Children of War: Why We Need an Antiwar Future

Child Psychologist Haim Ginott once said “Children are like wet cement, whatever falls on them makes an impression”. So what kind of impression is being made on children when the things falling on them are bombs and missiles? What sort of impression is being made on children when those bombs and missiles kill their relatives, destroy their homes, displace them from where they were born and raised? What sort of impression is being made on children when they are the ones forced to do the killing, when they are forced to fight the wars of evil “grown” adults? Unfortunately, the aforementioned questions can only be asked of children who survive the ravages of war, and we see all too often that children are the most tragic victims of war. The ways in which war affects children are numerous, and those ways are hardly discussed, so once again it is time to tell another ugly truth about war, and one such truth that we in the heart of the American Empire must come to terms with is that our foreign policy is the number 1 threat to children worldwide.

For me, to hear of one child killed during war or conflict is one child too many, but the number of children killed in war zones is staggering. According to UNICEF, in the year 2017, around 700 children were killed in Iraq and Syria, and since 2015 it is estimated that some 5,000 children have perished in the Yemen conflict, a conflict that has been exacerbated by US support for the indiscriminate Saudi bombing campaigns. In other conflict ridden zones, children have been used as suicide bombers, with the UNICEF report highlighting children in Africa of being particularly vulnerable to this possibility. Children are also killed while fighting in wars as recruited child soldiers. According to Child Soldiers International, 50 countries still allow military recruitment of children, and 43 state armed forces train children for armed conflict. It is worth noting that some of these nations (Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan among others) receive military aid from the US government, which is in violation of the Leahy Law and the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, laws that are supposed to prevent the US from propping up regimes and armies that commit gross human rights violations. The continued flow of aid to these states provides no incentive for any change to take place.

Child sexual abuse is rampant in war ridden zones, and one of the more heinous examples of US complicity in such action was the blatant ignoring of rampant child sexual abuse among US trained Afghan Security Forces. According to a recently released report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction there was awareness among US soldiers of this practice occurring, but a lack of willingness to report it. The report itself made the startling conclusion that “The full extent of child sexual assault committed by Afghan security forces may never be known,”. Children were also not safe from UN peacekeepers, especially children in Haiti, where at least 134 peacekeepers were involved in a child sex ring. These peacekeepers, who were all from Sri Lanka, could not be punished as the UN did not have jurisdiction to discipline them, and their home government launched a halfhearted investigation that led to practically no disciplinary measures being taken. Unfortunately, incidents of child sexual abuse in conflict ridden zones are on the rise. According to Save the Children, reports of sexual exploitation and abuse of children have increased every year since 2013, when the organization published a groundbreaking report about children making up the majority of sexual assault victims in conflict ridden zones.

Sexual abuse is only one way in which children are traumatized and victimized by the ravages of war. War zones are traumatizing enough for grown adults, but it is hardly discussed how traumatizing they are for children. According to a report from the United Nations, 87 million children under the age of 7 have grown up knowing nothing but conflict, and this could be permanently damaging their brains, which are still growing, unlike adults.

According to the report:

During the first 7 years of life a child’s brain has the potential to activate 1,000 brain cells every second. Each one of those cells, known as neurons, has the power to connect to another 10,000 neurons thousands of times per second. Brain connections serve as the building blocks of a child’s future, defining their health, emotional well-being and ability to learn.

Children living in conflict are often exposed to extreme trauma, putting them at risk of living in a state of toxic stress, a condition that inhibits brain cell connections – with significant life-long consequences to their cognitive, social and physical development.

These consequences have resulted in leaving as many as 59 million young children illiterate in areas ridden with conflict and disasters. This is no surprise when you consider that 25 percent of the affected 87 million children do not have access to education, further contributing to this lack of cognitive and social development.

Of course, all of this is made further possible by the fact that many of these children do not have homes. According to UNICEF, 28 million children are homeless globally due to conflict. 10 million of those children are refugees and 1 million are asylum seekers with undetermined status. 45 percent of those 28 million come from Syria and Afghanistan, countries torn apart by western imperialist wars. What is perhaps the scariest figure is the fact that over 100,000 children were reported traveling alone. These children are at greater risk of being exploited sexually, many falling into sex trafficking, and children with less education are at an even greater risk of falling into such environments. Afghanistan is of course the country at which the US has been occupying militarily for the last 17 years, making it the longest US “war” in the country’s history. The US has provided material support to rebel groups in Syria to keep that war going. When it comes to cognitive dissonance, Americans are the textbook example, decrying the plight of refugees while supporting the wars that create them.

When it comes to child soldiers, there is a more forgotten kind of child soldier, and that is a child growing up under military occupation. In this context, Palestinian children are the forgotten child soldiers, and all Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza live no other reality than one of being a combatant in a war for their land and their humanity. According to Defense for Children International?—?Palestine, at least 8,000 Palestinian children have been arrested and prosecuted in Israeli military courts since 2000, meaning that anywhere from 500–700 children go through this process each year. These children arrested are as young as 13, as in the recent case of Abdel Raouf al-Bilawi, who was sentenced to two months in prison on January 22nd.

The case of 17 year old Ahed Tamimi is starting to bring more global awareness to this issue. AHED Tamimi, you may recall, is the young Palestinian girl who gained global notoriety after she was detained by the IDF after being seen on video slapping an Israeli soldier moments after they shot her cousin Muhammed Tamimi in the face. Back in 2016, journalist Abby Martin interviewed AHED Tamimi along with other members of her family. In that interview AHED appeared very firm, but expressed optimism that one day Palestine would be free. Martin made the point of expressing that AHED wasn’t like a normal child, who instead of playing with her friends is constantly worrying about fighting Israeli occupation.

AHED says of coping with occupation:

It certainly has a negative impact on us, but we are forced to adapt ourselves to the situation. We cannot get used to it, but we force ourselves to cope with it. Although I am not afraid of death, I’m always afraid of losing my family, or my loved ones, or my friends. All my family here is in danger, we are at risk of dying at any moment. At anytime I can expect a soldier coming towards me to shoot me and kill me, this feeling affects us permanently. We often play, but we get shocked when soldiers enter places of play. Therefore, they destroy all of our happiness. Children often go to school and encounter locked barricades, so they are forced to return to their homes.

I quote AHED at length because it is rare that we hear the actual voices of children from conflict ridden areas. Here is the entire segment, which I would recommend watching in its entirety:

Palestinian children are also killed by Israeli forces, often indiscriminately. During Operation “Protective Edge”, or Israel’s 2014 obliteration of Gaza, 495 children were killed, according to UN figures. Gaza has been bombed so much that the UN predicts it will be uninhabitable by 2020. In the West Bank, Palestinian children are killed from deadly force used by IDF soldiers or racist attacks from Israeli settlers. 4 Palestinian children have already been killed this year by IDF forces, and Palestinian children often find themselves at risk of attack from settlers. One of the more tragic incidents was that of the murder of 18 month old Ali Dawabsheh, a Palestinian infant who burned to death in his own home after a firebomb was thrown into the house by an Israeli settler.

At the center of this conflict ridden world is the United States of America, and in a world that is dominated by American hegemony, the wars of the world have indeed come home, and have claimed the lives of children along the way. Thanks to an increasingly militarized police force, America has begun to look more and more like an occupied war zone. American police are outfitted with excess military gear received through the Pentagon’s 1033 program, and American police are increasingly being trained in techniques used by foreign governments, in particular Israeli forces, who enforce a military occupation in Palestine. This has resulted in the deaths of many children at the hands of American police, among those the story of 7 year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who in 2010 was killed by a single bullet to the head during a SWAT style raid to her home. These SWAT teams are outfitted with military grade equipment and their techniques often resemble those of the military night raids that are conducted by US forces in war zones. Last year during the month of May, 3 unarmed 15 year old boys were shot and killed by police with two of those cases receiving scant media coverage. One should also remember the killing of 12 year old Tamir Rice, who was executed by a police officer within seconds of the arrival of the vehicle. Rice of course was doing nothing but being a child playing with a toy gun, something that most Americans celebrate each year when watching ‘A Christmas Story’, but the pearly vision of Americana does not extend to underprivileged children living in police occupied communities.

Of course, children who manage to not get killed in this country always have a chance of joining the military, where children are frequently targeted for recruitment by the US army. In 2002, the US army was propagandizing children at the popular gaming conference E3, and has used similar propaganda techniques through gaming to steer children towards military service. High Schools are prime targets for army recruiters, with the Pentagon’s JROTC program serving as a platform for readying children for eventual military recruitment since the program was conceived in 1916 during World War 1. In a sense, most American children have grown up knowing nothing but war, but not in the same way that children in Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, etc. experience it. Children in America are taught the inevitability of war, and that the world is a dangerous place with America surrounded by enemies. They are inundated with war fever and toxic patriotism through the constant recitation of the pledge of allegiance, and are ill equipped to consider these issues themselves due to increasingly faulty education about the history of the country they live in. It also says something that the children targeted for recruitment are more likely to be either from poor rural areas, or neglected inner city schools, with a disproportionate number of army recruits being people of color.

Before concluding, one more point needs to be made regarding the affects of war on children. Most of what has been discussed in this article, disproportionately affects children of color. In a world where many still question the prevalence of white supremacy, non-white children are mostly being affected by war, while the “western world” does their best to insulate themselves from it while at the same time perpetuating it. Western Imperialism is doing its best to strengthen itself at the cost of the global majority, and doing its best to ruin the future of the world by putting many of its children at risk. Discussing this is essential because we in the US have a special responsibility to do our part in combating the US war machine, and due to having Imperial Privilege, are in the best position to do so. Children are not supposed to be taking blows for the cowards who run this world. Children should be worried about growing, exploring, learning, finding themselves and building an identity outside of being a soldier, or a casualty. If you need any reason to oppose war, do it because of what it does to children. There is no excuse for their victimhood. That responsibility falls on us.

Michael Byrne is an antiwar activist and member of Antiwar Future, an organization of young people against war. He holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from Cleveland State University. This is reprinted with permission from his blog.