Documento creado: 20 de marzo de 2008
Air & Space Power Journal - Español  Primer  Trimestre 2008

ASPJ Wings

      Book Reviews

Children at WarChildren at War by P. W. Singer. University of California Press (, 2120 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, California 94704-1012, 2006, 278 pages, $16.95 (softcover).

P. W. Singer’s book Children at War is a sad, troubling look at a growing problem in the world today: children serving as soldiers. He looks at the historical precedent concerning the use of children in warfare, from the time-tested concept of bestowing honor and power to warriors in exchange for guaranteeing protection for the unarmed—especially “the old, the infirm, women, and most particularly, children” (p. 3)—to the point where no civility or honor in conflict currently exists in much of the world. “The participants in battle are often no longer honored warriors, guided by an ethical code, but rather new predators, who target the weakest of society” (p. 4). Interspersed throughout the book are heart-wrenching quotations from child soldiers that make readers want to hug their own children and thank God for being born in a free country under the rule of law.

The numbers of children serving as soldiers are staggering. Singer canvasses the globe with examples such as the Sierra Leone civil war (1991–2001) in which up to 80 percent of all fighters ranged from ages seven to 14, many of whom were abducted (p. 15). He points out that in 68 percent of the world’s current or recent conflicts, children under the age of 18 have served in combat. Particularly disturbing are examples of the brutal methods by which many children are recruited into war: “Now we were in a hideous state—they killed my parents in front of me, my uncle’s hands were cut off and my sister was raped in front of us by their commander called ‘Spare No Soul.’ After all this happened, they told us, the younger boys, to join them. If not, they were going to kill us” (p. 61).

The author does an excellent job of sizing up the problem and addressing many of the underlying causes, such as poverty and the lack of economic and educational opportunity. The solution set, however, is a much more daunting task. Some of the causes have been around much longer than the problem of child soldiers. Singer calls for greater amounts of aid, pointing out that “the United States lags far behind the rest of the developed world in its aid to those less well off” (p. 136). Although that is true for government aid, it fails to account for the significant amounts donated by Americans through nongovernmental charitable organizations. Other, more achievable steps that he offers as part of the solution involve a change in US government policy that would support efforts of the United Nations and other elements of the international community to clamp down on the illegal trade of light weapons and that would criminalize the practice of having child soldiers so, at the least, legitimate state armies would stop using children.

The chapter dedicated to the issues and impact of having to fight against children is perhaps the most important to today’s US military officer. Although it is unlikely that any 14-year-olds will be going one-on-one against any F-22 pilots, it is entirely possible that a child with an AK-47 could make his way to the gate of “Base X.” In fact Iraq, Afghanistan, and other potential US deployment locations are not excluded from the rising use of children as soldiers. Singer correctly points out that current US military training and doctrine do not adequately prepare our personnel to recognize children as potential threats and to deal with the psychological impact of killing children, even in self-defense; for that reason, they should be modified accordingly. I recommend Children at War to any US military leader who might deploy personnel anywhere beyond Western Europe.

Col Gregory J. Lengyel, USAF
Air Force Fellow
Brookings Institution, Washington DC

Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden. Atlantic Monthly Press / Grove Atlantic (, 841 Broadway, New York, New York 10003, 2001, 296 pages, $20.00 (hardcover).

Killing PabloMark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, has written a gripping account of the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian drug baron whose ruthless “silver or lead” policy placed him above the law. Escobar systematically corrupted government officials by forcing them either to accept his money (silver) or his bullets (lead). His control of cocaine profits financed this corruption as well as his lavish lifestyle. Building public housing and soccer fields for the poor in his hometown of Medellín made him a local folk hero, but his crimes progressively tarnished his public image. In a possible allusion to Tom Clancy’s classic book of 1989, Bowden refers to Escobar as “a clear and present danger” (p. 59).
More than an exciting crime story, Killing Pablo probes the dark nexus among terrorists, organized criminals, and democratic governments. Colombian drug cartels initially helped their government fight guerrillas, but a symbiotic relationship later evolved between the cartels and guerrillas. To fight the cartels, the Colombian government blended traditional law enforcement with a desperate strategy of fighting terror with terror. The government initially attempted law enforcement, but Escobar’s “imprisonment” from 1991 to 1992 proved a humiliating farce because he controlled the prison. His escape led to a massive manhunt based on an altered government strategy. Bowden contends that the Colombian and US governments’ new strategy was simply to kill Escobar while officially claiming they merely wanted to capture him.

Bowden characterizes the manhunt as a targeted assassination, a troubling notion for two democratic governments ostensibly dedicated to the rule of law. The Colombian government was unable to stop Escobar due to feckless politicians and corrupt, incompetent police and military officials. The US government, eager to stifle the flow of cocaine, was plagued with intense interagency competition to gain bureaucratic advantage by catching the outlaw. US officials may also have exploited a change in US presidential administrations to get away with dubious covert operations before incoming Clinton administration officials fully understood what was happening (p. 195). The United States secretly sent military operatives and advanced electronic-surveillance gear while the Colombians formed a special police unit called the “Search Block” to track down Escobar. The Search Block soon acquired a reputation for killing suspects rather than arresting them. Even worse, the author claims that both governments condoned a shadowy vigilante group called “Los Pepes” (a Spanish acronym for “People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar”) that included criminals. The Search Block allegedly funneled intelligence information from the United States to Los Pepes members, who methodically murdered many people thought to be associated with Escobar, decimating his henchmen. Bowden thinks that US officials knew what Los Pepes was doing but concludes that “there would always be powerful, well-intentioned men who believed that protecting civilization sometimes required forays into lawlessness” (p. 178).
Cyber operations were vital to the manhunt but difficult to perform. Escobar shuttled constantly between hideouts, so the Search Block used US equipment to home in on his cell phone when he called his son. Escobar knew that the authorities were eavesdropping, but “the game wasn’t to avoid being overheard—that was impossible—but to avoid being targeted” (p. 237). To ensure that he kept making phone calls, the Colombian and US governments used Escobar’s wife and children as bait, refusing to let them flee Colombia out of concern that if Escobar’s family fled to safety, he might either surrender for another farcical prison term or simply vanish. After an agonizing series of failed raids, including an abortive air strike on Escobar’s electronically determined location, the Search Block finally zeroed in on his cell phone and killed him.

Today’s readers might see parallels between this story and the war on terror. Colombia is not the only country that faces an unholy alliance between terrorists and organized criminals. The evolving partnership between Colombian guerrillas and drug traffickers is reminiscent of that now seen in Afghanistan, where members of the Taliban once fought opium growers but now partner with them to finance their insurgency. Efforts to fight such enemies engender dilemmas for the United States. Bowden explains that “killing Pablo would not end cocaine exports to the United States or even slow them down—everybody knew that—but the Americans had signed on for this job believing that it was about something bigger. It was about democracy, the rule of law, standing up for justice and civilization” (pp. 260–61). Similarly, killing a notorious terrorist may or may not affect the incidence of terrorism, but Americans still fight for the principles that Bowden lists. The questionable government methods used in Colombia may be analogous to our policies for detaining terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation techniques. Joe Toft, chief of the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s Bogotá station, reportedly believed he had struck a Faustian bargain and “felt that to get Pablo they had sold their souls” (p. 268). Hopefully we will not feel that way after the war on terror.

Killing Pablo is based on extensive research, including interviews and official documents summarized in a “Sources” section, that lends credence to the author’s provocative assertions. Overall, the book tells an excellent story but raises worrisome questions that we will continue to confront for years to come.

Lt Col Paul D. Berg, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

Hablan los Generales: Las grandes batallas del conflicto colombiano contadas por sus protagonistas edited by Glenda Martinez Osorio. Grupo Editorial Norma (, Bogotá, Colombia, 2006, 340 pages, $12.50.

Hablan los GeneralesDespite its title, not all of this anthology’s authors are generals, but they all give revealing, firsthand accounts of Colombia’s violent campaigns against guerrillas, drug lords, and other outlaws since the early 1960s. A prologue by Dr. Alfredo Rangel comments on the 14 chronologically organized chapters. Referring to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) insurgency, Rangel notes that “Este grupo guerrillero siempre ha demostrado una inmensa capacidad para sobrevivir, resistir y persistir, pero un débil poder para incliner en forma definitive la balanza política y military hacia su lado” (p. 35), an assessment one might make of many insurgent groups. However, his remark that “la ciudad es por naturaleza un sitio peligroso para grupos clandestinos e irregulares” (p. 14) might amuse veterans of urban warfare in Baghdad. Chapters 2 and 3 describe Colombian military manhunts to find incredibly violent criminals. The author of chapter 11 is an anonymous undercover agent who cooperated with US officials to intercept cell-phone calls and use unmanned aerial vehicles to track down leaders of Cali drug cartels. Chapter 12 is an ordinary soldier’s bizarre account of how FARC guerrillas wiped out his unit and held him prisoner for years, an ordeal that literally drove him insane.

Readers will find many familiar nuggets of counterinsurgency (COIN) wisdom. Gen Álvaro Valencia, who penned two chapters, observes that “En la Guerra de guerrillas nada puede ser fijo ni estable. La flexibilidad mental, física, metodológica constituje un verdadero principio” (p. 62). Because Colombian insurgents often fill power vacuums in remote regions, sometimes serving as de facto local governments for decades, Colombian military leaders understand the need for an integrated civil-military strategy. Regarding one operation, General Valencia says that “El acento del plan estaría en la combinación de acciones cívicas y psicológicas, y ellas tendrían prioridad sobre cualquier operación de combate” (p. 45). When Colombian forces entered rebel-controlled areas, local residents often hesitated to confide in them until convinced that the government would stay and provide basic services. Cultural awareness is as essential in Colombia, as it is anywhere else, but Colombian COIN forces have the advantage of operating in their own country. Nevertheless, the Colombian military struggled many years to adapt. Reflecting on the failed Operation Marquetalia against the FARC in 1964, Gen José Bonnet philosophically remarks, “Sin saberlo en ese momento, ahí nació un Nuevo Ejército, un Ejército moderno” (p. 108).

Airpower proved essential in Colombian COIN campaigns. During operations against communist guerrillas in the 1960s, Colombian Air Force C-47 transports landed troops on an open field, float planes landed troops on a river, and other aircraft dropped leaflets urging residents not to support the guerrillas. In 1990 helicopters and fighter-bombers participated in an intense air-ground assault against the FARC’s Casa Verde stronghold where Gen Humberto Correa wished for even more airpower because “Nos encontramos cortos de helicópteros, un número considerable había recibido impactos durante los desembarcos” (p. 214). International cooperation figured prominently. US officials supplied information about the immense “Tranquilandia” cocaine factory hidden in the jungle and gave the Colombians the aircraft they needed to capture it. When the FARC attacked Mitú, a remote town beyond helicopter range of the nearest Colombian base, guerrillas hid in a hospital and schools where aircraft could not easily bomb them due to worries about collateral damage. The Colombian military arranged to use a nearby Brazilian air base as a staging area for a helicopter assault. The ensuing Operación Vuelo de Ángel marked a watershed for the Colombian Air Force, which implemented “la política de mando centralizado y ejecución descentralizada … para hacer mas rápida la reacción” (pp. 290–91). Gen Yair Perdomo comments that “Jamás … hasta ese momento de la historia de Colombia, nos habíamos percatado de la importancia del sistema logístico para las aeronaves en distancias superiores a cien millas” (p. 302).

This thought-provoking book contains both strengths and limitations. The chapters seem relatively candid; however, General Valencia is clearly defensive about his unit’s role in killing renegade priest (and family friend) Camilo Torres, who had joined a rebel group. The general subsequently fended off repeated government inquiries, a communist backlash, and even an assassination attempt. Such episodes make readers wonder how much suffering the Colombian government could have avoided by maintaining enough presence in remote areas to prevent hostile groups from becoming deeply entrenched. The book says little about right-wing paramilitary groups, but the absence of a chapter about the manhunt for notorious drug baron Pablo Escobar is most surprising. There is no index, but the maps are helpful. An abstract and brief author biography begin each chapter, but they contain errors. Chapter 13’s abstract refers to Operación Vuelo de Ángel of 1998 as the debut of the AC-47 gunship, but chapter 9 describes using those planes eight years previously. Overall, readers will be impressed with the Colombian military’s perseverance. Anyone interested in the military’s role in COIN and counterdrug operations would find Hablan los generales instructive.

Lt Col Paul D. Berg, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

Disclaimer  The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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