Are child soldiers lost forever?

View the entire photo essay. It’s hard to find anyone who’d disagree with the assertion that the phenomenon of child soldiers is a terrible, horrible thing. Drafting innocent kids and turning them into violent killers is an atrocity against humanity. (FP published a gut-wrenching photo essay in 2006 by Bruno Stevens that puts this abstraction ...

598395_071101_nightflight_05.jpg
598395_071101_nightflight_05.jpg

It’s hard to find anyone who’d disagree with the assertion that the phenomenon of child soldiers is a terrible, horrible thing. Drafting innocent kids and turning them into violent killers is an atrocity against humanity. (FP published a gut-wrenching photo essay in 2006 by Bruno Stevens that puts this abstraction into stark, visual terms. The images show children struggling to resist being drafted into Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, one of the most notorious group of child soldiers in the world.) Child soldiering also has an irreparable impact on the psychology of someone who is forced to become a fighting machine. 

Or does it? Chris Blattman of Yale University and of the Center for Global Development has surveyed former child soldiers in Uganda and discovered that they are not actually lost to society forever. In fact, many of them have been able to go to on to become productive members of their communities:

[T]hey are psychologically resilient, peaceful, and enjoy significant support from their families. Only a minority exhibit symptoms of serious emotional distress, and there is no evidence of increased aggression. They live not as marginal people or criminals but as mothers, fathers and citizens. 

Now, let’s be clear. Blattman is not, by any means, saying that child soldiering is  acceptable or that it does no harm. Rather, he’s found that children who are targeted as draftees for paramilitary groups don’t necessarily become “brainwashed” and unquestionably loyal to the groups that indoctrinate them. (That’s much more likely for someone who’s recruited as an adolescent, not as a child.) They are less emotionally damaged than you might think. In fact, Blattman says, they resent the opportunities that are denied to them (such as education and jobs) while they’ve been busy fighting in wars. Blattman’s research implies that trying to integrate former child soldiers into society is not a hopeless cause, but actually has great potential. Instead of cloaking former child soldiers in sensation and drama, he argues, we ought to be tapping into their hopes and dreams instead.

Christine Y. Chen is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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