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This article was published in the July 2005 volume of the SWJ Magazine.

A book review and commentary on:

Children at War

By:  P.W. Singer

New York: Pantheon Books, 2005, hardback, US $25.00, 288pp.

ISBN: 0-375-42349-4


Modern warfare is changing.  No longer the sole domain of state forces, contemporary conflict increasingly involves a range of non-state actors: terrorists, jihadi bands, gangs, criminals and warlords.  These actors fight among themselves and against states for profit, plunder and turf.  Failed states and “lawless zones” provide their base but they increasingly threaten stable regions.  These groups contribute to the barbarization of warfare, frequently operating outside the norms of war and the rule of law, abandoning the long-held prohibitions against terrorism, attacks on non-combatants, torture, reprisal, and slavery, and the use of child soldiers.

“Double Trouble,” a nine-year old boy soldier, exemplifies this reality.  After being observed participating in an orgy of violence directed against a Khran militiaman in a 1996 battle in Monrovia, “Double Trouble,” a member of Charles Taylor’s NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia), is asked by a journalist how old he is.  His response, “old enough to kill a man.”[1] He is representative of the changing demographics and patterns of conflict; his militia replaced his family, while violence replaced school.  Political instability and access to lightweight, easy to fire weapons have made war accessible to children. 

The Situation

Worldwide, over a half million children (under 18)[2] participate in armed forces, paramilitary and non-state forces.  An estimated 300,000 of these child soldiers,[3] some younger than 10 years old, are involved in over 30 conflicts.  In fact separate studies in Southeast Asia and Central Africa have placed the average age of child soldiers at just under 13.[4]  They are often “recruited” or abducted and then manipulated to participate in brutal violence directed at times against their own communities and families.  Both girls and boys are exploited to participate in acts they frequently are unable to comprehend.  The girls often are required to provide sexual as well as combat services.

While juveniles have been features in past conflict, notably the Hitler Jugend at the end of World War II, they were never primary actors.  This is changing radically.  Global instability, broad pools of children available for recruitment, continuing, often multigenerational conflict, the proliferation of cheap, easy-to-use weapons, and weakened state structures fuel the trend of child military labor.   Warlordism and “lawless zones” that fuel conflict allow warlords and terrorists to exploit disaffiliated children as low-cost, expendable troops.  As a result, endless supplies of hungry, gullible and malleable child warriors as a result replace ideology and traditional military leadership.

Ten-year-old troops wield AK-47s; teenagers become suicide bombs in this global juvenile jungle.  Abducted, purchased, and even handed over by their own families, child fighters have been used as suicide bombers in Sri Lanka and Palestine, guerillas in Colombia and Afghanistan.  Singer recounts an interview with a West African child, setting the stage for his inquiry:  “I was attending primary school.  The rebels came and attacked us.  They killed my mother and father in front of my eyes.  I was ten years old.  They took me with them.  They trained us to fight.  The first time I killed someone, I got so sick I thought I was going to die.  But I got better.  My fighting name was Blood Never Dry.”[5]  This account is emblematic of the changing nature of war.

P.W. Singer investigates this change in his book Children at War.  Building upon his prior works on child soldiers and evolving conflict, Singer provides an essential primer on the escalating global phenomenon.  Singer’s book is divided into three parts: Children at War, The Process and Results of Child Soldiers, and Responding to the Child Soldier Problem.  In addition, the text contains an appendix: the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, and endnotes.  Much of his narrative finds its foundation in interviews with former child soldiers (from Colombia, Lebanon, Liberia, Kashmir, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and the Sudan), humanitarian aid workers, and current and ex-soldiers.

Children at War

In the first segment, Singer demonstrates the widespread scope of child soldiering.  He illustrates this new warrior cohort through research, first-hand accounts, and testimony.

We were frightened because we were young children and we didn’t know anything of the army.  Even on the shooting range, when they tell you to fire, you’re always very scared.  For me to overcome that fear, I had to kill someone at the training camp.  They brought someone to me one night when I was on duty guarding an entrance.  It was a child, whose face they covered, and they told me he was a rebel, an enemy, and I had to kill him.  That’s exactly what I did…G. age ten[6]

He uses the case study of Charles Taylor in Liberia as an exemplar.  Notably, in the Liberian conflicts up to 70 percent of the forces used by Taylor and his adversaries were children, amounting to nearly 20,000 child combatants.  An escaped convict from Massachusetts, Taylor fled to Liberia and became a warlord through the exploitation of thousands of child soldiers, running a criminal enclave known as Taylor Land sustained by $300 million a year’s worth of illegal trade.  Eventually, his child army became the center of gravity of a force that took over the government of Liberia.  Taylor demonstrated that child warriors can enable gangs to become low-cost, combat effective forces—forces that are able to regenerate despite a lack of popular support and devaluation of ideology.  Personal profit and plunder can become the fuel for on-going conflict.

A similar outcome is found in Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  The LRA operates in northern Uganda.  With about 200 adult followers, the cult-like gang has assembled a force that at its height consisted of 14,000 fighters, many of them children.  The LRA uses all the tools of exploitation found in child armies: abduction, enslavement, beatings, rape and sexual assault to make escape and reintegration into society difficult if not impossible.  The LRA has been able to stay in the field for over a decade.

In this section, Singer also recounts US encounters with child soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The first US serviceman killed in the Afghan conflict, Sergeant First Class Nathan R. Chapman, a green beret, was killed by an Afghan child on 4 January 2002; the child warrior threat continued when Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer was killed by a fifteen year old al-Qaeda fighter from Canada.  Later on in Iraq US forces encountered child soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s forces, some as young as ten years old.  In addition, at least five underage fighters suspected to be members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban have been imprisoned in the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay.[7]

The spill-over effects of children in conflict are great.  Frequently, the children are enculturated into violence and continue to fight in one conflict or another until dead or incapacitated.  Consider the case of Burma’s (Myanmar) Karen National Liberation Army which fractured into a number of groups including “God’s Army,” led by a pair of notorious 12 year-old twins, Luthur and Johnny Htoo.  The threat is not limited to boys; girls are also increasingly deployed as child soldiers, with 30% of child-using forces deploying girls under 15.  These girls with guns are found in 55 countries.  In 27 of these they were abducted, in 34 they saw combat, in virtually all they are subject to sexual abuse, rape, and enslavement serving as “soldiers’ wives” and providing sexual services to their “leaders” and fellow fighters.

The Process and Results of Child Soldiers

In the second part of Singer’s text, he recounts the causes of this child exploitation.  He describes the children employed as war labor as a “lost generation,” occupying a global security situation where conflict, economic pressures, extreme poverty and hunger, failed states, and “lawless zones” prevail.  The impact of the AIDS pandemic and the surplus population of orphans, at risk of disease, hunger and crime, provide fodder for the recruitment—forced or otherwise—of child soldiers.  The result: children can make the fiercest soldiers, emerging as the new warriors in the 21st century wherever wars rage.[8] 

As Singer notes, a desperate global security situation fuels the use of child soldiers, “[D]esperate and excluded children constitute a huge pool of labor for the illegal economy, organized crime and armed conflicts.”[9]   Warlords, gangsters and terrorists recruit from this listless mass.  In Africa alone a third of all children are malnourished and by 2010 this will rise to one-half.  This emerging generation of disconnected children is the ranks from which child soldiers are borne.  Abduction and forced recruitment are standard, as recounted by Singer.

I was abducted during “Operation Pay Yourself, “ in 1988.  I was 9 years old.  Six rebels came through our yard.  They went to loot for food.  It’s called “jaja”—“get food.”  They said, “we want to bring a boy like you—we like you,” My mother didn’t comment; she just cried.  My father objected.  They threatened to kill him.  They argued with him at the back of the house.  I heard a gunshot.  One of them told me, “let’s go, they’ve killed your father.”  A woman rebel grabbed my hand roughly and took me along.  I saw my father lying dead as we passed… A, age fourteen.[10]

Such abduction is often followed up with killing, rape, and beatings.  The “inductee” complies or dies.  Even voluntary recruitment (roughly two-thirds of child soldiers volunteer or are enticed to join with some kind of “inducement”) is colored by poverty, hunger, displacement, the need for a sense of belonging or revenge.  Indoctrination follows.  This includes coercion of various types, “brainwashing” or psychological conditioning, including forced participation in ritualized killing, or participation in atrocity, and occasionally “branding” like slaves to provide a disincentive for escape.  Typically this results in dissociation, where for example in the case of a child formation in Sierra Leone, the child fighters called themselves “cyborgs” to denote their status as killing machines with no feelings.

Training follows.  Singer gives the example of the Tamil Tigers (i.e. LTTE who also use child suicide bombers) who break the links with families, regulate sleep and food, emphasize drill, indoctrination and weapons training, all the while extolling the virtues of risk-taking.  This results in more capable and daring warfighters than typical adult recruits.  When action emerges, the result is effective combatants that operate with audacity and impunity.  Higher casualties, enhanced confusion, and the presence of fighters that conventional forces are conditioned not to harm result in serious threats to civilians and conventional forces when child fighters are present.

Child fighters deploy with a sense of fearlessness, take undue risks, have a diminished sense of mortality and are unable to fully weigh the consequences of their actions.  Frequently, these factors are reinforced by the use of alcohol and drugs. Children fighters can become the fiercest of fighters, in essence becoming audacious killing machines operating in small units under the command of a small number of adults.  Their numbers and firepower are often directed into mass charges of human-wave attacks with the children viewed as expendable.  

Part three also includes a brief section on “Children of Terror” where Singer recounts the use of child terrorists by al-Qaeda, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the ELN and FARC, and the LTTE.  In a supporting op-ed piece, Singer notes that “Groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have pulled children into the terrorism game.  More than 30 suicide bombings since 2000, according to Time magazine, have been carried out by children, and multiple juvenile al-Qaeda terrorists have been detained at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in the special “Camp Iguana” facility.”[11]  In an earlier, yet related essay, Singer notes that children as young as 13 have been deployed as suicide bombers in the Palestinian conflict, while child suicide bombers have been used in Sri Lanka, and Colombian guerillas used a nine-year-old boy to bomb a polling place in 1997.[12]  Child terrorism has also crossed the gender gap where women and girls are employed by the LTTE to circumvent the scrutiny and body searches of male security personnel.

Children serve in a variety of roles in these fourth generation armies: infantry shock troops, raiders, sentries, spies, sappers, and porters.[13]  They are able to man “child-portable,” easy to handle weapons systems in an extremely effective manner, even when poised against adult troops.  For example in 1997 the LTTE’s Leopard Brigade—an elite child formation primarily comprised of orphans—surrounded and killed about 2000 Sri Lankan army commandos, a loss that demoralized the whole army since children routed their elite vanguard.[14]

Responding to the Child Soldier Problem

The use of child soldiers violates international law and is the result of the willful, systematic erosion of the ethical injunctions against the use of child fighters.  The two Additional Protocols of 1977 regarding international and internal armed conflicts, respectively, impose the obligation on parties to conflict to “take all feasible measures in order that children who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in the hostilities.”[15]  The Additional Protocols also call upon parties to refrain from child recruitment.  In addition, the 1988 Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court makes using child soldiers a war crime.  Human Rights Law also weighs in.  The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)[16] sets 15 as the minimum age for going to war.  Yet in many African nations beset by internal conflict, for example, typically one-half the population is under the age of 15, making child participation in warfighting likely.[17]  In 2000, The General Assembly adopted the “Optional Protocol to the Convention of the Rights of the Child,” raising the age of legal participation in war to 18.

In the third segment of his book, Singer explores prevention and responses to child soldiers.  He observes, unfortunately quite rightly, that the use of child fighters results from deliberate choices by actors ready to thwart the rule of law in the pursuit of raw power, plunder and personal profit.  The loss of these norms turns the practice of the last four millennia of warfare on its head.  Despite a strong customary and codified objection in International Humanitarian Law to proscribe the use of children in combat, the practice is on the rise.

Singer closes his discussion by recounting the dilemmas found in fighting children, reviewing the various types of political action available to counter the threat, and the challenges of demobilizing, rehabilitating, and reintegrating former child soldiers back into society.

While active child soldiering was normally outside the scope of war, child soldiers are a current threat to conventional forces.  Facing child soldiers can demoralize troops, expose them to great danger and have negative results on public perception.  New, area-specific rules of engagement (ROE) that factor in the presence of child fighters, when their action is likely, must be crafted.  These ROE must be supported by intelligence assessments that factor in the cultural situation and potential for facing child soldiers.  Failure to do so could have severe tactical consequences.  The reluctance to face child soldiers is a cultural artifact that must be tempered to ensure both force protection and mission success.  A child bearing an AK-47 or suicide bomb poses a threat regardless of age—a reality police have long faced with gang members and violent juvenile offenders.  

Singer observes that effects-based operations at the tactical level may assist.  Often adult leaders are the center of gravity for child soldiers.  Eliminating the adult leadership and countering child swarms by holding them at a distance and applying indirect fire in an effort to shock and disperse may be effective.  He also rightly notes that non-lethal weapons options may provide an additional choice for neutralizing and disrupting the threat in an effective and humane fashion.  Additionally, force protection efforts should require children to be scrutinized to the same degree as adults (not all children are threats, but all require scrutiny).  Finally, Singer notes that the aim should be to convince child soldiers to stop fighting and seek rehabilitation and reintegration into society.  Thus, Singer’s triad for military operations against child soldiers can be summarized as Intelligence, Force Protection, and Effects-Based Engagement (including non-lethal weapons, shaping the opposition).  In all cases post-conflict debriefing and treatment opportunities should be made available to units exposed to child warriors.

Conclusion: Assessing Singer’s Contribution and the Future

Singer adeptly documents and assesses a significant facet of current and future warfare.  Child soldiers today are a reality, and they are likely to continue to plague future battle and opspace.  Child soldiering is no longer the exception seen at Newmarket, with powder monkeys and drummer boys.  Child warriors are on the front line and can be expected to remain a major factor in future warfare and terrorism.  Fighters as young as 10 years old can deploy “child portable weapons” yielding firepower equivalent to a Napoleonic era regiment.  While that may have little effect on modern mechanized forces, the impact on peacekeeping, counterinsurgency, and constabulary operation—not to mention civilians—could be devastating. 

Failed states and “lawless zones” fuel a bazaar of violence where warlords and martial entrepreneurs fuel the convergence of war and crime.  Some call this post-modern situation fourth generation warfare (4GW).  It is the realm of the non-state (criminal) soldier, where predatory actors target civilians to steal, rape, and pillage for a range of cause—political or otherwise.  This endless conflict that Singer calls a “merry-go-round” of violence is fueled by and exploits child soldiers.

Children at War effectively describes this environment.  Peter Singer’s book is essential reading for both military and counterterrorism practitioners.  Military officers and senior NCOs engaged in peace enforcement and peacekeeping, non-combatant evacuation, constabulary and counterinsurgency operations should consider Singer’s book a primer for the threats they will face.  Others engaged in small wars, military police, intelligence, civilian police deployed to constabulary operations (CIVPOL), and humanitarian aide workers and diplomats will find this useful, as will members of the police and security services responsible for counterterrorism duties.  Reading this text should be a required element of “intelligence preparation for operations” in all failed states and “lawless zones.”

Singer’s Children at War is compelling, if not disturbing.  I found the exploitation of children as warriors and terrorists strikingly similar to the dynamics of street gang violence in Los Angeles, where bands of youths seeking turf, belonging and power use violence as a salve for their powerlessness to intimidate and dominate “failed communities.”  As gangs morph and migrate into transnational criminal bands, I see the potential for a deadly convergence between third generation gangs[18] with child soldiers.  Thus, Singer provides us a warning about what is, as well as the potential for a more violent future that may come to be.

John P. Sullivan is a researcher and practitioner specializing in intelligence, counterterrorism, counter insurgency and urban operations.  He is a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, where he is assigned as co-officer-in-charge for strategic operations of the Los Angeles Terrorism Early Warning Group (TEW).  His current research focus is civil-military interaction and emerging threats at the intersection of crime and war.


[1] Corinne Dufka, “Children as Killers,” Roy Gutman and David Rieff (Eds.), Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999, pp. 78-79.

[2] Article 1 of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states “…a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.”

[3] For the purposes of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs, UNICEF defines a “child soldier” as any child—boy or girl—under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity.  This includes but is not limited to cooks, porters, messengers, and anyone accompanying such groups other than family members.  It includes girls and boys recruited for forced sexual services and/or forced marriage.  The definition, based on the 1997 “Cape Town Principles,” is not limited to a child who is carrying, or has carried weapons.

[4] P.W. Singer, “Western militaries confront child soldiers threat, Jane’s Intelligence Review, 01 January 2005.

[5] P.W. Singer, “Children at War,” Edited transcript of remarks, Carnegie Council Author in the Afternoon (Merrill House, New York City), Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, 09 February 2005. Found at

[6] P.W. Singer, Children at War, New York: Pantheon Books, 2005, p. 6.

[7] In addition to coverage in Children at War, these are recounted in P.W. Singer, “Talk is Cheap: Getting Serious About Preventing Child Soldiers, “ 37 Cornell Int’l L.J. 561 (2004)

[8] Michael B. Farrell, “Children make deadly soldiers in the world’s rebel groups: Poverty and AIDS provide thousands of young recruits,” Christian Science Monitor, 18 January 2005, p.15.

[9] Peter W. Singer, “Children at War: The Lost Generation,” theGlobalist, Globalist Bookshelf, 16 March 2005.  Found at

[10] Children at War, p. 59.

[11] Peter W. Singer, “Tragic Challenge of Child Soldiers,” USA Today, 30 March 2005.

[12] Peter W. Singer, “Terrorists Must Be Denied Child Recruits,” Financial Times, 20 January 2005.

[13] P.W. Singer, “Caution: Children at War, Parameters, Winter 2001-02, pp. 40-56.  Found at

[14] Ibid.

[15] 1977 Protocols additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions.  Additional Protocol I, Art. 77[2] is applicable to international armed conflict, Additional Protocol II, Art. 4 [3c] is applicable in non-international armed conflicts.

[16] The UNCRC has not been ratified by the United States.

[17] Anna Cataldi, “Child Soldiers,” Roy Gutman and David Rieff (Eds.), Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999, pp. 76-78

[18] In many ways street gang members are actually child soldiers already.  For a discussion of gang evolution and third generation gangs, see John P. Sullivan, “Third Generation Street Gangs: Turf, Cartels, and Net Warriors,” Transnational Organized Crime, Vol. 3, No. 3, Autumn1997, pp. 95-108, John P. Sullivan, “Urban Gangs Evolving as Criminal Netwar Actors, Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 200, pp. 82-96, and Max G. Manwaring, Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, Us Army War College, March 2005.


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