Children can make the fiercest soldiers, and some of the deadliest recruiters for rebel armies operate near areas devastated by last month's earthquake. Reading P.W. Singer's "Children at War," you can't help thinking of the tsunami orphans. Already at risk of disease, malnutrition, and prostitution, adolescents who survived the wall of water that destroyed their families and villages may be swept up by militias who have already stolen thousands of other orphans to fill their ranks.
Disparate groups in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, and Burma (Myanmar) are fighting for different reasons, but they share a common characteristic: their systematic recruitment of children.
Abducted, purchased, even handed over by their own families, fighters as young as 5 have become a vital part of the world's separatist factions. They have emerged as the new warriors in the 21st century on battlefields not only throughout South Asia, but wherever wars rage. They have confronted US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, carried out suicide missions in Israel, butchered families in Africa, and fought with rebels in Colombia and Peru.
"As the 21st century opens, a new practice in warfare has emerged," writes Singer. "Indeed it is becoming so common that it can be thought of as an entirely new doctrine of warfare."
A national security fellow at The Brookings Institution, Singer interviewed many former child fighters fortunate enough to escape the militias who recruited them. He weaves their chilling words throughout his book: "When I was fighting, I enjoyed it ... killing and destroying," says one young fighter. "I killed human beings, many; young, old, anyone. The first one, an old lady, I shot from far away. I was very angry, so I shot her. Their families killed my people."
"It's sobering to think that under certain conditions, practically any child could be changed into a killer," says a psychologist who has worked to rehabilitate young soldiers.
Singer adds, "Many believe that ... fearlessness derives directly from the very state of childhood - that is, children are simply not as capable of understanding the consequences of their actions as adults."
A child's natural fearlessness is easily manipulated. In general, children do not have the mental capacity or the life experiences to truly fear war or even death, Singer explains. And that can turn children into "obedient killers" who are afraid only of their commanders, not their enemies. "They think it's a game, so they're fearless," says one rebel leader.
A world in which 10-year-olds carry Kalashnikovs and teenagers strap themselves with explosives is nearly unimaginable if you live where war is distant - where children get no closer to battle than a video game. But the figures are staggering in many parts of the world. Sixty percent of the nonstate armed forces today use child soldiers; 23 percent use child soldiers 15 and younger; as many as 300,000 children "are currently fighting in wars or have recently been demobilized."
But unlike the tsunami that left thousands of orphans susceptible to being snatched up by rebels, the conditions creating this new class of tiny warriors are often manmade and reversible, Singer claims. Widespread poverty in developing nations may be the leading reason children slip into war. In Africa, the prevalence of young soldiers coincides with the rise in AIDS that has left millions of children without a mother or father. Singer says that more money needs to be spent - particularly by the US - to slow the pandemic, expected to kill tens of millions over the next decade.
He also encourages activists to target military groups that use children and countries that support regimes exploiting the young.
But what he advocates for most is putting teeth in the international treaties outlawing the use of soldiers under the age of 18. When the world's nonstate military leaders - who give little heed to international treaties and UN resolutions - realize they could be punished (and perhaps have assets seized) by the International Criminal Court, they may rethink their dependence on young, fearless, and impressionable warriors.
"The use of children as a weapon of war would be made like the use of chemical or biological weapons - simply unacceptable to the entire world, under any circumstances."
A policy expert, Singer gives us a policy expert's book: sometimes dry, too academic, too wonkish, overwhelming with data. But nowhere else is there a more compact, compelling portrait of this devastating problem that the world must not ignore.
• Michael B. Farrell is an editor on the Monitor's International news desk.