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Reviewed by:
  • Child Soldiers: Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front, and: Child Soldiers in the Age of Fractured States
  • James Garbarino (bio)
Myriam Denov, Child Soldiers: Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 234 pages, ISBN978-0-521-69321-9;
Child Soldiers in the Age of Fractured States (Scott Gates & Simon Reich eds. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), 310 pages, ISBN-13:978-0-8229-6029-4.

The great World War II general George Patton is said to have remarked: "Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance."1 Hateful as it is to admit, there is a kernel of truth in Patton's declaration. War can produce violence and suffering in abundance, but it can also mobilize a population like nothing else. It stimulates utter degradation of the human condition, but it also elicits cooperation [End Page 882] and civic spirit as nothing else can. The great pacifist psychologist-philosopher William James recognized this more than a century ago in his famous essay, "The Moral Equivalent to War," when he wrote: "Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible. Without risks or prizes for the darer, history would be insipid indeed; and there is a type of military character which everyone feels that the race should never cease to breed, for everyone is sensitive to its superiority."2

As James so eloquently showed in his essay, however, the blood costs of war are so great that we desperately need a moral alternative to achieve the positive goals traditionally met by going to war. James was writing in 1906, before World War I killed 8.5 million people, before World War II killed 55 million, and before the prospect of billions dying were there to be a nuclear World War III. In every case, the war began with high hopes for speedy victory on both sides, and little appreciation of how the forces set in motion would send out ripple effects throughout each combatant society and beyond.

Garrett Hardin said that the first law of human ecology is "we can never merely do one thing."3 Because human systems are so interconnected in ways that are sometimes impossible to anticipate fully, unintended consequences, side effects, and paradoxical results are commonplace. People have tried to protect children from childhood communicable diseases by inoculating them, but they end up causing an increase in autism due to the unexpected effects of the vaccine on the immune system. Schools were racially integrated, but there is more segregation than at the outset, and now it is segregation by social class. Some people want to improve the lives of poor Third World people by sending foreign aid in the form of health care and infrastructure development, and in the end there is a population explosion and land exploitation that results in widespread famine. There is an attempt to do X that ends with Y. This is particularly true when countries set out to make war.

It should come as no surprise that war always has unanticipated side effects and that it produces effects far away in time and place from the fighting. All this has special relevance when it comes to looking at the role of children in war, including the participation of adolescents as child soldiers. The two books that are the focus of this review, Myriam Denov's Child Soldiers: Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front and Scott Gates and Simon Reich's Child Soldiers in the Age of Fractured States, demonstrate that in great detail. Among the many themes in the two books is the fact that child soldiering is often justified on "high" moral ground, with liberation from oppression and defense of the homeland being two of the foremost rationales offered.

This reviewer was reminded of what Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov about the willingness of adults to sacrifice children on behalf of some larger cause. Ivan Karamazov when he debates this question with his younger brother, Alyosha, says this: [End Page 883]

Imagine that it is you yourself who are erecting the edifice of human destiny with the aim...


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