults is the type of subtle encouragement toward violence that can later lead to child soldiers in Africa and more Jonesboros.

Such seeds of destruction do not, of course, have to turn into reality. But the love of guns and things military continues as children grow up in our society. Quasi-military organizations for youths, such as the "Young Marines," include a "chain of command," "boot camp," marching, uniforms, and "inspections." These organizations are allowed because they are seen as ways to occupy children, to socialize them, to teach them discipline. There is merit in each of these points, but why suddenly is there involvement of the military and a military aura associated with these goals? For decades there have been non-military programs and organizations dedicated to instilling these societal "virtues."

Many communities compound the problem by allowing JROTC - Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps - in their high schools, a program administered out of the Pentagon and staffed by retired military personnel. Military history as a separate subject from other history, "survival" skills such as cross country navigation, marching, uniforms, inspections, a chain-of-command are all present. Some programs go so far as to include marksmanship training. All this, again, is done in the name of discipline, occupying time, teaching "skills." But one might legitimately enquire: For what purpose in civilian life? Why must military training be part of this process?

In a population of over 270 million, the tragedy in Arkansas may be an "aberration." It is true in every case that curing violence, at any age, is a challenge that must focus on violent and violence-prone individuals. But the culture of violence in which those so inclined act out their predilection is a societal problem and one that only the society at large can address and begin to solve.

To ignore the problem simply will increase the peril to our nation and our children. The 1997 Morbidity and Mortality Report says that among children under 15 in the United States, the death rate from firearms was twelve times higher than among the next 25 industrialized countries combined.

Just like Rwanda, Uganda, and other African nations, we have our own "army" of child soldiers right here - and we are acting too slowly to stop it from growing every year.

By Colonel Daniel M. Smith, Associate Director of the Center for Defense

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