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

Child Soldier as Tactical Innovation

Robert Tynes

FARC chills soldiers marching in rebel-held territory

FARC chills soldiers marching in rebel-held territory. Source: Human Right Watch.


I killed two informers in Medellín. They were aged thirty-eight and forty-two. I wasn't afraid to kill them because I had already been in combat. Our collaborators had seen them talking to paramilitaries. I had their address, and went to their house. There were two of us, but I was the one who had to do the killing. It was a test for me. I was thirteen. It was the same year that I joined the FARC-EP. After doing it, I felt really big, like a real killer (matón). But sometimes when I thought about it, I felt sad and I wanted to cry.

—Milton (pseudonym for a Colombian boy, age 13)

What Do You Do?

Suppose that you are on patrol in Medellín, Colombia. As you pass a house, you hear shouting inside. Two men are pleading not to be killed, and to their cries a stern “Shut up, and tell us!” snaps back. The voice is tough but not booming. The shouting sounds young, not deep enough to be that of an adult. Your patrol decides to enter the house through the front, the side window, and the back. When you break in, you find two men tied up in chairs. You also find two boys, holding guns up to the heads of the hostages. You yell at them to drop their weapons. But they don’t. What do you do? If you don’t shoot at the boys, the hostages will die. Or you will be shot at. If you fire on the boys, you will probably kill them. They are 13 years old.

This is the dilemma that American soldiers are having to face more and more on the battlefield. Whether it is in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, or Colombia, child soldiers have become an integral part of both insurgencies and government forces. Saddam Hussein’s regime recruited child soldiers, an issue that American soldiers had to face when they invaded Iraq in 2003. Many of these young recruits had been trained in military-like boot camps. “During these 3 week long sessions, boys as young as 10 years old are run through drills, taught the use of small arms, and provided with heavy doses of Ba’athist political indoctrination.”1 When US troops invaded Iraq, they not only had to consider facing chemical and/or biological weapons but also (and more realistically) had to accept that they may have to fire at children. This would not necessarily be an insurmountable problem, were it not for the fact that American troops are steeped in the just-war tradition.2 Killing civilians is not the goal, nor is it ever a preferable outcome. Furthermore, 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 and girls or holding back and potentially being shot, their effectiveness as soldiers is severely diminished. Again, the question is, what do you do?

Tactical Innovation

Saddam Lion Cubs

“Saddam Lion Cubs” undergoing weapons training in Iraq.

In The Sling and the Stone, Col Thomas X. Hammes, United States Marines Corps, argues that we are in a new era of battle—fourth-generation warfare (4GW). As “an evolved form of insurgency,” 4GW is less about hitting force with force and more about directly attacking “the minds of the enemy decision makers to destroy the enemy’s political will.”3 It is a strategy that emanates from Mao Tse-tung, whose theory of protracted war helped the Chinese Communist Party defeat Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists after decades of fighting. Mao’s philosophy, which has been passed on to successive insurgencies, including those in Vietnam and Nicaragua, is about ever-evolving tactics to “introduce the element of surprise, set ambushes, concentrate superior numbers at any selected point, choose the time and place of fighting, avoid all evenly-matched or unfavorable engagements, escape mopping-up campaigns, and contribute to the demoralization of the enemy’s rank and file.”4

In today’s 4GW, it is apparent that the use of child soldiers is, in many cases, not just a method for boosting recruitment, but in many instances a tactical innovation designed to attack the psyche of troops.5 Insurgencies are using child soldiers in order to stall the cognitive processes of soldiers and thereby increase fighting opportunities. Most guerilla groups lie outside the established polity and, as such, must seek alternate forms of power in order to overthrow the established political institutions. One method of power building is through negative inducements, which involves “the creation of a situation that disrupts the normal functioning of society and is antithetical to the interests of the group’s opponents. In essence, insurgents seek to disrupt their opponent’s realization of interests to such an extent that the cessation of the offending tactic becomes a sufficient inducement to grant concessions.”6 Whether or not the insurgents force the hand of the opposing regime depends upon numerous variables, and the process is not a one-shot approach. As sociologist Doug McAdam states, the introduction of a tactical innovation can set off a back-and-forth process whereby the opposition counters with a tactical adaptation, leading to another tactical innovation, and so forth and so on. The overall process is known as tactical interaction.7 The only problem for American forces, though, is that there is no standard, preset tactical adaptation. Hence US soldiers are facing a potentially immobilizing situation when they are confronted by children with AK-47s.

Moral Dilemmas

Hangzhou_military cadets
Hangzhou_military cadets. Source:  Internacional Relations & Security Network

Before one can move on to practical solutions for the problem, it is important to understand the dynamic at play at the individual level—that of moral dilemmas. Such dilemmas concern internalized conflict: when you have to make a choice between two actions, and you have valid moral reasons why you should do both of them. However, you can pick only one of those actions. A dilemma arises because a complex problem is being reduced to one solution. It is an irresolvable situation, at least at the level of the psyche. Of course, you can choose one or the other path, but in a “genuine moral dilemma it must be . . . true that neither of the conflicting requirements is overridden.”8 Both choices are imperatives. For instance, as a soldier engaged in battle, you must (a) protect civilians from harm and death and (b) defeat your enemy (because your cause—what you are fighting for—is just).

The problem or dilemma arises when you cannot do both of these actions. You have to pick, and neither choice really outranks the other. If we insert a child soldier into the scenario, a moral dilemma surfaces. During war, children are traditionally viewed as innocent civilians. But if they are carrying an AK-47, fully loaded and aimed at you, they become the enemy. The question/dilemma is, should you protect a child from harm if he is trying to kill you? Of course, different moral guidelines in individuals will produce different outcomes. One study by psychologists has shown that moral dilemmas can engage emotional processing as well as cognitive processing, depending upon the complexity of the dilemma.9 The result on the battlefield is a diminished response rate.

Dealing with the issue of child soldiers at the individual level of military engagements creates the toughest moral dilemma of all. On the ground, actions have immediate repercussions. As child-soldier expert Peter Singer states, the dilemma for the military is “as thorny as they come. Troops now face real and serious threats from opponents whom they generally would prefer not to harm.”10 To kill a child would challenge the rules of engagement that a US soldier is trained to follow and place the soldiers and their battalions in psychological jeopardy. When British troops faced off with child combatants in West Africa in 2001 and 2002, numerous soldiers experienced clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after battling with them.11 Some members of Uganda’s military—the Uganda People’s Defense Force—are said to be psychologically affected by having to fight against children and alongside them. For these soldiers, the dilemma is about killing innocents as well as watching their own leaders contribute to and benefit from the problem. “They are demoralized by seeing commanding officers and internal security people profiting from the war.”12

Even US soldiers able to overcome their moral convictions and engage in battle against a child face a serious, lethal threat. In many instances, child soldiers are extremely dangerous, very skilled, and seasoned fighters who have grown up knowing only the game of war.13 They “often operate with terrifying audacity, particularly when infused with religious or political fervour or when under the influence of narcotics. . . . The presence of children on the battlefield adds to the overall confusion of battle and can slow the progress of forces, particularly when operating in an urban environment, as well as adding to casualty totals on both sides.”14 Even though they are young, child soldiers can be ominous and deadly foes.

When US soldiers enter combat, they are psychologically equipped with of set of rules or laws of war that they can use as guidelines for determining when to employ force. These rules of engagement (ROE) are “directives issued by competent military authority that delineate the circumstances and limitations under which United States forces will initiate and/or continue combat engagement with other forces encountered.”15 The point of ROEs is to provide the soldier with a set of standard operating procedures (SOP) that can be utilized with as little deliberation as possible. When troops are fighting, they need SOPs in order to react quickly to lethal situations. Long delays in action caused by extensive mental deliberation can be deadly. Moral dilemmas evoked by confrontations with child soldiers are instances of mental deliberations that can potentially slow down response time and thereby place the US soldier in a compromised situation. To date, no provisions in the US military’s standing ROEs specifically address dealing with child combatants. It is virtually unknown and unprescribed territory.16 The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has laid out extensive standing ROEs for US forces, which include the right to self-defense and the need to use only proportional force. But these rules do not describe what this may entail when a soldier is attacked by a 10-year-old boy.17 As retired US Army colonel Charles Borchini stated, “Child soldiers are a problem all over the world but it is something we in the West are not accustomed to. . . . We raise our own children and bring them up and having to fight children is not something we are ready for.”18

The moral dilemma faced by the US military is one of the most personal confrontations with the problem of child soldiers imaginable. The psychological findings mentioned above note that the more personal the dilemma, the more likely that the emotional, not the cognitive, portion of the brain will be activated. Hence, when faced with a 12-year-old boy about to shoot, a US soldier is physiologically predisposed not to think about the situation and not to act, but to experience emotion. This puts him in grave danger.


There are at least three options or pathways that a military force can take in response to the tactical innovation of child soldiers. It can incorporate children into its own troops, thereby countering the enemy’s strategy with comparable maneuvers. This could be the case for forces in Sierra Leone. The Revolutionary United Front was notorious for impressing young boys and girls into its ranks, and the local militias or Civil Defense Force seemingly countered with the use of children in their own ranks. In a sense, this leveled the psychological playing field for everyone engaged in battle. Given the US position on barring children under 17 years old from recruitment and the nation’s commitment to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is highly improbable that US armed forces would ever choose a tit-for-tat stance and bring children into the armed forces.19 The second route that the military could take is to train soldiers to disregard the age of enemy combatants—to instill a deep rationalization that killing children is justified. Again, it is highly unlikely that such training could be developed and effectively executed in the United States. Not only would the preexisting moral fiber of all soldiers have to be obliterated, but also the American public would have to agree that such a position toward children in war is just. Given the historical/cultural composition and constraints of the United States, this is an infeasible approach. The last option for resolving the ethical problem of fighting children in war is to begin with the premise that child combatants are a nonresponsible threat. According to philosophy professor Jeff McMahan, a person may harm others but is a nonresponsible threat if his “action is wholly nonvoluntary.”20 This includes situations in which a person is either coerced or drugged and then becomes a threat. Such people are not morally accountable for their threats or actions because their free will has been usurped. Put simply, someone else is to blame. Even if we assume the worst—that many children freely enlist in insurgencies and are fully aware of and responsible for their actions—we still must consider the psychological background of the soldier who will face them. The perception by most members of Western-influenced troops is that the combatants are children and hence will always contain a certain amount of innocence. Ultimately, then, if American troops are conditioned to see child fighters as nonresponsible threats, they then can more readily develop the psychological position that self-defense is ethically viable, but restraint is always more desirable:

Just combatants have reason to show mercy and restraint, not because child soldiers are altogether lacking in responsibility for their action, but because they are owed leniency because of their special vulnerability to exploitation and loss. Just combatants should show them mercy, even at the cost of additional risk to themselves, to try to allow these already greatly wronged children a chance at life.21

Although this ethical position may be the most complicated of all rationalizations for how to treat child soldiers, it can and should be incorporated into basic training for US troops, but such an approach has been hardly touched upon in the military.

Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon readily admitted that it did not have any “official plans” outlining how to handle the threat of child soldiers, and its public-relations division was not ready to address the effects that images of dead children holding guns might have on Arab public opinion.22 A year earlier though, in 2002, the US Marine Corps did hold probably the first seminar on the implications of child soldiers for US troops. The seminar was framed by the question “How will we deal with it?” The day-long meeting of military personnel, academics, human-rights advocates, and a former child soldier explored implications on the battlefield (lethality, laws of war, and demoralizing effects); what could be done to stop the use of children in war (international, local, and military initiatives); and additional outcome problems such as reintegration of children into society and the high rates of HIV/AIDS cases seen mostly in girls abducted for use in war.23 The Marine Corps seminar offered the following ground-level suggestions:

1. Reveal and remove the adult leaders since they are the people responsible for recruitment.
2. Fight child soldiers at a distance and utilize more shock-style firing (above the heads of the enemy).
3. Secure recruitment zones, areas where rebels are collecting and enlisting children (schools, refugee camps, churches, etc.).
4. Use more nonlethal weaponry (this might include mace and rubber bullets).
5. Engage in more psychological operations aimed at persuading children to lay down their arms and return to a safe-haven environment.
6. Let the US public know what the problem is and what troops might have to encounter if they do face child soldiers.
7. Increase intelligence efforts to better understand the adversary, as opposed to merely what weapons they have and where they are located.

These suggestions are a significant first step towards resolving the difficulties of dealing with underage boys and girls on the battlefield. But they are not the only level at which we need to address the problem. As discussed above, the psychological predispositions of Western soldiers are of prime importance. Lt Col Judith Hughes, US Air Force, states that the US military establishment is not doing enough to understand the mental-health consequences of fighting against children: “The lack of specificity about encountering or killing child soldiers may be a flaw in the medical community’s threat surveillance assessment.”24 Hughes advocates both psychological preparedness before entering any battle scenario involving children as well as mental-health intervention after exposure and engagement.

Beyond the individual level and the internal, military organization level, the problem of child soldiers also necessitates the cooperation of state policy makers, international policy makers, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO). This is a triadic approach that Lt Gen the Honorable R. A. Dallaire states must be utilized to protect children from recruitment.25 Without such coordination, the positive efforts by one organization without the help of others can mistakenly lead to increased recruitment. As one study demonstrates, camps created for internally displaced persons and refugees in Africa, if left unprotected by military forces, can easily become human-resource storehouses for insurgencies. The camps may be set up as safe havens for children, but they are often used as places where rebels go to kidnap and recruit them for war.26 Such misappropriation of a humanitarian project is not necessarily the fault of the agency or agencies erecting the camps but results from the lack of full-scale capability to set up, run, and, most importantly, protect the camps. The answer then is not to eradicate the camps but to bring in more players to the project—political, military, and humanitarian communities.

Even though, as Hughes notes, the US military has yet to follow through with the recommendations from the 2002 US Marine Corps seminar, the three-pronged approach (political, military, and humanitarian) is being developed by the international community.27 In July 2007, the Canadian Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, the US Agency for International Development, and the NGO Search for Common Ground created a joint exercise (Prodigal Son) in which law-enforcement officers, military peacekeepers, and child-protection specialists teamed up to confront the child-soldier issue in a simulation.28 Based in a fictional African country, the exercise reinforced the idea for participants that cooperation and coordination at all levels, and with multiple agencies, were essential for dealing with the problem. The next step for members of Exercise Prodigal Son is to take what they developed and start applying it in the field.

The scope of the child-soldier problem is enormous; nevertheless, we must confront it. But problem solving cannot be ignored at any level. International policy makers can institute protocols and conventions in an effort to alter behaviors of states, but these actions will be meaningless if states do not engage and comply, and if militaries do not confront and resolve the issue from their vantage point. For US troops, this means starting with the individual soldier’s psyche, followed by strategizing how to handle children engaged in battle. Insurgencies have found an extremely effective tool for demoralizing militaries that adhere to the just-war tradition. As a tactical innovation, child soldiering is second to none as far as “bang for the buck.” The US military can neither field its own child soldiers nor fully train its soldiers to disregard the age of its opponents. Consequently, the armed forces must incorporate child-soldier ethics into basic training. When it comes to child soldiers, morals are the foundation for problem solving, not the barrier.


1. Peter W. Singer, “Facing Saddam’s Child Soldiers,” Iraq Memo #8, 14 January, 2003, 1,

2. The just-war tradition stems from early Greek and Roman thoughts about the legitimacy of waging war. In the Middle Ages, Christian thinkers developed two guiding principles for determining just actions: jus ad bellum (“justice of war) and jus in bello (“justice in war”). According to contemporary philosopher Michael Walzer, “Jus ad bellum requires us to make judgments about aggression and self-defense; jus in bello about the observance or violation of the customary and positive rules of engagement” (Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 21.) These ethical positions have been further refined and codified into customary rules and laws, such as preemptive war, protection of noncombatants, and the weighing of proportionality. (See Bruce Russet, Harvey Starr, and David Kinsella, World Politics, (Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006).

3. Thomas X. Hammes, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, (St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2006), 2.

4. Chalmers Johnson, “The Third Generation of Guerilla Warfare,” Asian Survey 8, no. 6 (June 1968): 437.

5. Doug McAdam, “Tactical Innovation and the Pace of Insurgency,” American Sociological
Review 48, no. 6 (December 1983): 735-754.

6. Ibid, 735-736.

7. Ibid.

8. Terrance McConnell, “Moral dilemmas,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006,

9. Joshua R. Greene, Brian Sommerville, Leigh E. Nystrom, John M. Darley and Jonathan
D. Cohen, “An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment,” Science 293, 14 September 2001.

10. Peter W. Singer, Children at War, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006), 166.

11. Peter W. Singer, “Western Militaries Confront Child Soldiers Threat. Jane’s Intelligence Review 17, no. 10 (1 January 2005).

12. Joyce Neu, Conflict analysis for the northern Uganda Peace Initiative (NUPI):
Launching a dialogue for peace between the LRA and the GOU, (San Diego, CA: Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice, University of San Diego, 2004), 5.

13. Sandra I. Erwin, “Child Soldiers: A Growing Threat to U.S. troops?” National Defense, December, 2002,

14. Singer, Children at War, 5. See note 12.

15. Department of Defense. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Joint Publication 1-02, 12 April, 2001 (As amended through 16 October 2006), 469-470.

16. One of the more recent guides for action on the battlefield, The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, offers minimal advice for dealing with children in a war zone. The manual warns against befriending children because insurgents might witness such acts of kindness, and then “[t]hey may either harm the children as punishment or use them as agents” (U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24 / Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5, Counterinsurgency, December 2006, A-6.

17. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Standing Rules of Engagement,” CJCSI 3121.01A, 15 January, 2000.

18. Andrew Buncombe, “Child Soldiers would Pose Ethical Nightmare for Allied Troops in the Gulf,” Independent (UK), 16 January 2003,

19. United Nations, Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, 2000,

20. Jeff McMahan, “Child Soldiers: The Ethical Perspective,” Working Papers, Ford Institute for Human Security, 2007, 6,

21. Ibid.

22. Buncombe, 2003. See note 19.

23. Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities, Child Soldiers: Implications for U.S. Forces. (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, 2002).

24. Lt. Col. Judith Hughes, “Child Soldiers: Are U.S. Military Members Prepared to Deal with the Threat?” (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air War College, 2006),

25. R.A. Dallaire, Children in Conflict: Eradicating the Child Soldier Doctrine, A Research Report Prepared for the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University 2007,

26. Vera Achvarina and Simon F. Reich, “No Place to Hide: Refugees, Displaced Persons, and the Recruitment of Child Soldiers,” International Security 31, no. 1 (summer 2006): 127–164.

27. Hughes, “Child Soldiers.” See note 25.

28. Thomas A. Dempsey, Child Soldiers and Stability Operations, Issue Paper No. 2007-02, U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operation Institute, 2007,


Robert Tynes Robert Tynes is a former freelance journalist for KPLU-NPR and the Seattle Times. He holds a M.A. in Communication from the University of Washington and is currently a PhD. candidate in political science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, University at Albany, SUNY. His research focuses on political violence, child soldiers and Africa.


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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