Today’s wars and conflicts are increasingly fought among and alongside civilian populations. This means that professional soldiers are ever more likely to encounter children during military operations. Despite international efforts to eradicate the use of children in conflict zones, it is estimated that 300,000 child soldiers continue to fight in modern war zones. Armed groups such as as Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State dominate headlines about the use of children in contemporary conflicts: both have had children deliver suicide bombs and carry out executions.
While the plight of the child soldier is an urgent problem, what’s often overlooked is the impact that encountering child fighters can have on professional soldiers.
Children appear in theatres of conflict in many ways. They can participate directly in hostilities by fighting, suicide bombing, or laying improvised explosive devices. They may be used in support roles to carry items through check points or spy on enemy forces; they might simply be deployed as distractions. Armed groups sometimes use children as human shields, conspicuously placing them in front of firing positions or locations of strategic importance to deter their enemy from returning fire or mounting an attack.
Facing a child can force a professional soldier into a moral dilemma: whether to protect him or herself and their comrades, or to risk harming the child who poses a threat. As journalist and scholar Robert Tynes explains:
In the Western tradition, children are considered civilians. So, when soldiers are faced with the problem of having to choose between firing on 12- or 13-year-old boys or girls or holding back and potentially being shot, their effectiveness as a soldier is severely diminished. Again, the question is, what do you do? The problem or dilemma arises when you cannot do both of these actions. You have to pick!
Either action can result in implications for the soldier and the operation. In Colonel Charles Borchini’s words: “A 14-year-old with an AK-47 is just as deadly as a 40-year-old with an AK-47.”
In the line of fire
Harming a child can cause an adult soldier serious psychological damage. Most cultures consider children innocents who deserve protection, and for soldiers in most armies around the world, harming a child comes with guilt, shock and shame. But failing to react to a threat, even if it comes from a child, could be deadly for the soldier and their comrades.
The sight of children (combatants or not) killed by adult forces can also be disastrous for relations with local populations. This can be devastating for missions that depend on winning the goodwill of civilians. Knowing this, adversaries may deliberately put children in harm’s way to generate “black propaganda” – grisly images and negative publicity that damage their proponent’s moral reputation.
If professional soldiers know child soldiers are present, they may choose not to engage in hostilities at all. In 2003, German forces refused to enter regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where they knew children might be fighting. And in places where children are known to be used as human shields, armed forces can change their tactics or refuse to return fire.
In his book A Million Bullets: The real story of the British Army in Afghanistan, James Fergusson recalls the following story:
Two British soldiers were under fire from a machine gun nest about hundred yards to port. The side-gunner tried to return fire but stopped in horror when he realised that there were women and children in his sights. The gunmen had pushed them out in front of their positions for cover – a Taliban tactic the crewmen had heard of but never seen used before.
The presence of children on the battlefield should not be normalised, and every effort needs to be made to remove them from conflict zones. But it’s also important to recognise the moral dilemmas they pose to adult soldiers who encounter them in conflict situations. Armed groups recognise the tactical advantage children offer; they will keep using them in conflict to disrupt and distress their opponents to their own benefit.