The Truth about Kids in Combat

Sometimes, it is difficult to be a conservative, because the other side can make you sound so . . . heartless. For example, there is the matter of child soldiers. Everyone can agree that involving children in armed combat is undesirable. To that end, the United Nations is pushing all member states to sign an optional protocol to the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (which has yet to be ratified by the United States Senate) that would prohibit children under 18 from being recruited into military service. Proponents of the protocol cite horrifying examples from Africa and Latin America, where children as young as eight are given weapons and sent into combat. Because of their inexperience and immaturity, they tend to suffer much higher casualty rates than older soldiers and are frequently put in the front lines to serve as early warning devices, taking the brunt of the attack while more seasoned combatants organize themselves. “At age 16,” wrote a reporter for the Miami Herald in a series on children soldiers in Colombia, one of several such stories on the subject by the establishment press, “after four years as a leftist rebel, Carolina Gomez knows she may have killed people in battle. But she recalls only one of her victims – a wounded soldier so young that his image sticks in her mind. ‘He had a baby face,’ she remembers.” Given such gutwrenching stories, who could dare to oppose the protocol? That is surely what President Clinton had in mind in July of last year, when he made the U.S. party to the agreement. Well, one group that didn’t agree was the U.S. military, which mounted a successful behind-the-scenes lobbying effort to head off a ratification vote in the Senate. Proponents of the protocol haven’t given up, however; last week, they sent President Bush a letter urging him to push for ratification, and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota has promised to introduce the protocol for a vote. As with all UN initiatives, the pertinent question is, what would this agreement accomplish? As usual, the answer is: not much. Proponents claim that 300,000 children under 18 are under arms around the world, a statistic that is impossible to verify. Even if it is accurate, everyone agrees that most of those children are involved in rebel movements, notably with the Communist-aligned FARC in Colombia. These revolutionaries are, by definition, not amenable to UN direction. And any government that sends minors into combat – the Islamic government of Sudan, for example, is a prime offender – is unlikely to stop just because UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says so. Proponents answer that regardless of efficacy, the protocol makes a valuable statement about the civilized world community’s stance on children soldiers. Perhaps, but under the surface of this protocol something insidious is at work. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers has taken direct aim at the Pentagon’s recruitment of 17-year-olds, who account for 10 to 15 percent of military recruits, calling the practice “a clear violation of a minor’s human rights.” Of course, for many of these youths (a large percentage of whom are minorities), military service serves as a stepping-stone into the middle class, providing education, skills training, and work habits that often go untaught in their schools or communities. Closing off the military option for these youths might well leave them open to involvement in other activities even more dangerous than military service. More to the point, meetings between military recruiters and high school seniors are hardly the same as putting an eight-year-old on the front lines. But recruiting 17-years-olds is not the only thing the coalition finds objectionable. The protocol would require state parties to prevent “any activity contrary to the protocol,” up to imposing criminal penalties. The protocol would also prohibit “armed groups, distinct from the armed forces of a state,” from recruiting members under 18. The exact definition of “armed groups” is left unclear. Would it include, for example, the Boy Scouts, who organize themselves along military lines, wear a uniform, and train minors in the proper use of weapons? Maybe, maybe not – though past experience has shown that the United Nations usually pushes for the most extreme interpretation of any statute. No one disputes, however, that under the protocol, Junior ROTC programs in middle and high schools, common in many parts of the country, would be out. So would military academies like Virginia’s prestigious Hampton-Sidney and the use of minors in National Guard efforts, as frequently happens in crisis situations like floods or tornadoes. These examples are not what most Americans think of when they hear the words “children soldiers.” Despite the protocol’s good intentions and the truly horrifying stories from the front lines of world conflicts, it is bad law. In the words of Pentagon spokesperson Bill Darley, at the protocol’s heart is “an attitude that says that the military is bad, dangerous, and has to be kept away from kids.” No one wants children on the front lines. But to accomplish that, is it right to give children the impression that military service is without any honor or value? Most Americans would say no, and most Americans would reject the child soldiers protocol – if they knew what it was really about. Again, sometimes, it’s hard to be right.

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