Lack of loyalty to the Diem government was more subtly apparent in the unwillingness of ARVN soldiers to fight. They were supposed to fight to the death for the government of South Vietnam (GVN), in a Washington-scripted play that divided the Vietnamese people into “good” non-communists and “evil” communists. Yet most had no cause for animosity toward the communist-led NLF and only wanted to survive and be paid. Hence when called to action, the results were often disappointing to U.S. military advisers. A case in point was the battle of Ap Bac on January 2, 1963, in which 350 lightly armed guerrillas routed a larger force of 2,000 ARVN soldiers equipped with Colt AR-15 rifles and light-weight jungle radios, and backed by aircraft and armored vehicles. The ARVN had one of the highest desertion rates in the history of modern warfare. Sixty-five percent of ARVN soldiers were forcibly conscripted, and many ARVN officers were patronage appointees who served the French and used their positions for personal gain.
The issue was hardly settled. None of the great powers officially recognized the government of Ho Chi Minh and the French were intent on restoring their empire in Southeast Asia. In late September 1945, with the support of British administrators in southern Vietnam, French troops engineered a coup d’état in Saigon, forcing the Viet Minh to flee the city and regroup in the countryside or retreat to the north. More French troops soon arrived, 13,000 of whom were transported by a dozen U.S. Merchant Marine ships. In the first American protest against U.S. policy in Vietnam, some American sailors wrote letters to members of Congress and newspaper editors objecting to their mission. On November 2, the crew of the Winchester Victory sent a cablegram to President Harry Truman criticizing the use of “this and other American vessels for carrying foreign combat troops to foreign soil for the purpose of engaging in hostilities to further the imperialist policies of foreign governments when there are American soldiers waiting to come home.”
To help answer these questions, I have closely examined three situations involving child soldiers. The first is the case of Sierra Leone where, as illustrated above, the use of child soldiers on all sides of the civil war has served as a bleak and horrific reminder of the exploitation of children as well as of the capacity of young children to engage in atrocious acts of violence.
The second case is the intifada in Israel and Palestine, where the role of children in the Palestinian uprising has been both vilified and lionized. Israeli and Palestinian children have been killed in the conflict, but young Palestinians in particular have actively participated in civil protests as well as armed and unarmed attacks upon Israeli soldiers and civilians. Palestinian children have been labeled alternatively either as heroic martyrs or dupes of adult politics. Moreover, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also brings to light the difficulties human-rights groups have in immunizing themselves from judgments rooted in politics.
There is now under way a major humanitarian effort to end the participation of children in armed conflict. This effort is led by various agencies of the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. These groups have joined together to promote an international ban on the military recruitment and use of children as soldiers. These organizations, both individually and collectively, have been responsible for those provisions of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court that define the recruitment and use of child soldiers as a war crime.
Despite the seriousness of the issue, the current child-soldier crisis does not constitute a radical change in the way in which young people are drawn into warfare. Instead, the child-soldier crisis is a product of the globalization of new ideas about warfare and human rights. It arises out of the convergence of three powerful trends: first, the globalization of Western concepts of childhood; second, the long-standing effort to criminalize all warfare; and third, the desire of nation-states, especially but not exclusively weak nation-states, to redefine rebellion, insurgency and separatism as criminal and to draw the world community into the suppression of rebellion. The union of these trends has created the problem of the “child soldier.”
To assess the situation, one first needs to look at the question of whether the child soldier crisis is really a crisis at all, and whether it is as novel a phenomenon as humanitarian groups claim. This, of course, is not to argue that it is good for children to be involved in war or that war itself is either necessary or desirable. But it does attempt to answer the question of whether the current involvement of children in combat reflects a substantive historical shift in the role of children in warfare. The second question is to try to understand the factors that draw children into armed conflicts. This is an attempt to flesh out mass-media and human-rights reports that ignore, and indeed systematically sidestep, the role of children as activists, agents and decision makers in situations of extraordinary danger and stress.
There is no single rule for determining when the young are fit to be warriors. It depends on a wide variety of practical issues, since young men would have to be in a position to personally demonstrate their physical and emotional fitness for these roles. There is clear evidence that in some societies young people are deliberately socialized into highly aggressive behavior, and both individual and collective violence is highly esteemed, whereas in others more emphasis is based upon the peaceful resolution of disputes. The overall picture suggests that chronological boundaries between childhood and adulthood are highly varied and rooted into the historical experience of each society and culture.
Until recently, child soldiers in Western Europe and the United States were called “boy soldiers.” Since the Middle Ages boy soldiers were routinely recruited into the British military, and by the late 19th century various institutions emerged that organized and systematized their recruitment. In Great Britain, the Royal Hibernium Military School was founded in 1765 for the children of so called “rank-and-file soldiers.” It had its origins as an orphanage for working class and poor boys and quickly established links to the military. Among the earliest recruits were 12- and 13-year-olds, who were placed in regiments and served under Gen. Gage to suppress the growing American Revolution in 1774.
A wide variety of data also supports the presence of the very young on the American side of the Revolutionary War. Until the 20th century most military service in the West was voluntary; but even with the emergence of conscription, the recruitment of child soldiers continued as schools and military apprenticeship programs directed boys into the military.
The actual number of boy soldiers in the Civil War is uncertain. Although there have been exaggerations, careful historical analysis suggests that between 250,000 and 420,000 boy soldiers, including many in their early teens to even younger, served in the Union and Confederate armies. On the whole, between 10 and 20 percent of recruits were under 18. Applying modern humanitarian terminology, the war to end slavery was in large part fought by child soldiers in numbers ever greater than those found in contemporary wars.
These two descriptions of children at war — on the face of it so different from one another — are in fact part of the same representation of children: a depiction that denies children social and moral agency or accountability. Monster or victim, contemporary images of child soldiers are filled with allusions to the children of Village of the Damned or Lord of the Flies. Their power for good and evil lies outside them — either in the alien invaders of their bodies, their drug-crazed minds or in their regression to unsocialized unmediated evil. The broadcasting of stock-in-trade images of evil children drawn from western horror narratives should at least give us pause. These depictions of children as angels or demons tell us very little about children or about the wars in which they participate.