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Monday, November 21, 2005
No Civilians Left?: Fighting Wars Today
Child soldiers, some of whom are no older than six, are to be found in three quarters of the world's current fifty or so conflicts. In Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF), 80 percent of the fighters were aged between seven and fourteen. Twenty thousand children are reported to have served in Liberia's protracted civil wars, and there were many children among Rwanda's génocidaires. As if to make their use more palatable, many of these children were given childlike names. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka had a Baby Brigade and called their girl soldiers "Birds of Freedom"; there were "Little Bells" and "Little Bees" in Colombia and "Brave Sprouts" in Myanmar. Saddam Hussein called his child warriors "Lion Cubs."
Are there any civilians left in the brutal wars of today?

A chief principled assumption about conflict today is that harming civilians is bad and wrong. In the technical lexicon, this is known as the "principle of distinction." Whenever large numbers of civilians are killed on purpose, we use terms like "murder" and "massacre" to connote our outrage. For example, we don't refer to Lt. Kelley of Vietnam's action as "The Unhappy Incident of Mai Lai", but rather as "The Mai Lai Massacre." Even when civilians death are acceptable, as in the doctrine of collateral damage, their never ok; we still express shock that any civilians have to die at all.

This chief assumption, though, faces one major flaw-- a flaw that becomes obvious the moment one is on a battlefield or knows someone who has been--the principle of distinction implies or assumes that a soldier can tell a civilian from a combatant when his or her life is in danger, or when he or she is in the field. And as always in a time of war, it's never that easy and definitely never that simple.

The New York Review of Books, from which I took that opening quote, describes the terrible landscape of warfare in some of the most war-torn societies:
Rwanda, where neighbors hacked each other to death with machetes, happened soon after, and Srebrenica, where eight thousand Muslim men were led away under the eyes of UN peacekeepers and murdered, and Sierra Leone, in which villagers thought to be sympathetic to the government had their hands and arms chopped off by rebel troops. In this new kind of war, said Sommaruga, everyone and everything—babies, crops, livestock, houses, old people—had become fair game.

Nothing is sacred; there are no distinctions only a need to survive. What makes it worse is that there are no civilians left in this landscape. Even children, the archetypal civilian, must take up arms to defend themselves, and the interests of their cruel masters. Dante's Inferno, with its boundaries and systemic orderliness, would be heaven compared to the world that some of these child soldiers live in. Who are these child soldiers, this "lost generation"?
Demographers started talking about the "lost orphan generation," they were usually referring to the 1.8 million South Africans who had lost one or both parents to AIDS. Long before that, however, the term "lost" had been used to describe another group of children altogether, also from Africa: these were the "lost boys" of Sudan, so called after Peter Pan's orphans cast as children into the world of adults. These "lost boys" were the 3,800 young Sudanese chosen from among the survivors of the thousands who had been separated from their families in Sudan's long civil war between North and South, and who now, in the new century and amid considerable publicity, were being welcomed to new lives in the US.
Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy, in a way, was a characterization of what life would be like after states collapsed. The national economy would revert to a quintessential, cruel, parody of feudalism: control of land and the power of the military would be the means of securing a livelihood in the literal sense of the word.
What brought all this about, as Singer points out, is in part the emergence of warlords and rebel armies hastening to fill the void left by failing states, seeking control not so much of countries as of poppy and diamond fields, or of coltan mines, which provide a mineral needed for cell phones and laptops. But the use of children was also made possible by the lightness, availability, and cheapness of weapons, the rifles, grenades, mortars, and machine guns dumped in the wake of the end of the cold war. You no longer have to be rich or strong to carry a Kalashnikov: it weighs little more than a small dog and, in parts of Africa at least, costs about the same as a chicken. A handful of children today, it seems, has the equivalent firepower of an entire regiment of Napoleonic infantry.
Surely, as citizens of the world's most powerful state, this is not the fate we should allow any human being to wallow in. The tragedy, however, do not stop at the child soldiers. The supposed innocence of children quick retreats in the face of such appalling circumstances. The second tragedy is that when children lose their childhood, the category of civilians disappears as a meaningful distinction. The loss of civilians, in an age of total war, means that there is no one keeping alive a social space into which one can repatriate. Without civilians, there is no civilization, no post-war world, no normalcy, no peace.