Boy soldiers: Using children in warfare is not a modern phenomenon

For centuries, the young have played a bloody role on the battlefield

The enemy had been routed in battle, and that night, the victors sang by firelight, celebrating the successful "blooding" of a promising new recruit, who'd proved a natural-born fighter. "I was a soldier now. I could sleep with one eye open; I knew there were 11 ways to attack a town; how to open, fuse and throw a grenade; how to load and fire an AK-47; how to raise a machete and hack at an enemy... There was nothing to be afraid of." As military memories go, it all seems fairly conventional – the baptism of fire, the euphoria of survival, the bond of comradeship. But there's an ugly twist. The gifted recruit, Emmanuel Jal, was fighting in Sudan in the early 1990s – and he was 10 years old.

His recollections are quoted in a recent book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, by the human rights campaigner and former UN peacekeeper Roméo Dallaire. According to Dallaire's charity the Child Soldiers Initiative, there are currently around 250,000 children engaged in military conflict in South America, the Middle East and, overwhelmingly, sub-Saharan Africa. The majority have been recruited (or, typically, abducted) by stateless rebel armies, but they are also present in national forces – it's estimated that about a fifth of Bolivia's army is under 16.

And, especially in Africa, these junior warriors are dragged into shocking, shameful lives, of murderous, often drug-fuelled brutality. (They Fight Like Soldiers isn't what you'd call a jolly stocking-filler.) But from a historical perspective, another truth emerges from the book – that however evil their deployment, the dark fact remains that these children really can fight. Dallaire, who fought against and alongside children during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, admits that child soldiers have often shown "less fear and more aggression" than their adult combatants, and even have the capacity for military command. The first American soldier to die under hostile fire in Afghanistan, Sgt Nathan Ross Chapman, was a member of their elite Special Forces – killed in an ambush by a 14-year-old boy.

And we worry that our children are "growing up too quickly", because they want to wear make-up and buy a mobile phone? When you dig into the historical record of children in war – and what their deployment revealed about our attitudes to children in peace – what emerges is a centuries-old tension between the desire to preserve and protect childhood as a time of innocence and irresponsibility, and the realisation that young people, if called upon, have strengths and abilities far beyond the limits of the nursery or the classroom. We might rail against our feckless modern offspring not reaching their full potential – but in reality, their true capacity exceeds a full set of A*s by such a distance, it's terrifying.

Human rights campaigners often suggest that child-soldiering is the product of modern, post-colonial conflict, but that's obviously untrue. Goliath may have fatally underestimated David "for he was but a youth, ruddy and of fair countenance", but children were a constant presence on the pre-industrial battlefield, serving as spear-carriers, mechanics and messengers for the Greeks and Romans, and using conflict to mark their transition into adulthood in tribal societies from the Native American Cheyenne to the terrifying "fighting girls" of Dahomey (now Benin) in West Africa. One of the few French "bright spots" at the Battle of Agincourt was their counter-attack on the English supply train, where they massacred the massed ranks of youths who'd been posted on guard.

And children weren't limited to the rank and file; beneath the many grand national myths of military precocity – such as Joan of Arc, the 10th-century Irish king Brian Boru (an axe-wielding prodigy who reputedly hammered the Danish hordes shortly after his 12th birthday), and Olaf II of Viking Norway (whose legend counts nine naval victories before his 17th year) – real youthful commanders litter history. Sweden's greatest military triumph, the unexpected rout of the Russians at the Battle of Narva in 1700, was under the guidance of an 18-year old, Charles XII, and Horatio Nelson was in the Navy by 12, surveying the Arctic by 15, a commissioned officer by 18 and in command of a ship by 19. (That would make quite a Ucas form...)

The turning point in our attitudes to child warriors came later in the 19th century, particularly as a result of the American Civil War, often referred to as the "boys' war". Between a tenth and a third of all the troops in that conflict were under age, often absurdly so. John Joseph Clem, the famous "drummer boy of Shiloh", was recruited at 10, and was soon promoted after killing two Confederate officers. But the unprecedented carnage of the first industrial war altered worldwide perceptions of battle for ever – this was now no place for a child, and by the First World War, recruiters were under orders to keep under-18s from the front. They didn't try too hard, though, and failed to stop perhaps a quarter of a million under-age volunteers – a 14-year-old died at Gallipoli, a 15-year-old was executed for fleeing the enemy on the Western Front (by a firing squad with a 15-year-old in it), and a 16-year-old officer led his men over the top on the first day of the Somme. By the end of the Second World War, after the grotesque militarism of the Hitler Youth decayed into the slaughter of the German schoolboys sent out to defend Berlin to the last, the international consensus had hardened – war was now to be a professional business, not a glorious game in which to involve the young. (Although in that war, the most heroic child soldiers in history stood their ground – the Jewish boys and girls who organised themselves into brigades in the Warsaw Uprising, and the rarely mentioned German teenagers who fought the Hitler Youth in the streets, and went to the camps for their troubles.) In 1977, the Geneva Convention was amended to include a new rule of war, that "children who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities", and in 1998, the International Criminal Court was established under a statute that "enlisting children under the age of 15 is a war crime".

But although changes to warfare have altered public attitudes to the place of children in conflict, the greater force has surely been our rapidly changing attitudes to them in peace. Here, again the tension between childhood innocence and helplessness, and of the remarkable youthful capacity for endeavour and endurance, is obvious – and, again, the conflict breaks open in the 19th century.

For the commonplace that "there was no such thing as childhood in the past" isn't entirely accurate – while children in pre-industrial Britain almost all participated in the family business or apprenticed labour, they were distinct from the domestic leadership of adults, and their youth may well have lasted longer than you'd guess. The specific end of childhood, puberty, is thought to have started closer to 17 than 13 in pre-industrial Europe, probably because of parlous nutrition, and the ceremonial conclusion, marriage, also came later – the average age of a first-time bride in England in 1701 was 27 (the era of the "child bride" was actually the 1950s, when the average was barely 20).

The great childhood change came in the Industrial Revolution, when salaried child labour spiked dramatically, as children were recruited into mines, mills and factories in their hundreds of thousands. When the horror of what those children experienced – working 75-hour weeks, crippled by machinery, killed by toxic materials – became public knowledge, at just the moment the potential of mass education was becoming clear, the modern impetus legally to categorise, and protect, childhood was born. The irony of this is exposed in another new book, Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution by Professor Jane Humphries, which analyses more than 600 memoirs of child workers, and reveals again that thinking of children as passive victims of nefarious adults greatly underestimates their power. Many of the child labourers were de facto heads of their households by their early teens: a third had no father contributing to the family budget, and their mothers were often trapped in the "dependent housekeeper" role, making the working children equal partners in the project of survival. By their mid-teens, where possible, they were opening their own businesses. You can only admire their tenacity, while wishing it hadn't been necessary.

And that's the challenge of discussing past childhoods – just as with the child soldiers of modern Africa, you have to decide which part of your perceptions and prejudices about the nature of being young to bring with you, and which to leave behind. But one thing is for certain: as we seem to be constantly asking ourselves how to engage our children in the study of history, one part of the solution surely has to be to stop telling them their antecedents in youth were passive spectators in our stories of men and their power struggles – first in the lifeboats, or waving Daddy off to war. They were capable, in fact, of commanding the workshop, the galleon or even the army, all by themselves.

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