Children As “Weapon Systems”

A general dedicates his life to ending the use of child soldiers worldwide.

Imagine. You are a soldier, trained to kill the enemy. On the battlefield, just as you are about to shoot an enemy combatant, you suddenly see in your gun sights that the soldier is a mere child “in the tattered remnants of a military uniform with dozens more children behind.” What would you do?

This is the ethical dilemma that Roméo Dallaire asks his readers to ponder in his latest book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers. The retired lieutenant-general and Canadian senator, now a celebrated icon in Canada and around the world for his attempt to protect innocent people from genocidal slaughter in Rwanda, had to wrestle with this very same moral dilemma when he headed the United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNAMIR) in that country in 1994. In the first few pages of this book, Dallaire asks the following heart-wrenching questions: “Do you treat this person aiming his weapon at you as a soldier or a child?” And, “Is a child still a child when pressing the barrel of a gun to your chest?”

Reading Dallaire’s new book leaves one with the stark realization that the former general has still not recovered fully from his terrible experience in Rwanda, an experience vividly recorded in his award-winning book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. In that earlier publication, Dallaire was compelling, riveting and dramatic in his account of the horrific and atrocious events of the Rwandan genocide that left 800,000 people dead over the course of 100 days. The story of the general’s frustrated efforts to intervene and protect the vulnerable Tutsi population was turned into a successful docudrama in 2007. We are given a taste of the impact that the failed UNAMIR mission had on Dallaire when he writes the following in his new book: “the smells, the sights, the terrible sounds of the dying in Rwanda have been damped down in my psyche to a dull roar through constant therapy and an unrelenting regimen of medication.”

In They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, it is almost as if Dallaire is still engaged in the self-flagellation of his immediate post-Rwanda experience. But this time, the reader will find that Dallaire has resolved to devote the rest of his life to ending a scourge he witnessed first hand in Rwanda but that is present in many parts of the developing world. This is not a book about Rwanda per se; it is about child soldiers, of whom there are approximately 250,000 in the world, some as young as seven. The book consists of an introduction and ten chapters, with a foreword written by Ishmael Beah—a former child soldier and author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. In the introduction, Dallaire recounts the international community’s attempts to protect children living in war-torn countries: the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child; Graça Machel’s pivotal report, “Impact of Armed Conflict on Children,” which was presented to the UN General Assembly in 1996; the appointment of Olara Otunnu (although Dallaire does not mention him by name) as the UN secretary-general’s first Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict; and the adoption of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

What Dallaire shows in this introduction is that much has been done over the past 22 years to bring attention to the problem of child recruitment into armed forces and irregular groups. He also suggests that there is an emerging norm at the international level aimed at protecting such children, which he compares to the actions undertaken by Lloyd Axworthy and a group of non–governmental organizations to ban landmines through the Ottawa Process. We are told by Dallaire that it was Axworthy, then foreign minister of Canada, who convened a conference in Winnipeg in 2000 to draw attention to the plight of children affected by war. It was apparently at that conference that Dallaire first declared his intention to make the ban on the use of child soldiers his lifelong goal. As he puts it, his mission from then on was “to stop extremist adults from turning children into killing machines.”

The rest of the book is devoted to making the case for bringing an end to this scourge. But the author does so in a way that strikes me as odd and ineffective. He mingles non-fiction chapters with three fictional chapters in the book—a technique that does little to make his case. The three fictional chapters involve the abduction of a child, the indoctrination of that child as a child soldier and the moment when that child and a UN peacekeeper come face to face in battle. According to Dallaire, the rationale for employing this literary technique was to connect the experiences of child soldiers to “the child that survives within ourselves.” Most readers will find those three fictional chapters to be totally unnecessary. Indeed, they may be viewed as more of an obstacle than as an instrument for facilitating a deeper understanding of the nature of the child soldier problem and the extent to which the recruitment of children as soldiers can be seen as an international crime.

Chapter One, titled “Warrior Boy,” provides us with some insight into Roméo Dallaire’s childhood, a seemingly good one, especially when his father—a rather stern military man—was not around. The young Dallaire spent much time at his parents’ countryside cabin, swimming in the lake, building fortresses in sandpits, pretending to be fighting great battles and “daydream[ing] in the stillness.” By the age of 18, after attending many cadet camps, he was ready to enter a career in the Canadian military. His five years attending the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean and then the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, did not, however, adequately prepare Dallaire to deal with “an enemy who wore the trappings of childhood so familiar” to him, “but was so different from the soldier” he had become.

It is in Chapter Two, titled “Little Soldiers, Little Killers,” that Dallaire paints a picture of his first confrontation with child soldiers “as young as fourteen.” This occurred during the Rwandan civil conflict. As he puts it, “I saw them, heard them, faced them down, and eventually confronted them in the midst of a carnage that swallowed their youth and my professional warrior ethic.” The general was confronted with “little soldiers with big guns” who often wore “ill-fitting uniforms.” In his direct confrontations with these children, Dallaire found it difficult to reconcile the image of “their youth and potential” with “the hatred, the guile, the blatant evil in the eyes of these teenagers: boys, and yes, even girls.”

After two fictional chapters inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic work, The Little Prince, Dallaire returns to non-fiction. In “How a Child Soldier Is Made,” he provides a sweeping description of the push-pull factors that result in children being used by such notorious groups as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, the Interahamwe in Rwanda and the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. Push factors habitually include abuse in the home, extreme poverty, shame, even boredom. Pull or “positive” factors include gaining respect and power, protection, revenge, freedom and excitement.

Although Dallaire does not analyze in a critical way the above reasons why children are drawn into armed conflict, he is firm in his conviction that the political and military leaders who use children in this way are “criminals who must be held responsible and accountable for their abuse of children and their violation of international law.” In his quest to end the impunity, Roméo Dallaire wants to,
in his words, “eradicate the use of child soldiers.” But his language is strange, to say the least. He refers to these children, not as victims of conflict but rather as a “complete end-to-end weapon system in the inventory of war machines.” Put another way, these children are “the ultimate cheap, expendable, yet sophisticated human weapon” or “tools used by adults to wage war.” In other passages of the book, Dallaire labels these young soldiers as “drug-induced ‘brain-dead’ child fanatics.” It is this collage description of child soldiers that makes me feel uncomfortable.

Yes, it is true that an unlimited supply of child soldiers, combined with a proliferation of small arms and light weapons, has turned many countries in the developing world into exceedingly dangerous places. Children in war-torn areas such as Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda—both boys and girls—are easy to recruit and cheap to sustain. In some cases, they have no real sense of fear when drawn into battle and therefore make excellent combatants. Large numbers of these children are manipulated through drugs and can be easily indoctrinated to commit some of the most egregious crimes during wars. Many are certainly used as expendable objects in war zones: as mine sweepers, as bait for ambushes and as cannon fodder. Girls are an even greater asset than boys to armed groups and rebel forces because they can do almost anything the boys can do and yet be security guards, cooks, babysitters for the younger children, sex slaves and bush wives.

But Dallaire’s labelling of child soldiers as a “weapon system” is troubling. The author’s basic thesis is this: “If it is possible to use a child as a weapon system, it should be possible to decommission or neutralize that weapon system: to eradicate the use of child soldiers.” He holds out faith in the International Criminal Court and special courts such as the one in Sierra Leone as deterrent mechanisms that might help to reduce the recruitment of children in militias and irregular armies. In his seventh chapter, “How to Unmake a Child Soldier,” he makes it pretty clear that he considers proactive eradication the best way to go. He details a process being used by the UN, the European Union and some governments to repair the damage after the fact. It is known as the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) process. In Dallaire’s opinion this process is fraught with difficulties. He comes to the conclusion that a much better way to address the problem of child soldiers is to “stop the recruitment and use of children within belligerent forces before it happens [rather] than to deal with the complexities” of the DDR process.

There are some problems with Dallaire’s approach to addressing the problem of child soldiers. For one, the author’s militaristic description of these children as weapon systems has the effect of dehumanizing these victims of wretched and exploitative adults. It is not that Dallaire himself lacks empathy. But his military mindset seems to override his genuine desire to bring an end to the recruitment of children as soldiers. These children are not pieces of military hardware. They are living, breathing human beings who are deprived of their innocence, are subject to invisible wounds of war such as shame, guilt, stigmatization, isolation and loss. They are individuals who, like the author himself, have experienced major psychosocial trauma and stress as a result of their experiences in the throes of civil conflicts and the frightening uncertainty of the bush. Dallaire’s language of decommissioning these so-called weapon systems diverts our attention away from the real problem—i.e., how can we stop unscrupulous adults from taking advantage of the innocence of youth, and how can we create the conditions that would make child recruitment into armed conflict a thing of the past?

Another problem is that the portrait Dallaire paints of children as combatants squaring off against seasoned, well-trained adult soldiers contributes to the sensationalist image of predatory child killers who present an ethical challenge to normally highly moral military units who uphold just war principles. The reality, however, is much different. In most of the civil conflicts in which children are soldiers, these children are confronted by individuals who are not bound by any laws of war, convention, treaty or protocol. For example, adult Sinhalese security forces in Sri Lanka were known to have tortured, raped and executed very young Tamils who were recruited into the Tamil Tigers as children during the now-ended civil war. Also, Dallaire’s psychological portrayal of child soldiers as emotionally crippled, pathological and drug-induced is really a caricature that, in essence, overlooks the highly functional and even resilient character of many of these youth.

Beyond these deep ethical and psychological concerns, Dallaire also makes the unfounded claim that today’s child soldiers do not “fit any description of what civilizations over the millennia have called a child.” However, over the centuries the definition of a child has evolved. “Childhood” is a culturally constructed notion that varies across societies and across time. The fact is that the use
of child soldiers has been the norm for thousands of
years all over the world. Even advanced nations like the United States and the United Kingdom have used children in armed forces. The Spartans of ancient Greece had a militaristic society in which boys as young as seven years old were taken from their parents and brought up in military barracks. In early human history, small children were generally used as spies and scouts. In the 1300s, the Ottoman Turks would kidnap Christian boys and brainwash them into becoming loyal followers of the Sultan. Many of these boys went on to become well-trained military elites, known as the Janissaries. Dallaire seems unaware of these instances.

But there is one thing that is abundantly clear when reading this book: this former soldier is sincere in his commitment to end the practice of the utilization of children as instruments of war, not only in civil conflicts but also in places like Brazil where young children are pulled into gang wars and drug running. This is why he devotes the last part of his book to disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating child soldiers (the DDR process) and to finding ways of deterring adults, military and militia leaders from continuing the practice of recruiting children for armed conflict. Even though Dallaire has evidently shifted from his role as a military man to that of an advocate, he brings to his advocacy the baggage of a military mindset, a military strategist, a general, a soldier. This explains the militaristic labels he uses to describe young children who, simply by the accident of birth, happen to be drawn into conflicts in their villages, their towns, their cities, their countries.