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    The Narrative and Political Theory on the Idea of Child Soldiers

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    It might not cross one’s mind that child soldiers are capable of integrating into the child- unfriendly zone that is warfare. Media reports of the use of child soldiers have provoked a new international moral panic, drawing the attention of the United Nations among other multinational political bodies (Honwana 2005: 31; Rosen 2007: 296). But “underage” involvement in civil and international armed conflicts is not a fresh development in the new age of warfare (Honwana 2005: 31, 44; Rosen 2007: 298). Children’s involvement in war has, however, seen increasing amounts of politicisation in academia and international political discourse, bringing forward many new propositions and considerations concerning the humanitarian responsibility of allowing children, or under-18s, to participate in armed conflicts (Rosen 2007).

    Academic literature on the agency of children in war, and children in general, has revisited the culpability of children in conflicts, particularly when child soldiers have been found responsible for heinous war atrocities (Rosen 2007: 302). In this essay, a combination of narrative and political theory will combine to assess the agency of children in war, the contribution made by young soldiers in prolonged violent conflicts, and a critique of the common misconception of the victim status of children in violent conflicts will be provided pervasively through the review of several sources which touch on a variety of subtopics, such as children in wars of independence, young leaders in the anti-Apartheid Struggle, and female child soldiers in African civil wars, among others (Honwana 2005; Reynolds 2013; Utas 2005).

    “The idea of children killing and waging war defies established and accepted norms and values with regard to the categories of children and adulthood,” says Honwana (2005: 32), referring to what she analyses as the space of liminal existence, between the context- dependent spheres of childhood and adulthood, that a child soldier occupies in contravention of what society deems a normal and good childhood. Childhood is understood in Western cultural contexts as a time of innocence and nonchalance, and stands in opposition to adulthood, a time of responsibility and morbid decision-making (Warner 1994: 38). Similarly, a supposedly innocent child is in clear opposition to a soldier; someone that is trained in the use of violence (Honwana 2005: 32). Honwana (2005:32) makes the distinction between child and soldier to address identity and social construction conflicts, specifically the binary traits attributed to children and soldiers, such as defenceless versus defender, victim versus perpetrator, and innocent versus guilty. This introduces the first point of discussion: understanding a child’s capacity to enter a space between value paradigms of childhood and war.

    The agency debate surrounding the actions of children, particularly in war circumstances, has been addressed by comparing ‘strategic agency’ with ‘tactical agency’ (Honwana 2005: 33; Utas 2005: 75). ‘Strategic agency’ applies to decisions that result in actions that act in favour of achieving a crucial aim bearing long-term effects (Honwana 2005: 33). This is considered the agency of adult soldiers, who make decisions that account for a future objective not necessarily dependent on the outcome of the actions performed in the immediate temporal and spatial environment. ‘Tactical agency’ refers to child soldiers, who exercise agency based on the conditions of their immediate situation and surroundings, with want of pursuit of an eventual goal (Honwana 2005: 32). Using ‘tactical agency’, young militants make decisions that reduce the risk of harm befalling them in hazardous situations.

    For example, Utas (2005) produces narratives from Liberian women who were involved in the Liberian civil war, which details how the young women had to engage either romantically or violently with male commandos in order to protect themselves or their families. Girls decided to take on high-ranking fighters as their lovers, participated in looting to feed themselves, and even took up arms (Utas 2005: 72).

    This agency can be analysed in the case of anti-Apartheid youth leaders, who tackle issues of morality and decision-making in violent conduct with their own set of principles. Reynolds (2013) asserts that youth leaders in the anti-Apartheid struggle have been comparatively overlooked and had their contributions side-lined by the patriarchal leaders of the struggle. Notions of an uncoordinated group of hooligans surround a particular cadre of young activists who operated in a Western Cape township in the 1980s, who Reynolds sees as having been labelled during the struggle as possessing less moral awareness than the major struggle leaders (2013: 137).

    The actions of these young freedom fighters were based on a set of ethical standards relating to the self and the community, and even humanity in general (Reynolds 2013: 138). Although the young activists might be considered a step away from a child soldier,1 they participated in violent activities and protests against the state, who in turn would monitor, imprison, torture and occasionally murder the activists. One of the youth leaders describes the Xhosa concept of imfobe, which was used by the cadre and acted as a sort of moral compass to guide fighters through their struggle activities (Reynolds 2013: 140). Imfobe relates to reconciling the hardships and injustices that others have directed at you, and rising above their position to realise they are human and thus sin and make mistakes 1 ‘Soldier’ implying a trained, arms-bearing fighter obeying the orders of an organised and recognised military high command. (Reynolds 2013: 140). Using this concept, freedom fighters followed a moral paradox, whereby they partook in admittedly evil activities and disputed their actions, but remained willing to accept whatever consequences that might face them (Reynolds 2013: 141-145).

    For example, youths accused of recruiting children for protests avoided imprisonment while the children were detained, and to satisfy the accusations of the children’s mothers, the youths handed themselves in to the police (Reynolds 2013: 145). The young freedom fighters approached their immoral actions by adopting a critical lens to view themselves, and found morality through constructing it in relation to the struggle (Reynolds 2013: 143-144). Young freedom fighters, the aforementioned step away from child soldiers (or in this context, soldiers under eighteen years old), had to bear the responsibility of immoral actions which they, as Reynolds (2013: 142) likened to Marx’s understanding, “manufactured” for themselves into moral practices. The assumptions presented earlier, which regarded the youth leaders as a fragmented group of hooligans, in light of this evidence, can be said to be a fallacy. An elaborate system of rationalisations and moral deliberation was involved in committing to violent anti-Apartheid activities, and the existence of this system challenges stereotypes put forward by some senior leaders of the anti-Apartheid struggle (Reynolds 2013: 137-139).

    Not only did these fighters concern themselves with tackling racist oppression perpetrated by an external cultural group and the state, but also battled with internal cultural facets, namely the suppression of women in the context of marriage and the struggle (Reynolds 2013: 150-153). However, senior leaders discouraged fighting a struggle on two fronts, and youth leaders opted to focus on fighting the state rather than cultural injustices which limited the struggle involvement for married women (Reynolds 2013: 154). Women were prominent in political activism during Apartheid (look no further than the 1956 march on the Union Buildings to oppose racial identification pass laws), and have similarly been heavily involved in warfare elsewhere in Africa. Women are more commonly assumed as victims of war, not participants in its perpetuation (Utas 2005: 55-56).

    Like with children, the connection between women and violence is not commonly imagined, particularly not in a Westerner’s mind, but looking back at countless conflicts, it can be observed that women have a decisive role in directly participating in combat, and not just as sex victims or armaments factory workers (Utas 2005: 55-56). Great women soldiers such as Joan of Arc infiltrated the patriarchal realm of warfare and stand as testament to the capability of women to seize power in situations that would seek to deny them so. In the ranks of Mozambican liberation group FRELIMO, adult women soldiers found great empowerment in donning military gear and being in combat with enemy forces (Rosen 2007: 299). In the struggle for Ethiopian liberation, girls were enlisted for combat from a young age, and, according to Rosen’s (2007: 299) paper, none of them felt as if they were bereft of power or agency once they had left their military days behind them. However, in the Liberian civil war, different manners of tactical agency were employed by young women.

    In order to avoid starvation, homelessness, rape and abuse, girls would find a lover with connections to the armed groups who went around Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone (Utas 2005: 57-61). The girls would stay with a commando (or in one girl’s case, the cousin of a commando) until he was killed in combat, and by such a time that their lover was killed, they usually had another “boyfriend” lined up to protect them from abuse and humiliation at the hands of the other soldiers (Utas 2005: 61-65). One girl named Evelyn became a rebel fighter and acquired a reputation as a “lady commando” in her town after her husband (who forced her to “marry” him) made her take up arms (Utas 2005: 73). Evelyn possessed power in a situation that was primarily possessed by men in the context of the civil war, and used her power to settle some trivial to serious disputes in her local town where she had this reputation (Utas 2005: 73).

    Girl soldiers like Evelyn were ruthless fighters, known for their quick tempers in combat (Utas 2005: 72). Utas (2005: 74) also notes how women and girls were not only involved directly in the fighting, but also encouraged young men to fight, which can be understood as power of conviction over their male counterparts. This was often taken to heart all too willingly by young men who went on to commit dreadful atrocities on the battlefield and in urban environments, which introduces the next complicated issue of enquiry: recruitment. Warlords and dictators have often been burdened with the accusation of recruiting young soldiers into their ranks and rightly so, looking no further than that frenzied obsession in 2012 with Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (Rosen 2007: 299).

    Reports of commanders forcing child recruits to murder innocent civilians (including their own family members) flash across television screens and newsstands to the disbelief of the peaceful developed world (Rosen 2007: 297). Indeed, Honwana (2005: 31) relays the story of Marula, a boy who was recruited by RENAMO during Mozambique’s war of independence and forced to kill his father after a failed escape attempt. The intention of the commanders forcing Marula (and many other young forced recruits) to do this, according to Rosen (2007: 298), was to alienate them from not only their familial ties, but also their home community.

    However, the agency-less aspect of the child soldiers has been overemphasized, with many young people voluntarily joining armed forces not only for protection and sustenance, but also because they believe it to be a good life decision; some in the LRA even admitting to having aspirations for leadership roles (Rosen 2007: 299). We return again to the female soldiers in Ethiopia, Liberia and Mozambique, who found empowerment in their military service (Utas 2005: 57; Rosen 2007: 299). It is thinkable that children in these war zones similarly predicted some empowerment to come from being a commando, if nothing more than to be safer than non-combatant children.

    The recruiting age of child soldiers varies in different situations, with girls as young as five-years old being recruited into the liberation conflict in Ethiopia (Rosen 2007: 299). The political and ideological discourse surrounding the acceptable age for recruitment, and also for volunteering, has brought numerous humanitarian and political groups together, each with differing views and considerations. According to Rosen (2007: 296): “The politics of age is central to the competing agendas of humanitarian groups, sovereign states, and the United Nations and its constituent agencies, and it brings them into complex struggles over the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, the ideological and political manipulation of the concept of “childhood,” and the definition of who should be considered a “child soldier.” The representations of childhood by all these groups are political constructs used to support legal and political agendas, and they discount the more varied and complex local understandings of children and childhood found in anthropological research.

    ” To simplify, Rosen claims that childhood, as a phase of life, has been constructed in a certain way to accommodate the aims of certain groups’ operations, and this construction has failed to consider local contexts and cultural processes (2007: 296). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) qualifies the duration of childhood as between birth and eighteen years old, and using this qualification the UNCRC seeks to prohibit the use of under-eighteens in wars or any situation involving the use of arms (Rosen 2007: 296). This prohibition is backed up by several other international groups which aim to protect children from warfare, labour and abuse (Rosen 2007: 296; Myers 1999: 14). This prohibition, like thoughtless swings at legislating other globally-homogenous international political rights, discounts the many cultural contexts that perceive childhood differently to the Western context, and thus devalues the sanctified practices of non-Western cultures (Rosen 2007: 297). Many non-Western cultures have a proud war tradition, initiating young boys between pre-puberty and late adolescence into military practices.

    Dinka warriors in Sudan have been known to engage in traditional war initiation from the age of sixteen to eighteen years old, and child soldiers are still involved in conflict in South Sudan (Rosen 2007: 297; Al-Jazeera 2015). European armies of the Middle Ages up until the First World War also had many boy soldiers, who rode into battle and were hailed as noble and brave (Rosen 2007: 297). Many other cultural groups from historical and contemporary regimes possessed or possess proud traditions of under-eighteens in battle, which only became demonised with the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and eventually the UNCRC (Rosen 2007: 296-297). Like with child labour, international organisations should review their policy to incorporate situational judgment rather than homogenous blanket policy (Myers 1999: 15- 16).

    To conclude, a range of studies, anecdotes, investigations and discourses have made it evident that the concept of the child soldier is not as straightforward and readily defined as the news media portrays it to be. Western ideas of the ideal childhood and its durational parameters have shaped international political discussion focusing on the issue of children in combat, leaving out considerations of cultural practices which have a long, proud tradition of young warriors (Rosen 2007). The agency of children in armed conflict has been mostly presumed as restricted, or without existence, but through the observation of de Certeau’s idea of ‘tactical agency’ it can be said that children exercise choice and even power in their respective situations (Honwana 2005: 33).

    This has further been observed in Reynold’s account of young freedom fighters in the Western Cape in their activities against the Apartheid state, where the fighters organised their actions around notions of morality and pursuing goals for the good of humanity (Reynolds 2013). Young women in war, often presumed as victims or passive, helpless grieving bystanders, have managed to exercise agency and power to not only secure their safety during armed conflicts, but have also emerged as fearsome fighters with greater reputations than their male counterparts (Utas 2005; Rosen 2007).

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    The Narrative and Political Theory on the Idea of Child Soldiers. (2022, Dec 01). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/the-narrative-and-political-theory-on-the-idea-of-child-soldiers/

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