A glancing treatment of an ever more common phenomenon: the use of children to wage war and terror.
“Kids are attractive to many military commanders throughout the world,” writes journalist Briggs, “because they can be easily trained to carry out the most repulsive orders, they are able to tote most of today’s lightweight weapons, and they can be found in abundance when adult males become scarce.” Traveling to several combat zones past and present, he talks with some of these children: girl fighters of the Tamil Tiger separatist movement in Sri Lanka, imprisoned perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda, baby thugs in Colombia. Everywhere he records a commonality: war maims the child psyche, eventually resulting in traumatized adults—whether because, as with one Colombian soldier, they’ve been shot and carved up and beaten or because, as with many of Briggs’s subjects, they’ve administered these things themselves. (Says one child, simply, “Sometimes I feel like killing.”) In some theaters, particularly those where the action is cooling, nongovernmental organizations and official agencies are working to provide therapy—and, in the instance of Rwanda, wholesale “reeducation”—for the children of war; in others, the kids are left to work things out for themselves. At war, in all instances, they’re much on their own, reliant on childish talismans, youthful feelings of invincibility and the dulling effects of various narcotics to keep following orders. Briggs has put himself into many dangerous situations to gather his material, but he insinuates himself and his own traumas a few times too many in the course of his narrative; the reader is impatient to get back to the real subject, which is, in the end, a world so bent on ideological purity and power that the sacrifice of the young is taken for granted. And the children of war will be forever with us: as Briggs notes, the first American soldier to die in Afghanistan did so at the hands of a 14-year-old.
Well intended, but narrower and less effectively written than P.W. Singer’s recent Children at War (2004).