Leadership: The UN and American Children In Combat

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April 27, 2007: Fearing a media mauling, the Department of Defense has ordered that no troops younger than 18 can deploy to a combat zone. For a long time, it's been possible to enlist at age 17, and be through basic and advanced training quickly enough to hit combat before you turn 18. The UN, however, has declared teenage soldiers, or at least those under 18, to be a crime against humanity.

Blame it all on cheap AK-47s. The end of the Cold War has brought millions of cheap AK-47s to Africa. This has increased the death toll, as assault rifles can kill a lot more people than the traditional spears and bows. Indeed, previously only experienced hunters went to war, because it was up close, personal and very physical. Muscle mattered. You had to be tough, experienced and brave. With AK-47s, any kid can become a bad ass, blasting away from a distance. Where in the past women and children were generally spared, now they are the first victims of the AK-47 armed teenagers.

The ten pound AK-47 could be handled by nine and ten year old kids, and children this young were easily manipulated by older men. But the UN got caught up in its own politically correct atmosphere and when it declared anyone under age 18 a "child," and included them in its campaign against the use of "child soldiers." This became a PR problem for nations like Britain and the U.S., whose all-volunteer militaries typically enlist 17 year olds (to accommodate recent high school grads).

The "17 year old guys are children" thing also ignores the past. Throughout history, teenagers have made up a large segment of the battlefield population. Most of the older guys would stay home to tend the wife and kids. This was a purely practical matter, as one missed harvest could kill off everyone. For the teenage guys, war was a rite of passage and form of population control. In many cultures, many female infants were killed for the same reason, but battle was seen as a suitable way of deciding which males were fit to breed.

The U.S. has about 1,200 17 year olds in uniform. The "no 17 year olds in combat" rule keeps a few hundred of them out of combat zones. There, the casualty rate for support troops (the majority) is about one percent per 12 month tour. For combat troops, its closer to ten percent. The average casualty (dead and wounded) rate is about four percent. So the new rule means that about a dozen 17 year old troops will not become casualties each year. Since the shortest term of enlistment is three years, those 17 year olds will have to wait a year to take their chances in combat.

Grabbing cheap headlines at the expense of 17 year old American and British soldiers does nothing for eleven year old Congolese kids shooting at each other. But it makes some people feel better, and that must mean something.

 


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