When we think about child soldiers in today’s world, we commonly think of them being used in Africa, that continent to which society often ascribes its fears. In reality, the use of child soldiers has been the norm for thousands of years, all over the world, and some forms are even used today in advanced nations like the United States and United Kingdom. In the past, flagrant abuse of children has not been isolated to that eternally suffering continent.
The Spartans of Ancient Greece built an extremely militaristic society, with boys as young as seven being taken from home and brought up with military training. The Spartans were survivors, and they raised warriors as a way to ensure their supremacy against Greek rivals, including hated Athens. Young warriors were the key to survival for a small city-state. They were relied upon to bolster the numbers of military forces, and even in today’s world small kingdoms and nations use child soldiers for the very same reason.
In the early years of human history, the violent nature of existence ensured that the military would be the most popular and attractive industry. There was seldom a problem in recruiting (or kidnapping) children into the armed forces. The great need to call up military forces quickly revealed the desirability of child soldiers. With adult males often gone abroad, youth were counted on to protect the home city and families. The smaller children who were unable to wield heavy weaponry were used as scouts and spies.
In the 1300s the Ottoman Turks kidnapped young Christian boys and essentially brainwashed them into being loyal to the Sultan, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire. Hard-trained, these boys became the elite military unit in the Middle East, and perhaps Europe. They were called Janissaries. Interestingly, Islam prohibited the use of Muslim boys under the age of 15 in war, but made no such protections for Christians or Jews.
In Europe and the Americas children were used mostly in support roles. The drummer boy became an iconic figure in American military history, and the British Navy frequently used small boys as aides in their fleets. It wasn’t until the 20th Century, when the horrors of warfare were more widely spread and felt was there a mainstream desire to protect children in war. A movement aimed at protecting the youth gained popularity under the pioneering efforts of Eglantyne Jebb and from then on the international community gradually took steps to eliminate the use of children as warriors.
Sources and Recommended Reading:
Human Rights Watch: Child Soldiers.
Hammarberg, Thomas. 1990. “The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – And How to Make It Work.” Human Rights Quarterly Vol 12 No 1.