Military use of children

From Academic Kids

The military use of children refers to children being placed in harm's way in military actions, the desire being to protect a location or provide propaganda. (This is sometimes referred to as child sacrifice, though not equivalent to the religious variety.) It may also refer to the use of children as child soldiers or saboteurs.

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Boy soldier in the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar army.
Photo: Canadian Friends of Burma


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Illustrative bas-relief of Greek warrior accompanied by his charioteer. From the pediment of a kouros statue, ca. 490 BCE.
On ,  this commemoration cermony was held to remember children who fought and fell in the Warsaw Uprising.
On August 1, 2004 this commemoration cermony was held to remember children who fought and fell in the Warsaw Uprising.

Throughout history and in many cultures, children have been extensively involved in military campaigns even when such practices were supposedly against cultural mores.

The earliest mentions of minors being involved in wars comes from antiquity. It was customary for youths in the cultures of the Mediterranean basin to serve as aides, charioteers and armor bearers to adult warriors. Examples of this practice can be found in the Bible (such as David's service to King Saul), in Hittite and Egyptian art, and in Greek mythology (such as the story of Hercules and Hylas), philosophy and literature. In ancient Greece the practice was formalized as part of the pederastic educational tradition, and man/boy couples were considered to make an especially effective fighting force. See Sacred Band of Thebes

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A child soldier in the United States Civil War

Also in a practice dating back to antiquity, children were routinely taken on campaign, together with the rest of a military man's family, as part of the baggage. This of course exposed them to harm from rearguard attacks, such as the one at the battle of Agincourt where the retainers and children of the English army were massacred by the French.

The Romans also made use of youths in war, though it was understood that it was unwise and cruel to use children in war, and Plutarch implies that regulations required youths to be at least sixteen years of age.

In medieval Europe, young boys from about twelve years of age were used as military aides ("squires"), though in theory their role in actual combat was limited. The so-called Children's Crusade in 1212 recruited thousands of children as untrained soldiers under the assumption that divine power would enable them to conquer the enemy, although none of the children actually entered combat.

Polish Boy Scouts fighting in the .
Polish Boy Scouts fighting in the Warsaw Uprising.

By a law signed by Nicholas I of Russia in 1827, a disproportionate number of Jewish boys, known as the cantonists, were forced into military training establishments to serve in the army. The 25-year conscription term officially commenced at the age of 18, but boys as young as eight were routinely taken to fulfill the hard quota.

In World War II, children frequently participated in popular insurrections like the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and other anti-fascist resistance movements across Nazi-occupied Europe.

On the opposite side, Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend or HJ) was an official military organization in Nazi Germany that trained youth in fighting, strategy and incited them with Nazi ideology. By the end of WW2, members of the HJ were taken into the army at ever younger ages; during the Battle of Berlin in 1945 they were a major part of the German defenses.

In some cases, youth organizations were militarized in order to instill discipline in their ranks, sometimes to indoctrinate them with propaganda and prepare for subsequent military service. For some examples, see Scouting movement, Eastern Europe's Pioneer Movements (such as Young Pioneer organization of the Soviet Union), and Red Guards (China).

International law

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art. 38, (1989) proclaimed: "State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities." The Optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict to the Convention that came into force in 2002, regulates the issue in some detail.

Forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict, is one of the predefined worst forms of child labour ( in terms of the International Labour Organisation's Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, adopted in 1999.

In terms of the Worst Forms of Child Labour Recommendation ratifying countries should ensure that forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict is a criminal offence, and also provide for other criminal, civil or administrative remedies to ensure the effective enforcement of such national legislation (Article III(12) to (14)).

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1261 "strongly condemns... recruitment and use of children in armed conflict in violation of international law." (UN Sec. Council Res. 1261 (1999), art. 3, 8, 13.)

The Fourth Geneva Convention forbids the use of any civilian as a shield. (Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T. 3516, 75 U.N.T.S. 287, art. 28).

Modern developments

Children have been both participants in and victims of atrocities. The recruitment of children as soldiers is a practice that has survived into modern times.

Children have been used as spotters, observers, message-carriers, and even as human shields. The latter case is particularly problematic: if the hostage value of the child is respected, children will be increasingly used as human shields, and the soldier is placed at a tactical disadvantage. If not, soldiers must suffer the morale effects of wounding and killing children in self-defense. In any case, a great deal of propaganda value can be gained from publicizing different (and often false) accounts of such events.

Usually, girls are made to perform as sex slaves and aides, while boys' fate is combat, although recent reports indicate that girls have been forced to perform combat as well, and that boys are routinely used for sexual purposes.

To counter their reluctance, the children are dulled by forcing them to commit brutalities and to take drugs that inhibit guilt and fear. Propaganda, revenge and fear of being left alone influence children to "voluntarily" stay in the army.

United States in Vietnam

During Vietnam War, American soldiers reported (and US military sources documented) a number of incidents where Vietnamese children were given hand grenades and/or explosives and used as weapons against American troops. In one variation, a young child is instructed to throw a hand grenade (with or without pulling the pin to activate it first, depending on whether direct or psychological casualties are intended.) In another variation, children had explosives strapped to their bodies and were encouraged to mingle with American soldiers, with detonation either by a mechanical device or by remote control. Incidents such as these were cited by the military to justify use of deadly force against children, much to the disgust of peace activists. The frequency of such incidents, and whether deadly force was necessary as often as it was actually used, is hotly disputed.

The killing of women and children in belated disgust after subjecting them to mistreatment and rape is a well-known phenomenon. Poorly led soldiers may also spontaneously engage in atrocity, as in the My Lai massacre and even Kent State, especially under unaccustomed or extreme stress of combat.

It is characteristic of forces that ignore the laws of war to beat, molest and kill women and children whenever necessary to achieve military objectives. For example, a common Viet Cong response to medical aid supplied to Vietnamese villagers by passing American medics was to later cripple or kill the "patients" thus helped, thereby offsetting the "hearts and minds" value and hurting the morale of medics whose humanitarian work was literally wasted.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Professor of Georgetown University William O'Brien wrote about active participation of Palestinian children in the First Intifada: "It appears that a substantial number, if not the majority, of troops of the intifada are young people, including elementary schoolchildren. They are engaged in throwing stones and Molotov cocktails and other forms of violence." (Law and Morality in Israel's War With the PLO, New York: Routledge, 1991)

According to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (' 2004 Global Report on the Use of Child Soldiers (, there have been at least nine documented suicide attacks involving Palestinian minors between October 2000 and March 2004, "[t]here was no evidence of systematic recruitment of children by Palestinian armed groups. However, children are used as messengers and couriers, and in some cases as fighters and suicide bombers in attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. All the main political groups involve children in this way, including Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine." [1] ( According to Israeli security forces, there have been 229 cases of minors involved in militant activity.

Arab journalist Huda Al-Hussein wrote in the London newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "While UN Organizations save child-soldiers, especially in Africa, from the control of militia leaders who hurl them into the furnace of gang-fighting, some Palestinian leaders... consciously issue orders with the purpose of ending their childhood, even if it means their last breath." (Oct. 27, 2000, translated by MEMRI, Arab Journalist Decries Palestinian Child-Soldiers Special Dispatch 146, Nov. 1, 2000)

In an interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper Azzaman (June 20, 2002), Mahmoud Abbas condemned the practice, saying that he opposed "that little children go to die", stating that "[i]t is a horrible thing. At least 40 children in Rafah became cripples after their hands were blown off by pipe bombs. They received 5 shekels [slightly over $1] to throw them" (Quoted in the Jordanian newspaper Alrai) [2] ( [3] (

Human Rights Watch reported that "IDF soldiers in Jenin engaged in the practice of human shielding". [4] (, [5] (

On May 23, 2005, Amnesty International reiterated its calls to Palestinian armed groups to put an immediate end to the use of children in armed activities: "Palestinian armed groups must not use children under any circumstances to carry out armed attacks or to transport weapons or other material." [6] (

Soviet Union in Afghanistan

Rarely, children have become the deliberate targets of formal military atrocity. In Afghanistan, the Russian military employed improvised explosive devices and bomblets shaped like children's dolls and toys. These devices were intended to be picked up by children at play and detonate, wounding but not killing the child and often amputating the hand or arm. This was intended to hurt villager morale, take up scarce medical resources that would otherwise treat enemy guerillas, and restrict civilians to village areas where they were more vulnerable to government control and/or direct attack.


During the later stages of the Iran-Iraq War, both sides were accused of using teenaged children to fill out the ranks of soldiers depleted by years of warfare. During that war, Iran was accused of using children to clear minefields by having them run in front of the soldiers.

Other conflicts

In some conflicts, the recruitment of children is still a regular occurrence. Guerrilla movements, in particular, are often accused of recruiting or even forcing children into military campaigns, such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. In some African conflicts, such as in Sierra Leone, child soldiers were common.

The military use of children by western countries

United Kingdom

Among developed countries, the United Kingdom has been criticised for its practice of allowing boys to join the armed services at the age of 16, and to fight at 17, something which human rights campaigners decry as hypocritical, given Britain's stance against human rights violations elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, approximately forty percent of its military forces joined when they were just sixteen or seventeen years of age.

This military service is voluntary, leading some to suggest that the argument turns on whether a teenager has the free will and clear mind to consent to join the army. Children's right advocates claim that children should not be exposed to the risks of military life even if they appear to be willing to do so.

United States

The United States currently uses youths of seventeen in its armed forces, though not in combat situations. The human rights organization Human Rights Watch reported:

The United States has emerged as the most vigorous opponent of establishing eighteen as the minimum age for military service, even though fewer than 3,000 members of its 1.3 million active duty force are minors.

In order to preserve its ability to make use of minors in the armed forces, the United States has refused to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a convention ratified by every other recognized country in the world with the exception of Somalia.

Movement to stop military use of children

According to Amnesty International,

"An estimated 300,000 children under the age of eighteen are currently participating in armed conflicts in more than thirty different countries on nearly every continent. While most child soldiers are in their teens, some are as young as seven years old."

After the war, bringing the children into civil society is difficult: they haven't had an education; they are used to violence; they have lost ties to their families. Recently, a strong international movement has emerged to put an end to the practice. See, for example, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

See also

External links

af:kinder-soldaat fr:Enfant soldat wa:Efant-sdr


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