As Congress debates the provision of military aid to countries that use child soldiers, and reports surface that Than Shwe's army is buying and kidnapping kids to fill its ranks, Chris Blattman of the Center for Global Development has some words of warning:
Media portrayals of child soldiers are animated by two powerful and now familiar images. One is the senselessly brutal and criminal rebel force, or "warlord-led drives whose essential goal is plunder," in the words of a recent New York Times report. The second icon is the drug-crazed teenager, wielding an AK-47, assured of his magical immunity from enemy bullets.
The most common and painful image, however, is that of the troubled return to civilian life. "They are walking ghosts," mourns a recent New York Times editorial, "damaged, uneducated pariahs."
While such alarming assertions attract attention and money to the rehabilitation of former child soldiers, they seem based on the most sensational interviews rather than general experiences. Credible evidence to support these statements simply does not exist.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Our 2006 report on boys and young men in northern Uganda suggests that they are psychologically resilient, peaceful, and enjoy significant support from their families. Only a minority exhibit symptoms of serious emotional distress, and there is no evidence of increased aggression. They live not as marginal people or criminals but as mothers, fathers and citizens.
Blattman worries that advocates, who have an incentive to make the situation seem as dire as possible, can retard the reintegration process by casting former soldiers as permanently deranged pariahs. A return to school and work becomes harder when you're thought to be an inescapably brutal killer. And the pressing of 9-year-olds into war isn't exactly the kind of thing that requires exaggerating to horrify people into action. Blattman's 2006 report on Ugandan child soldiers is here (pdf).