Child Soldiers

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In today’s world, adolescents and children sometimes act as combatants who directly participate in hostilities. Yet more often they are deployed as auxiliaries (for example, as lookouts or messengers) or in various support roles (as gardening, road maintenance, delivery of food, cleaning, cooking, conveying goods and providing sexual services) or may be used as human shields or for propaganda purposes by government or opposition forces. But what happens when soldiers belonging to professional armed forces face these young combatants? Such potentially violent engagements can be devastating for such troops. A number of scholars have documented the psychological burdens of facing child soldiers. Against this background, I proposed to offer an anthropological perspective on the effects of confronting child soldiers on troops of professional militaries who participate in various kinds of PSOs (peace-support operations). By an anthropological perspective I refer both to an analysis of the cultural contexts within which the label ‘child soldiers’ is used and an inquiry into how this socially constructed category may actually intensify the problems professional troops encounter in contemporary conflicts. Given the centrality of psychology or psychiatry in regard to the study of such issues, I explicitly formulate my argument to complement their disciplinary perspective.

My main contention is that in order to understand the place of child soldiers as the opposing force we need to ‘problematize’ this category. In order to do so, we need to take into account three factors: the ‘folk’ or ‘lay’ model of soldiering that soldiers of professional militaries use to make sense of their actions; what have become global assumptions and images of children; and the activities of a host of organizations and movements that cultivate the imagery of child soldiers. Concretely, young fighters – and especially children as opposed to adolescents – present a cultural anomaly since they do not fit the interpretive frames or cognitive schemas of combat of troops. Culturally speaking, not only are they not “proper” military enemies but confronting them is experienced as an abnormal situation since they contravene assumptions and deeply held beliefs about children as innocent and vulnerable.


Eyal Ben-Ari Facing Child Soldiers, Moral Issues, and “Real Soldiering”: Anthropological Perspectives on Professional Armed Forces Scienta Militaria 37(1): 1-24, 2009.[PDF | Download]