To call the child fighters of Africa “soldiers” is like calling Auschwitz a detention center: It’s factually true, but misses the point. Children have always been victims of war, and child soldiers are not a modern invention. But what we have seen in the recent civil wars in places like Uganda, Liberia, and Sierra Leone is something new. These wars are, first, fought almost entirely against unarmed civilians; they are marked by massacres, not battles. Second, they have no discernible political purpose, unless seizing power, stealing booty, and inflicting terror can be called political, which I don’t think they can. (I challenge anyone to define, or even discover, the political program of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front.) Most of all, tens of thousands of children, often in their teens but sometimes younger than ten, have been conscripted into these wars, stuffed with powerful drugs, and repeatedly forced to commit atrocities—including mutilation, rape, and murder—against civilians, other children, and even their own families. At the same time, child soldiers are often, themselves, victims of these crimes, with young girls in particular used as sex slaves by the adults for whom they fight. There is good reason why, given the West’s history of colonial exploitation and racism, we hesitate to use the word barbarism in relation to Africa. But in this case that hesitation shouldn’t last too long.
more from Bookforum here.