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Nick Turse: One Boy, One Rifle, and One Morning in Malakal
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President Obama couldn’t have been more eloquent. Addressing the Clinton Global Initiative, for instance, he said: “When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed — that’s slavery.” Denouncing Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, and offering aid to Uganda and its neighbors in tracking Kony down, he said, “It’s part of our regional strategy to end the scourge that is the LRA and help realize a future where no African child is stolen from their family, and no girl is raped, and no boy is turned into a child soldier.” In support of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he has lauded as “not only a great champion of democracy but a fierce advocate against the use of forced labor and child soldiers,” he’s kept her country on a list of nations the U.S. sanctions for using child soldiers in its military. And his ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, has spoken movingly in condemnation of the use of child soldiers, which she’s termed a “scourge,” from Syria and the Central African Republic to South Sudan.

Only one small problem, as Nick Turse, author of Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, points out in his latest reportage: the young, desperately divided nation of South Sudan is something of an American-sponsored creation, its military heavily supported by Washington, and so its child soldiers — and it has plenty of them — turn out not to be quite the same sort of scourge they are in Burma, Syria, or elsewhere. Somehow, they’ve proved to be in the American “national interest” and so, shockingly enough, as Turse reveals today, were the subjects of a presidential “waiver” that sets aside Congress’s 2008 Child Soldiers Protection Act. The willingness of a president to sideline a subject he’s otherwise denounced in no uncertain terms is worthy of a riddle that might go something like: when is slavery not slavery? And the answer would be, when it gets in the way of U.S. policy. With that in mind, let Turse take you deep into South Sudan, where children tote AK-47s and the sky is not cloudy all day.

(Republished from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Africa, American Military 
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  1. I’ve never quite understood the angst over “child soldiers.” One might want to forbid the use of chemical weapons because they are very effective against unprotected populations. But if “child soldiers” were effective, they’d already be in widespread use. There’s a reason that most armies wait until young men are at least 17 before allowing enlistment and it isn’t humanitarianism. Child soldiers are a measure of desperation; Nazi Germany started going as low as 14 year olds only in the very last stages of World War II. Forbidding a practice of desperation strikes me as pointless, although I guess that it’s useful posturing.

    • Replies: @Enrique Cardova
  2. @Diversity Heretic

    Child soldiers aren’t necessarily a measure of desperation. They are sometimes, but other times they are soldiers of choice because they are cost effective, as studies of the issue show. See for example the book- Child Soldiers in the Age of Fractured States by Scott Gates, Simon Reich eds. Africa is often assumed to be the main user of such soldiers, but they have been pressed into service as far away as Columbia, by the FARC guerrillas.

    They can be paid very little (if at all), are easier to intimidate into doing their masters’ bidding, and can provide a modicum of military capability in situations or opposition that are not hugely difficult. Defending a town against a lightly armed adult militia for example can work quite well for child soldiers, who can take shelter in buildings and move and fire as needed. Arming them is not a problem as the world is awash in cheap small arms ever since the end of the Cold War. Furthermore their effectiveness is multiplied when operating with adult soldiers alongside them. The first American soldier killed in Afghanistan was a Green Beret, shot by a 14 year old sniper.

    It is a sad reflection on the state of humanity that children now serve in 40% of the world’s armed forces, rebel groups and terrorist organizations, and have served on every continent except Antarctica.

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