Support the Preadolescent Troops


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).

NEXT: Wasn't That Scary, Kids?

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  1. If skepticism is warranted, it is a profound relief to me. I saw a media report, I forget where, focusing on groups reintegrating these kids in Rwanda, and it hit me pretty hard.

    It’s one of those situations where the context dominates the details of the story, making the whole thing almost unbearable to contemplate. Hollow stares invite you to write your own story for what is going on inside that head.


  2. The same people willing to give these countries and policies a pass are the people that decry that we’re turning our young women into adults with sexy clothes.

  3. Good to know we’re not going to be giving aid to countries that force kids to be soldiers. Hopefully, the current government of Iraq isn’t doing this, or else Bush will probably veto the bill.

    the pressing of 9-year-olds into war isn’t exactly the kind of thing that requires exaggerating to horrify people into action.

    But it does present a problem; someone who is willing to force a 10-year old to go fight is unlikely to be open to moral suasion.

  4. Not to quibble (I’m terribly grateful that Reason picked up on this posting at all), but it’s worth adding that the other common myth of child soldiering is that it is 9- and 10- year olds who are the object of attraction for rebel leaders.

    Another output of the same study is a look at the causes of child soldiering, and the revelation that (in northern Uganda at least) 9 and 10 year olds were not of much interest, and not of much use, primarily because they made poor fighters.

    The data suggest that it is mid-adolescents that provide the best mix of mutability and fighting prowess, and hence are the ideal targets of forcible recruitment.

    This plus links to the academic article in a recent blog posting: ttp://

  5. Oops. I misread the article originally – I’d thought the action mentioned was against those who would use child soldiers, not in assisting their return to society.

    I would suspect that child soldiers have very similar problems as adult soldiers do in re-integrating with society. Compounding this would be their potential lack of understanding of the context their experiences.

  6. We fought and won our Revolution with many child soldiers and there wasn’t all this pissing and moaning about it.

    Frankly I could give a shit about some kid in Africa, Asia, Europe or Central America picks up a rifle to fight. It’s been happening for thousands of years in one form or another and the human race has done quite nicely.

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