Child Soldiers: The Reasoning Behind the Horror

Child soldiers are one of the most disturbing yet prevalent trends in warfare today. Globally, the number of child soldiers has grown steadily since the 1980s, with well over 300,000 child soldiers currently serving. The average age of these combatants is about 12.

Why do armed groups want to recruit children? On the face of it, using young children as combatants makes little sense. Children have many, many military disadvantages when compared to adults. Children are far weaker and less resilient than adults, and less able to respond to ambiguous or difficult situations. Using child soldiers wins a group few friends, and is likely to delegitimize them in the eyes of the international community.

Historiographical sidebar – scholars tend to look at child soldiers from two different perspectives: supply-side explanations look at systemic factors like high youth unemployment, weak family structures, and the like, trying to answer why children might want to be soldiers. Demand-side explanations examine why armed groups would want to have children in their ranks. Both are important, but the demand side is less understood and my preferred way of looking at it. 

Why Child Soldiers?

Theorists discussing child soldiers will generally cite two reasons for the sudden popularity of child soldiers. Firstly, they will say that with modern weapons like AK-47s, children are capable of fighting as effectively as adults. Secondly, they will say that children are more obedient and courageous than adults. 

Both of these explanations are insufficient. A better gun does not suddenly negate all of the disadvantages of child soldiers. Children, no matter how they are armed, can’t march as far as adults, or forage as effectively, or fulfill all the non-combat tasks which make up the vast majority of every soldier’s time. What’s more, weapons able to be used by children are not a modern invention. Weapons like the British Lee-Enfield Rifle (used 1895-1957) are about the same weight and as easy for a child to use as an AK-47. 

As for the supposed courage and obedience of child soldiers, these advantages are as old as warfare itself. Why is it only now that armed groups use child soldiers on a widespread basis? 

History of Child Soldiers

Young children have always been involved in warfare, yet rarely as combatants. Usually, they have served in highly specialized roles, like spies, cooks, or porters. Using children in specialized roles makes a lot of sense, because specific roles can take the disadvantages of child soldiers and turn them into strengths. For example, children’s size and ability to blend in can make them much better scouts than conventional soldiers. 

John Clem, aged 10 at the start of the American Civil War, and drummer boy in the Union Army. Please note that most military drummers were historically adults, and the idea of widespread ‘drummer boys’ is mostly a romanticized myth.

Some historians and political scientists suggest that today, child soldiers have shifted to being regular soldiers, as opposed to filling specialized support roles. The aforementioned idea that modern weapons have enabled the use of child soldiers implicitly backs the notion that child soldiers exist to fill the same role as adult soldiers. However, I believe this to be incorrect.

Modern technology cannot negate the many disadvantages of recruiting children. Giving a child an assault rifle does not turn them into a professional adult soldier. A better way to understand child soldiers is understanding that they still fill very specific and specialized roles. In a way, child soldiers are not really soldiers at all, because the term implies that the main way child soldiers differ from regular soldiers is their age. In reality, armed group use child soldiers in a manner completely separate from adults.

How Armed Groups Use Child Soldiers

Liberia and Sierra Leone

The Liberian and Sierra Leonean civil wars were two interconnected conflicts in the 1990s that involved tens of thousands of child soldiers. Over the past few months, I’ve read a great deal about both wars, through both personal accounts and trial proceedings. The way armed groups used child soldiers in Liberia and Sierra Leone sheds some light on how armed groups perceive child soldiers, and what purpose the children serve.


Authors describing child soldiers often suggest that armed groups immediately hand their child recruits a gun and send them off to die in combat. However, this is not usually accurate. Studies of child soldiers in Liberia and elsewhere shows that most child soldiers don’t receive a weapon for many months. Those months involved intense training, but the aim of that training was more often to instill loyalty and obedience, rather than teaching children to fight with weapons. 

Taken from “The Logic of Child Soldiering and Coercion” by Bernd Beber and Christopher Blattman

Why would an armed group devote so much time towards indoctrinating young children, rather than training them to be effective fighters, or simply training more capable adults? The reason lies with the nature of the Sierra Leonean and Liberian Civil Wars. Both conflicts eventually devolved into resource wars, wars where armed groups extract natural resources (often diamonds) to enrich themselves. In resource wars, armed groups are not trying to defeat one another, they are trying to maintain the status quo and keep the money flowing. This is why resource wars often drag on for many years with little clear desire for peace.

In a resource war, child soldiers are a uniquely valuable commodity, because, among other things, they increase the longevity of a given group. Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, for example, has fought a guerilla war for the better part of forty years, with the assistance of a constant supply of child soldiers. 


Despite the lack of weapon training most child soldiers receive, it is an undeniable fact that many child soldiers see combat. It was common practice in Liberia and Sierra Leone to give children drugs before sending them into combat. As one Sierra Leonese child put it, “When you take the tablets you can’t sleep, it makes you hot in your body. Anytime you go on the frontline, they give it to you. Just got to do something to be strong because you don’t want the feeling of killing someone. You need the drugs to give you the strength to kill.” 

On the face of it, drugging soldiers seems illogical. Drugged soldiers are less likely to follow orders effectively or react to changing circumstances. Tellingly, there is little evidence of adult soldiers receiving drugs in Liberia or Sierra Leone. The use of combat drugs only make sense if you view child soldiers not as conventional soldiers, but as fulfilling different purposes. The most likely motivation for giving children drugs is to terrify enemy combatants. Many participants in the Sierra Leonese Civil War reported a special fear for child soldiers, because of “that crazy look”. 


Civilians have also found child soldiers uniquely terrifying. During the Sierra Leonean Civil War, rebel leaders assigned thousands of children of about age 12 and under to the Small Boys Unit (SBU). Much of the day to day operations of the SBU are shrouded in secrecy, but witness accounts suggest that the SBU was not primarily a combat unit, rather, it was a specially designated terror and execution squad. Alex Tamba Teh, a Sierra Leonean pastor, described to the International Criminal Court how after rebels attacked his villiage, he and the other captives were taken to rebel headquarters, where they met an SBU. The SBU boys used machetes and other primitive weapons to brutally execute the captives, sparing only Teh. 

Alimamy Bobson Sesay, a rebel leader in Sierra Leone, also mentioned the execution squad role the SBUs filled.

“Wherever we targeted civilians we would use the SBUs to amputate people, to amputate their arms…. In some areas where we captured some civilians whom I and the others would capture we would make sure that the SBUs – we would command the SBUs saying, ‘Amputate these ones arms. Let him or her go to Freetown and tell them that we are ready for them.’ So it was a kind of giving out a message to the other civilians that they should fear us”

Alimamy Bobson Sesay, Charles Taylor Trial, April 18th 2008

The overall picture one gets from Liberia and Sierra Leone is that child soldiers were not regular soldiers, but received assignments completely different from those of adult soldiers. This directly contradicts the traditional idea that child soldiers serve the same role as adults in military groups. Rather, the particular strategies and politics of a conflict shape the way in which the military leaders choose to exploit the natural qualities of children. However commanders decide to use children, the sad fact is that military leaders use very young children not despite the fact that they are children, but because of it. 


The bottom line is that very young child soldiers do not fulfill the same roles as adult soldiers. Commanders instead assign them specialized roles, often involving terror and atrocities, for which children are uniquely suited. 

Quotations come from Michael Wessells’ “Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection” as well as the Charles Taylor Trial Transcripts.

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