Using children in warfare is not a modern phenomenon





...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"....

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