QUANTICO, VA. — On Jan. 4, while surveying bomb damage from the back of a pickup truck near Khost, Afghanistan, Sgt. Nathan Ross Chapman was suddenly struck down by small-arms fire the first American serviceman to die in combat during Operation Enduring Freedom.
Yet the bullets that felled the seasoned Green Beret came allegedly not from a hardened fighter, but from a 14-year-old boy, according to unconfirmed reports from local Afghan leaders.
If true, the incident underscores how the tragic epidemic of child warriors with an estimated 300,000 now serving as combatants in dozens of conflicts around the globe makes it increasingly likely that US forces will encounter children in war. Yet the US military is not fully prepared, tactically or psychologically, for dealing with this "emerging threat," US officers say.
"When that 14-year-old points a weapon at you, what are you allowed to do and not to do?" says Brig. Gen. William Catto, who commands the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory at Quantico, Va. "This is about as tough an issue as we can deal with."
The US military needs to refine its doctrine and rules of engagement in order to address the child-soldier problem, says retired Marine Col. Randy Gangle, executive director of the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities (CETO), a partnership between the Marine Corps and the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
While it is standard practice for US military personnel to defend themselves against a hostile act or intent, complications mount in gauging the risks posed by children and battling child units, as well as coping afterward with the personal trauma and public reverberations from child casualties.
As such, child soldiers are an extreme example of how US forces must adjust to an increasingly eclectic, unpredictable group of nontraditional combatants who have no uniforms, codes of conduct, or clear organization.
"The days of the professional armies are going away," General Catto said earlier this month at a Quantico conference on child soldiers.
In one of the first Western military engagements with child warriors, in late 2000 a patrol of British soldiers was surrounded and taken hostage in Sierra Leone by a rogue militia made up mainly of children. The squad commander had reportedly refused to open fire on "children armed with AK-47s." Yet a British rescue assault 16 days later left an estimated 25 to 150 enemy forces dead, including many children. "The impact of being fired on by a child is an initial shock, but the soldiers will do their job," says Maj. Jim Gray of the British Royal Marines, who served on a UN observer mission in Sierra Leone in 1999. "But if you don't care for them when they come home, it might destroy them."
So far, US troops have faced only limited fire from children, as in the 1993 Somalia operation. But that could change. For example, in the Philippines, American soldiers are aiding in the pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf rebel group, which has recruited or bought boy soldiers aged 11 to 15, according to human rights groups. The Iraqi regime, which Washington seeks to overthrow, has trained thousands of 10- to 15-year-old youths known as Ashbal Saddam, or Saddam's Lion Cubs, in small-arms and infantry tactics.
Students from Pakistani religious schools, or madrassahs, have long supported Afghanistan's former Taliban regime.
Indeed, an estimated 10 percent of all current combatants are child soldiers, defined as youths "under 18 years of age engaged in deadly violence [of a noncriminal type] as part of an armed force," according to Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution here. Children "have become integral parts of both organized military units and nonmilitary, but still violent, political organizations such as terrorist groups."
Especially in failed or weak states, children have emerged as a low-cost way for both governments and rebel groups to mobilize and replace armed forces. Many children are forcibly recruited after being orphaned or cut off from their families by war, poverty, or other disasters.
Using today's smaller, lighter, more powerful weapons, children with minimal training can constitute a lethal force.
Often drugged, the children are beaten or threatened with death unless they fight battles and commit atrocities such as killing people from their own villages. They also serve as decoys, mine cleaners, spies, and early-warning systems vulnerable to losing their lives to protect adult troops. Two million children have been killed and twice that many disabled in conflicts in the last decade, according to UN child advocates.
Nevertheless, with nowhere else to go, many child soldiers grow dependent on a life of combat. "I kept pulling the trigger for three years," says Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone. "I ran out of tears to shed."
Columbia, Burma, Sri Lanka, and the Democratic Republic of Congo are notorious for their child warriors, who total an estimated 80,000. Yet the problem is widespread, affecting 75 percent of the world's conflicts, experts say.
The UN and human rights groups are working to ban child soldiering, prosecute recruiters, and impose trade sanctions on violators. The Bush administration is expected to sign soon an optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that would prohibit the US military from sending youths under 18 into combat, according to Pentagon officials.
Yet despite such efforts, some military experts believe the problem of child soldiers will persist or worsen. Even as humanitarian programs help demobilize thousands of child soldiers, thousands more are being abducted or re-recruited, say UN officials and human rights experts.
"My sense is this will grow rather than diminish," says Colonel Gangle. "This is a very easy way for individuals to recruit armies and sustain those armies when they take a high number of casualties."