Attrition: Kids And Guns


October 2,2008:  For the last decade, the UN has been on a crusade to keep teenagers away from guns. This has been particularly difficult in Africa, where warlords find teenagers easy to recruit into their armies. Much to its dismay, the UN recently discovered that thousands of teenagers have rejoined warlord armies this year, after having been "demobilized" and reunited with their families earlier. But over a third of these kids resumed their weaponized ways when given the opportunity.

What's happened is that the UN has rediscovered the ancient practice of children in armies, and doesn't quite know what to do about it. Their first response was to start a campaign to expose this despicable practice and put a stop to it. The UN passed a resolution in 2000 forbidding anyone under 18 from serving in the military. Many nations signed the treaty, but far fewer ratified it.

At the time the treaty was introduced, it was estimated that 300,000 "children" (anyone under 18) were serving with armies is. For a number of reasons, both historical and technical, the head count for kids in armies is probably higher now than it ever has been in the past. And the practice of children serving with armies has a long, long history.

For thousands of years, kids went off to war. The younger ones acted as servants, to help around the camp. The older ones, as they got bigger, worked their way into the fighting line. About all that anyone in Western nations knows of this is the medieval tradition of children serving as pages and squires, and ultimately becoming knights. That was for the children of the nobility. Commoner kids also had opportunities to become professional warriors if they survived to adolescence, avoiding death from the ill treatment they faced while living with callous soldiers and the rigors of living rough while the army was on campaign.

The 20th century changed all that. With lighter rifles and automatic weapons, kids could be armed and sent off to fight at an earlier age. As in the past, many young boys were fascinated with weapons and violence. "Running off to join the army" was around long before "running off to join the circus." There has never been a shortage of volunteers.

Starting in the 1930s, kid-size military rifles (the Russian SKS and 9mm machine pistols) began to appear in large quantities. After World War II, the Russian AK-47 showed up, and became the weapon of choice for child soldiers everywhere. With end of the Cold War, and the collapse of communist governments, millions of AK-47s suddenly appeared on world markets. At first, the AK-47s were so cheap that they were practically given away ("buy a rocket launcher and we'll throw in a free AK-47..."). Whereas in the past kids had to make themselves useful, and show they had a minimum of smarts and initiative before getting a weapon, the flood of AK-47s made it possible to arm the children much earlier in their military career (within hours or days, rather than weeks or months.) The hordes of children wielding AK-47s gave new meaning to the term "wild child." And these kiddie gunsels are more dangerous than the adults. Children are difficult to discipline under any conditions. But when the kid has an automatic weapon, childish petulance takes on a new meaning.

Until lighter weight weapons came along, the kids in the military were lightly armed (maybe a knife) and generally responsive to a smack upside the head. Once they got their guns, discipline became more harsh. One vivid example of this showed up in the 1963 movie, "Mondo Cane" ("It's a Dog's World"). This Italian "shockumentary" showed odd behavior from all parts of the world. It was all real; nothing was staged. In one scene, filmed in the camp of some African guerrillas, a ten-year-old kid is saying something to an adult that is apparently not appreciated. The adult pulls out a pistol and shoots the kid in the chest. The body flies back into the bush; all that can be seen are the kid's shoes - a lesson, no doubt, to other kids in the camp to show some respect to their elders.

In better-organized armies, children served as drummer boys until about a century ago. In some navies, kids can still serve as cabin boys, a tradition that goes back many centuries. When children like these are serving in an organized military unit, they have a degree of protection. At least they cannot be executed out of hand. The UN got into a snit with the United States and Britain, which have long allowed 17-year-old boys (and even younger in Britain) to join up with parental permission.

The UN didn't make much progress against the long standing recruiting practices of America and Britain. But the real target was guerrillas and irregulars who are waging war in a medieval fashion. That means these paramilitary units are living off the land. This has always meant stealing people as well as food and valuables. But guerrilla movements have always appealed to kids, mainly because of the ideological and revenge aspects.

Guerrillas know their attacks on the government will usually bring retaliation against the local civilians. Every time a father is killed by the soldiers, the older sons (and sometimes the daughters) feel compelled to seek revenge. In many parts of the world, the "blood feud" tradition is strong and there are few impediments to a kid joining the local guerrillas to avenge his kin. In these circumstances it's almost impossible for a 14-year-old not to volunteer. The UN/NGO campaign plays this down, if they play it at all. Instead, the incidents of guerrillas forcibly conscripting kids for military service is put out front. This may make for better PR, but ignoring local customs makes eliminating underage soldiering a lot more difficult.

Even if the guerrillas and bandits (sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference) were persuaded to stop taking kids, it's much more difficult to stop the kids from joining. Revenge, adventure, altruism and the thrill of wielding the power that comes from holding a gun will bring the underage recruits in for a long time to come.





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