When the enemy soldier is a child

By LOU MARANO  |  June 12, 2002 at 11:49 AM
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QUANTICO, Va., June 12 (UPI) -- A British military officer who became a psychological casualty after witnessing horrors involving child soldiers in West Africa warned his American counterparts that they had to prepare their troops for the worst and to ensure that they receive proper post-deployment care.

Mastering fear "is the easy bit," Royal Marine Major Jim Gray said at the U.S. Marine base Tuesday. "Eventually, you've got to come home. ... You have the duty to care for your guys, because it will destroy them if you don't."

Gray spoke at a seminar titled "Child Soldiers -- Implications for U.S. Forces," which was sponsored by the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities, a partnership between the U.S. Marine Corps and the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. In anarchic corners of the post-Cold War world, hundreds of thousands of children have been recruited or forced to fight in many open-ended wars.

The first American to die in Afghanistan was killed by a 14-year-old boy, and "shooters" in some conflicts are as young as 6 or 7. Even younger children carry ammunition, act as spies and serve as human shields. Many are sexually abused. In such places as Sierra Leone they are drugged, and part of their initiation is to be forced to kill or mutilate the helpless.

Peter W. Singer, a post-doctoral fellow at the Brookings Institution, warned that U.S. forces inevitably will have to engage child soldiers and of the psychological damage this will entail. He said that in 1945 U.S. soldiers with no doubt about the rightness of their cause, and on the brink of victory, nonetheless were severely affected by fighting the Hitler Youth.

Gray came under fire in West Africa, but he was not a combatant. For the first half of 1999, he was with the U.N. observer mission to Sierra Leone, where he saw child soldiers in action.

"I've seen them kill (civilians). I've seen them kill each other. I've seen reasonably normal (Nigerian) troops killing them. I've seen the aftermath," he said. "Heartbreaking stuff."

Gray made three points, and saved the most dramatic one for last. The first was that in some parts of the world, ethnocentric moral exhortation won't work. The attitude he encountered in Sierra Leone "is something we in the West can't really comprehend." He thinks that "preaching" to the leaders of child soldiers, and telling them that what they are doing is wrong, is ineffective. "You might as well be speaking Chinese."

The second point was that despite the brutality of their lives, it is a mistake to think that child soldiers are eager to escape. Child soldiers are effectively alienated from their home environment, he said. "Their ability to go home is completely removed by the fact that they're forced to commit atrocious and appalling acts."

Gray said he never met a child soldier who wanted to go home. In their environment someone who was fed, had a pair of boots and a gun was king. "They become hooked on the power to some extent." That coupled with the fact that almost no one was left alive between 18 and 40 meant that no child soldier was trying to escape. "They become a very useful commodity, and they are used extensively. There are an awful lot of them, and to some extent they are pretty effective."

They don't maneuver or provide supporting fire but fight in a disjointed way, he said. Gray cited the work of the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who wrote that children are egocentric and develop morality in stages. Gray observed the amorality of child soldiers. Recalling his own playground experiences, he said children are harsh to each other. They have no mercy, he said, but follow their own needs. "If you give them an AK-47, the results are gruesome."

The major said on numerous occasions he entered situations where children on drugs had weapons and used them, "and it is terrifying. ... They operate as if they were in a playground.

"When I saw them attacked with any sort of consolidated effort by Nigerian troops, they fragment very, very quickly. They don't stick together," he said.

"I saw lots of bad stuff when I was in Sierra Leone," Gray said, "and literally six hours after I left Freetown I sat in my wife's car on the way back from Heathrow toward Somerset (County). Within 10 (hours), I sat in my little cottage in Southwest England with my cat and my wife having literally come out of the most appalling set of circumstances I can possibly imagine.

"But I was also sick and clearly quite stressed."

Gray's wife said: "Jim, I'm glad you're home because we need to get that spare room decorated, and we need to go shopping this afternoon."

"And I couldn't cope," the major said.

He started "feeling slightly strange about things." Then he went 13 days without sleeping for more than five minutes at a time. "And my ability to cope with normal stuff just broke down. I went into a pretty acute post-traumatic stress-type thing."

A bad case of malaria might have aggravated his condition. But he became deeply affected by things that didn't bother him much when they had occurred.

"It's like watching an eyeball operation on Discovery Channel. It's gruesome and it's horrible, but somehow you can't bring yourself to reach for that remote control." He found himself standing next to people saying, "Bloody hell. That guy just cut that girl's arm off. Did you see?"

Gray said to the military leaders gathered for the seminar, "We have a responsibility to our people in terms of preparing them for this kind of environment. ... But the real responsibility is the duty of care to guys when they come back from it." He said he was cared for very well by the British system.

Gray attributed the relatively few psychological casualties after the 1982 Falklands War to troops having two weeks to thrash things out among themselves aboard ship on the way back to England. "By the time they got home to their families, they'd been through the process of understanding what they had been exposed to."

Based on his experience, Gray said that a soldier -- after his initial shock of being fired upon by a child -- will pull the trigger. "They will do what they've got to do." The hard part is living with oneself afterward.

Peter Singer said that sooner or later, U.S. troops will be put into the position of having to fire upon a child for their own protection.

"Military leaders must anticipate this terrible dilemma and prepare their soldiers not only by providing strict guidelines for when to take this decision, but they also must be ready to deal with its psychological aftermath," he said.

"For this is an added way that child soldiers put professional forces at a disadvantage. Units that have been engaged in these encounters may require special post-conflict treatment akin to what many police organizations provide their own personnel after a shooting incident. Otherwise, the consequence of being forced to kill children may ultimately undermine the unit's cohesion and combat effectiveness.

"Engagement with child soldiers also has an important public affairs side," he said. "Images of children killed by American or allied forces will certainly be heartrending to the public. The added misfortune would be if these ex post media images were to undermine domestic or international support. If not carefully managed, this aspect of information warfare will be an easily lost one.

"Public affairs specialists must be prepared for the repercussions of such engagements," Singer said. "In explaining the events and how the children ended up being killed, they should stress the context under which (the deaths) occurred and the overall mission's importance. Most important, they must seek to turn the blame on where it should properly fall -- on those foes who send out children to do their dirty work."

There's nothing "soft" about preparing for the dilemmas presented by facing child soldiers, Singer said. The issue is "as hard as they come."

"Child soldier incidents will come sooner or later, and in a sense have come for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The only question is whether our forces will be prepared to do the right thing."

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