The military use of young children takes three distinct forms: children can take direct part in hostilities (child soldiers), or they can be used in support roles such as porters, spies, messengers, look outs, and sexual slaves; or they can be used for political advantage either as human shields or in propaganda.
Throughout history and in many cultures, children have been extensively involved in military campaigns even when such practices were supposedly against cultural morals. Since the 1970s a number of international conventions have come into effect that try to limit the participation of children in armed conflicts, nevertheless the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers reports that the use of children in military forces, and the active participation of children in armed conflicts is widespread.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 38, (1989) proclaimed: "State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities." However, minors who are over the age of 15 but still remain under the age of 18 are still voluntarily able to take part in combat as soldiers. The Optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict to the Convention that came into force in 2002 stipulates that its State Parties "shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons below the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities and that they are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces". The Optional Protocol further obligates states to "take all feasible measures to prevent such recruitment and use, including the adoption of legal measures necessary to prohibit and criminalize such practices." (Art 4, Optional Protocol.) Likewise, under the Optional Protocol states are required to demobilize children within their jurisdiction who have been recruited or used in hostilities, and to provide assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration. (Art 6(3) Optional Protocol.)
Under Article 8.2.26 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), adopted in July 1998 and entered into force 1 July 2002; "Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into the national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities" is a war crime.
The United Nations Security Council convenes regularly to debate, receive reports, and pass resolutions under the heading "Children in armed conflict". The most recent meeting was on 17 July 2008. The first resolution on the issue was passed in 1999 (it did not contain references to any earlier resolutions).
In a resolution in 2005 the Security Council requested that the action plan for establishing a monitoring, reporting and compliance mechanism produced by the Secretary-General be implemented without delay.
The Parties to the conflict shall take all feasible measures in order that children who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities and, in particular, they shall refrain from recruiting them into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons who have attained the age of fifteen years but who have not attained the age of eighteen years, the Parties to the conflict shall endeavour to give priority to those who are oldest.
As the ICRC commentary on Protocol I makes clear, this is not a complete ban on the use of children in conflict. The ICRC had suggested that the Parties to the conflict should "take all necessary measures", which became in the final text, "take all feasible measures" which is not a total prohibition on their doing so because feasible should be understood as meaning "capable of being done, accomplished or carried out, possible or practicable". Refraining from recruiting children under fifteen does not exclude children who volunteer for armed service. During the negotiations over the clause "take a part in hostilities" the word "direct" was added to it, this opens up the possibility that child volunteers could be involved indirectly in hostilities, gathering and transmitting military information, helping in the transportation of arms and munitions, provision of supplies etc.
Article 4.3.c of Protocol II, additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, adopted in 1977, states "children who have not attained the age of fifteen years shall neither be recruited in the armed forces or groups nor allowed to take part in hostilities".
Under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which was adopted and signed in 2002, National armed forces can accept volunteers into their armed forces below the age of 18, but "States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that members of their armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take a direct part in hostilities". Non-state actors and guerrilla forces are forbidden from recruiting anyone under the age of 18 for any purpose.
Forced or compulsory recruitment of anyone under the age of 18 for use in armed conflict, is one of the predefined worst forms of child labour, deemed a form of slavery, in terms of the International Labour Organisation's Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999, adopted in 1999.
In terms of the Worst Forms of Child Labour Recommendation ratifying countries should ensure that forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict is a criminal offence, and also provide for other criminal, civil or administrative remedies to ensure the effective enforcement of such national legislation III(12) to (14)).
Opinion is currently divided over whether children should be prosecuted for committing war crimes.
International law does not prohibit the prosecution of children who commit war crimes, but the article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child does limit the punishment that a child can receive including "Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age."
Many child soldiers fought in the Civil war in Sierra Leone. In its wake the UN sanctioned the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) to try the participants for war crimes and other breaches of humanitarian law. The statute of the SCSL gave the court jurisdiction over persons aged 15 and older, however the Paris Principles state that children who participated in armed conflict:
... who are accused of crimes under international law allegedly committed while they were associated with armed forces or armed groups should be considered primarily as victims of offences against international law; not only as perpetrators. They must be treated in accordance with international law in a framework of restorative justice and social rehabilitation, consistent with international law which offers children special protection through numerous agreements and principles.
and this was reflected in the wording of article 7 of the SCSL statute which did not rule out prosecution but emphasised rehabilitation and society's reintegration. David Crane the first Chief Prosecutor of the Sierra Leone tribunal, chose to interpret the statute so that the tribunal's policy was to prosecute those who recruited the children rather than the children themselves no matter how heinous the crimes they had committed.
In the United States, prosecutors take a different view from David Crane and have repeatedly stated that they intend to try Omar Khadr, on several serious charges including murder, for offences they allege he committed in Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban against United States forces while he was under sixteen years old. If found guilty he may be sentenced to life imprisonment.
Red Hand Day on 12 February is an annual commemoration day to draw public attention to the practice of using children as soldiers in wars and armed conflicts.
Recently, a strong international movement has emerged to put an end to the practice. See, for example, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. "The United States is failing to protect its own youth from abusive military recruitment, and is simultaneously failing to protect the youth of other countries who have already been forcibly involved in armed conflict," said Jamil Dakwar, Director of the ACLU Human Rights Program. "The United States should take immediate action to bring its policies and practices on military recruitment and treatment of former child soldiers in line with internationally accepted standards." See, for example (http://www.aclu.org/intlhumanrights/gen/35258prs20080513.html)
Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution estimated in January 2003 that child soldiers participate in about three quarters of all the ongoing conflicts in the world. According to the website of Human Rights Watch as of July 2007:
|“||In over twenty countries around the world, children are direct participants in war. Denied a childhood and often subjected to horrific violence, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 children are serving as soldiers for both rebel groups and government forces in current armed conflicts.||”|
Under the terms of Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, children over the age of fifteen who have volunteered can be used as spotters, observers, and message-carriers (see above International humanitarian law). The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has stated that most children serving as soldiers are over fifteen, although many exist at far younger ages.
The Cape Town Principles and Best Practices, adopted by the NGO Working Group on the Convention on the Rights of Children and UNICEF at a symposium on the prevention of recruitment of children into the armed forces and on demobilization and social regeneration of child soldiers in Africa in April 1997, proposed that African Governments should adopt and ratify the Optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict raising the minimum age from 15 to 18, and that African Governments should ratify and implement other pertinent treaties and incorporate them into national law. The symposium define a child soldier as any person under age 18 who is "part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or group in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers and those accompanying such groups, other than purely as family members. The definition includes girls recruited for sexual purposes and for forced marriage. It does not, therefore, only refer to a child who is carrying or has carried arms."
Up to half of the world's child soldiers are in Africa according to UNOCHA. In 2004 one estimate put the number of children involved in armed conflict including combat roles at 100,000. In the end titles of the film Blood Diamond, it is claimed that "there are still 200,000 child soldiers in Africa".
In 2004 hundreds of child soldiers served in the Forces Nationales pour la Libération (FNL), an armed rebel Hutu group. Children between the ages of 10 and 16 were also conscripted by the Burundese military.
Child soldiers are fighting with the Chadian Military, integrated rebel forces - the United Front for Democratic Change (Front Uni pour le Changement, FUC), local self-defense forces known as Tora Boro militias, and two Sudanese rebel movements operating in Chad - the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the G-19 faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA).
Children serve in armed militia groups linked to the government, including the Alliance patriotique de l’ethnie Wé (APWé) and the Union patriotique de résistance du Grand Ouest (UPRGO). The ex-rebel groups now allied into the New Forces (Forces Nouvelles de Côte d'Ivoire, FAFN) also had child soldiers.
Thousands of children serve in the military, as well as the various rebel militias. At the height of the Second Congo War, the UN estimated that more than 30,000 children were fighting with various parties to the conflict.
In 2002 Child soldiers were used by Rwandan government forces and paramilitaries, operating within the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism anthropologist David M. Rosen discusses the murders, rapes, tortures, and the thousands of amputations committed by Small Boys Unit of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) during Sierra Leone's civil war (1991-2001.)  Another book describing the civil war is A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. It describes the civil war from the view of Ishmael when he was forced to be a soldier.
A report published by Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers in 2004 estimated that since 1991 200,000 children carried arms or had been recruited in the country's militias.
"In March 2004, there were an estimated 17,000 children in government forces, allied militias and opposition armed groups in the north, east and south. Between 2,500 and 5,000 children served in the armed opposition group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army|Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army]] (SPLA), in the south. Despite a widely publicized child demobilization program, in which it claimed to have demobilized over 16,000 children between 2001 and 2004, the SPLA continued to recruit and re-recruit child soldiers." In 2003 it was reported that armed groups were active in government armed forces, Janjaweed militias, and opposition groups. Former child soldiers were sentenced to death for crimes committed while they were soldiers.
Over the past twenty years, the rebel Lord's Resistance Army has abducted more than 30,000 boys and girls as soldiers. Attacks against Uganda's Acholi people have resulted in severe trauma to civilians from extreme violence and abduction. Girls are often forced to be sex slaves. The Uganda People's Defence Force has recruited small numbers of children into its forces as young as 13, including Local Defense Units.
In 2004, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (CSUCS) reported that in Asia thousands of children are involved in fighting forces in active conflict and ceasefire situations in Afghanistan, Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, Nepal and Sri Lanka, although government refusal of access to conflict zones has made it impossible to document the numbers involved. In 2004, Burma was unique in the region as the only country where government armed forces forcibly recruit and use children between the ages of 12 and 16.
Militias recruited thousands of child soldiers during the Afghan civil war during three decades. Many would still be fighting now, for the Taliban. Some of those taken from Islamic religious schools, or madrassas, allegedly are used as suicide bombers and gunmen. A propaganda video of boys marching in camouflage uniform and chanting slogans of martyrdom was issued in 2009 by the Afghan Taliban's leadership in Pakistan, the Quetta Shura, including a eulogy to a 14-year-old Taliban fighter who killed an American soldier .
State Peace and Development Council has stated that controls the government has stated that all of its soldiers volunteered and that all of those accepted are 18 or over. According to Human Rights Watch, as many as 70,000 boys serve in Burma's national army, the Tatmadaw, with children as young as 11 forcibly recruited off the streets. Desertion, the group reported, leads to punishment by three to five years in prison or even execution ins some cases. The group has also stated that about 5,000-7,000 children serve with a range of different armed ethnic opposition groups, most notably in the United Wa State Army. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon released a report in June 2009 mentioning "grave violations" against children in the country by both the rebels and the government. The administration announced on August 4 that they would send a team into Burma to press for more action.
Iranian law prohibits the recruitment of those under 16, basing itself on the Koranic traditions about war. However, the state broke those rules in the Iran-Iraq War. In 1984, Iranian President Ali-Akbar Rafsanjani said, “all Iranians from 12 to 72 should volunteer for the Holy War.” The child soldiers wore keys around their necks to signify their coming entrance into heaven. Ettelaat, an Iranian daily, reported, “Before entering the minefields, the children wrap themselves in blankets and they roll on the ground, so that their body parts stay together after the explosion of the mines and one can carry them to the graves.” An unknown number of schoolchildren currently serve in the ranks of the Basij, an Iranian paramilitary force, according to CSUCS. They have reported that the state conscripts for the regular army at age 19- while accepting volunteers at age 16- and those at 17 can work for the police.
Saddam Hussein's regime maintained 'boot camps' of civilian youths between the ages of 12 and 17 that involved small arms training and Ba'athist political indoctrination according to the CSUCS. Iraqi opposition sources and the U.S. State Department reported that children who refused faced punishment. As well, the state incorporated children as young as ten into the Futuwah and Ashbal Saddam youth movements and then subjected them to military training, sometimes for 14 hours a day. Peter W. Singer has compared the groups to the Hitler Jugend. In the Gulf War, 12-year-old boys fought for the Iraqi side with Kalashnikovs. Children also participated in the Iran-Iraq War.
American forces fought children at Nasariya, Karbala, and Kirkuk in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A January 2009 UN report on the post-war Iraqi occupation stated that the Iraqi insurgency has used children as combatants. The report noted, for example, a suicide bombing attack by a boy between 10 and 13 years old against Kirkuk's police commander. CNN.com called the findings "disturbing". Coalition forces have been forced to take child insurgents as captives, which has led to a moral dilemma. The U.S. has shipped many of them into Abu Ghraib prison.
The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) systemically recruits children as young as 7 according to the CSUCS. They have reported that the PKK even formed a battalion specially for this purpose, called Tabura Zaroken Sehit Agit. They counted the number of child soldiers at 3,000 in 1998. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) also recruits children according to the CSUCS.
Both genders are subject to compulsory military service from the age of 15.
Many different sides in the Lebanese Civil War used child soldiers. The practice essentially ended after the peace from 1990 onwards, but factions have made allegations against each other about it since then. A May 2008 CSUCS report stated that Hezbollah trains children for military services. In April 2009, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused several factions of the practice. However, a Human Rights Watch representative told The Daily Star that they have not documented any systemic military use of children by anyone.
An estimated 6,000-9,000 children serve in the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) forces. Although a peace agreement is in place, the Maoists have not yet demobilized children from their ranks. Robert Koenig's documentary, "Returned: Child Soldiers of Nepal's Maoist Army" tells the story of Nepali boys and girls as they attempt to rebuild their lives after fighting in the Maoist revolution against the former government. The children describe their dramatic recruitment and participation in the Maoist People’s Liberation Army during the eleven-year civil war between the Maoist insurgents and the Hindu monarchy controlled government of Nepal.
Children are recruited by rebel forces, including the New People's Army, Abu Sayyaf Group, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. An estimated 13 percent of the 10,000 soldiers in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are children. Child recruitment is also reported by some paramilitary forces linked to the government. The New People's Army gave up the use of child soldiers, and instituted a minimum age of 16, acting as couriers, medical volunteers and members of education and propaganda units while 18 is the more preferred age to become members of the force.
In Sri Lanka, thousands of children are believed to be in the ranks of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a rebel group banned as a terrorist organization by a number of countries. Since signing a ceasefire agreement in 2001, the latest available UNICEF figures show that the LTTE has abducted 5,666 children until July 2006, although the organization speculates that only about a third of such cases are reported to them. Sri Lankan soldiers nicknamed one unit the Baby Battalion, due to the number of children in it. In response to widespread international condemnation of alleged children recruitment practices, the LTTE informed that they have made (taking effect in Oct. 2006) child recruitment illegal for its groups.
More recently, the para-military group known as the Karuna Group, which is apparently a splinter group from the LTTE, has been held responsible for the abduction of children according to UNICEF and Human Rights Watch.
Jihad Shomaly, in a report entitled Use of Children in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, published in 2004 for the Defence for Children International/Palestine Section, concludes the report by stating that a handful of children perceive martyrdom a way to strike a blow against those they hold responsible for their hopeless situation, and that they have been recruited by Palestinian paramilitary groups to carry out armed attacks. However, Shomaly goes onto state that there is no systematic recruitment and that senior representatives of the groups and the Palestinian community are against the recruitment of children as a political strategy, although in Shomaly's opinion the political leadership of the Palestinians could do more to discourage the use of children by paramilitaries by requesting that the leadership of the paramilitaries sign a memorandum forbidding the training and recruitment of children. Shomaly also points out that the "State of Israel too regularly and covertly flouts binding regulations prohibiting the recruitment of child soldiers. Using violence, intimidation or blackmail, it coerces Palestinian children into acting as informers, violating their rights and endangering their lives."
William O'Brien, a professor of Georgetown University, wrote about active participation of Palestinian children in the First Intifada: "It appears that a substantial number, if not the majority, of troops of the intifada are young people, including elementary schoolchildren. They are engaged in throwing stones and Molotov cocktails and other forms of violence." Arab journalist Huda Al-Hussein wrote in a London Arab newspaper on October 27, 2000: "While UN organizations save child-soldiers, especially in Africa, from the control of militia leaders who hurl them into the furnace of gang-fighting, some Palestinian leaders… consciously issue orders with the purpose of ending their childhood, even if it means their last breath."
In 2002, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers said "while there are reports of children participating in hostilities, there is no evidence of systematic recruitment by armed groups [in the Occupied Territories]", with less than 1% of Palestinian adolescents having played an active role in clashes with Israeli troops. According to the CSUCS 2004 Global Report on the Use of Child Soldiers, there were at least nine documented suicide attacks involving Palestinian minors between October 2000 and March 2004: but also stated, "There was no evidence of systematic recruitment of children by Palestinian armed groups. However, children are used as messengers and couriers, and in some cases as fighters and suicide bombers in attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. All the main political groups involve children in this way, including Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine." In May 2008, a CSUCS report highlighted Hamas and Islamic Jihad for having "used children in military attacks and training" in its Iranian section.
On May 23, 2005, Amnesty International reiterated its calls to Palestinian armed groups to put an immediate end to the use of children in armed activities: "Palestinian armed groups must not use children under any circumstances to carry out armed attacks or to transport weapons or other material."
Historically, In Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism anthropologist David M. Rosen discusses the creation of troops of boys aged twelve and up, modelled on the Hitler Youth, and armed by the Arab Nazi party in Palestine and that carried out military attacks as part of the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine. Yassir Arafat grew up in this era and was both a child soldier and an organizer of other youth, emerging as a militant political leader by age ten. During the same period, very young children of Zionist settlers were allowed to take part in military activities in the same area, committing numerous hostilities both against Palestinians and against the British authorities.
According to the UN report, the Chechen separatist forces included a large number of children, some as young as 11 (including girls), during the First Chechen War: "Child soldiers in Chechnya were reportedly assigned the same tasks as adult combatants, and served on the front lines soon after joining the armed forces." In 2004 the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers reported that in Chechnya, under-18s are believed to be involved in a range of armed groups in the war against Russia, although the numbers are impossible to establish given a virtual ban on media and human rights organizations from operating in the region. Some children allegedly took part in suicide bombings.
Under a state of war or impending war, the compulsory military service age can be dropped to 16 for both sexes. Teenage soldiers and paramilitary fighters fought in the wars during the breakup of Yugoslavia. However, conscription is to be abolished by 2010.
Italy allows boys and girls as young as 17 years of age, with parental consent and in possession of a high school diploma, to join a military academy where they receive both university-grade education and the necessary training to start a military career as commissioned officers; in no case, anyway, those cadets can be deployed in military operations.
Greece allows for the conscription of teenagers as young as 17 years of age during wartime.
The minimum age to join the British Army is 16 and a half; parental permission is required for those under the age of 18. Approximately forty percent of Britain's military forces joined when they were 16 or 17 years of age. The UK adopted the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the involvement of children in armed conflict on 24 June 2003. The Convention calls on ratifying governments to do everything feasible to ensure that members of their armed forces who are under 18 years of age do not take part in hostilities, however between June 2003 and July 2005, the British government inadvertently sent fifteen 17-year-old soldiers to Iraq, explaining the mistake as due to "the pressures on units prior to deployment".
In Canada, people may join the reserve component of the Canadian Forces at age 16 with parental permission, and the regular component at 17 years of age. They may not volunteer for a tour of duty until reaching age 18..
In the United States 17-year-olds may join the armed forces, but may not be stationed outside the continental US or deployed in combat situations. The United States military is based on voluntary recruitment, though minors also must have parental permission to enlist (or permission from a legal guardian in the absence of parents). Males under eighteen years of age are not draft eligible, and females are not eligible for conscription at any age. The United States military requires all soldiers to possess a high school diploma or equivalent; this requirement may be waived for young soldiers for up to 180 days from the date of enlistment (with the agreement that the child obtains a high school diploma or equivalent within 180 days) and during wartime.
In 2004 the Director of Military Personnel Policy for the US Army acknowledged in a letter to Human Rights Watch that nearly 60 17-year old US soldiers had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004. The Department of Defense subsequently stated that “the situations were immediately rectified and action taken to prevent recurrence”. Human Rights Watch sent written requests in April and August 2007 for updated information regarding possible deployment of 17-year-old US troops to Iraq or Afghanistan, but as of October 2007 had not received a response.
In 2008 ACLU stated in a report on "Abusive U.S. Military Recruitment and Failure to Protect Child Soldiers" that "By exposing children younger than 17 to military recruitment, the United States military violates the terms of the Optional Protocol [on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict]."
The United States has detained minors during their War on Terror. Omar Khadr, a 15 year old Canadian citizen, arrested in Afghanistan in 2002, and held at Guantanamo for the past five years was to have been one of the first detainees to be charged before a military commission. Human Rights Watch charges that, "the US government incarcerated him with adults, reportedly subjected him to abusive interrogations, failed to provide him any educational opportunities, and denied him any direct contact with his family." In 2004, three Afghan children were released from Guantanamo, believed to be between the ages of 13 and 15 at the time of their capture, to rehabilitation programs operated by UNICEF in Afghanistan.
The government of Bolivia has acknowledged that children as young as 14 may have been forcibly conscripted into the armed forces during recruitment sweeps. About 40% of the Bolivian army is believed to be under the age of 18, with half of those below the age of 16.
Up to 11,000 children are estimated to be involved with left-wing or right-wing militas in Colombia. According to Human Rights Watch, "[a]pproximately 80 percent of child combatants in Colombia belong to one of the two left-wing guerrilla groups, the FARC or ELN. The remainder fights in paramilitary ranks." The FARC attack upon the Guatape hydroelectric facility in 1998 allegedly involved militants as young as 8 years old. A 2001 FARC training video depicted boys as young as 11 working with missiles. The group has taken in children from Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador. On the government side, some of their paramilitary units are as much as 85 percent children according to Peter W. Singer.
In Haiti an unknown number of children participate in various loosely-organized armed groups that are engaged in political violence.
Throughout history and in many cultures, children have been extensively involved in military campaigns even when such practices were supposedly against cultural morals.
The earliest mentions of minors being involved in wars come from antiquity. It was customary for youths in the Mediterranean basin to serve as aides, charioteers and armor bearers to adult warriors. Examples of this practice can be found in the Bible (such as David's service to King Saul), in Hittite and Egyptian art, and in Greek mythology (such as the story of Hercules and Hylas), philosophy and literature.
Also in a practice dating back to antiquity, children were routinely taken on campaign, together with the rest of a military man's family, as part of the baggage. This exposed them to harm from rearguard attacks, such as the one at the battle of Agincourt, where the retainers and children of the English army were massacred by the French.
The Romans also made use of youths in war, though it was understood that it was unwise and cruel to use children in war, and Plutarch implies that regulations required youths to be at least sixteen years of age.
In medieval Europe, young boys from about twelve years of age were used as military aides ("squires"), though in theory their role in actual combat was limited. The so-called Children's Crusade in 1212 recruited thousands of children as untrained soldiers under the assumption that divine power would enable them to conquer the enemy, although none of the children actually entered combat; according to the legend, they were instead sold into slavery. While most scholars no longer believe that the Children's Crusade consisted solely, or even mostly, of children, it nonetheless exemplifies an era in which the entire family took part in a war effort.
Young boys often took part in battles during early modern warfare. One of their more visible roles was as the ubiquitous "drummer boy" – the film Waterloo (based on the Battle of Waterloo) graphically depicts French drummer boys leading Napoleon's initial attack, only to be gunned down by Allied soldiers. During the age of sail, young boys formed part of the crew of British Royal Navy ships and were responsible for many important tasks including bringing powder and shot from the ship's magazine to the gun crews. These children were called "powder monkeys". During the Siege of Mafeking in the Second Boer War, Robert Baden-Powell recruited and trained 12-15 year old boys as scouts, thus freeing up the limited number of men for the actual fighting. The boys' success led indirectly to Baden-Powell founding the Boy Scouts, a youth organization originally run along military lines. At the outbreak of the First World War, boys as young as 13 were caught up in the overwhelming tide of patriotism and in huge numbers cheerfully enlisted for active service others to avoid the harsh and dreary lives they had working in British industry. Many were to serve in the bloodiest battles of the war, such as ex-miner Dick Trafford who took part in the Battle of Loos, and Frank Lindley who, seeking to avenge his dead brother, went over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Both were just sixteen. Typically many were able to pass themselves off as older men, such as George Thomas Paget, who at 17 joined a Bantam battalion in the Welsh Regiment. George died of wounds in captivity just five weeks after landing in France. George Mahers who served briefly in France when he was just thirteen years and nine months old. He was sent back to England along with five other under-age boys.
A young boy, Bugler John Cook, served in the U.S. Army at the age of 15 and received the Medal of Honor for his acts during the Civil War Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history. Several other minors, including 11 year old Willie Johnston have also received the Medal of Honor.
By a law signed by Nicholas I of Russia in 1827, a disproportionate number of Jewish boys, known as the cantonists, were forced into military training establishments to serve in the army. The 25-year conscription term officially commenced at the age of 18, but boys as young as eight were routinely taken to fulfill the hard quota.
Many child soldiers fought in the Spanish Civil War:
|“||The centuria was an untrained mob composed mostly of boys in their teens. Here and there in the militia you came across children as young as eleven or twelve, usually refugees from Fascist territory who had been enlisted as militiamen as the easiest way of providing for them. As a rule they were employed on light work in the rear, but sometimes they managed to worm their way to the front line, where they were a public menace. I remember one little brute throwing a hand-grenade into the dug-out fire 'for a joke'. At Monte Pocero I do not think there was anyone younger than fifteen, but the average age must have been well under twenty. Boys of this age ought never to be used in the front line, because they cannot stand the lack of sleep which is inseparable from trench warfare. At the beginning it was almost impossible to keep our position properly guarded at night. The wretched children of my section could only be roused by dragging them out of their dug-outs feet foremost, and as soon as your back was turned they left their posts and slipped into shelter; or they would even, in spite of the frightful cold, lean up against the wall of the trench and fall fast asleep.||”|
—George Orwell 
In World War II, children frequently fought in insurrections. During the Holocaust, Jews of all ages, including teenagers such as Shalom Yoran, participated in the Jewish resistance simply in order to survive. Many members of the youth movement Hashomer Hatzair fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. The participation of children in this armed resistance is usually regarded as nothing short of heroic.
Many other anti-fascist resistance movements across Nazi-occupied Europe consisted partially of children (for example, Szare Szeregi in Poland). A number of child soldiers served in the Soviet Union's armed forces during the war. In some cases, orphans also unofficially joined the Soviet Red Army. Such children were affectionately known as "son of the regiment" (Russian: сын полка) and sometimes willingly performed military missions such as reconnaissance.
On the opposite side, Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend) was an organization in Nazi Germany that trained youth physically and indoctrinated them with Nazi ideology to the point of fanaticism. Lewis D. Eigen, in his article on the history of the "normality" of use of child soldiers observed:
The Germans equipped an entire SS Panzer Tank Division and manned it with 16 and 17-year-old boys from the Hitler Youth brigades. As Germany suffered more casualties, more teenagers volunteered and were accepted, initially as reserve troops but then as regulars. The German ethic of the boy soldier not only encouraged such service but towards the end of the war, the Germans even drafted boys as young as 12 into military service. These children saw extensive action and were among the fiercest and effective German defenders in the Battle of Berlin.
In some cases, youth organizations were, and still are, militarized in order to instill discipline in their ranks, sometimes to indoctrinate them with propaganda and prepare for subsequent military service.
In preparation for the possible invasion of Japan by the Allies, Japanese military authorities also trained young teens to charge the enemy with bamboo spears. Prior to that, Japanese school children experienced increased military training introduced through their physical education classes, with military drills becoming a staple part of their curriculum.
A fifteen year-old Yugoslavian boy named Bosko Buha formed the "Partisan Artillery", a batallion of teenage grenade-throwers. He died in 1943 at the age of seventeen when his truck was ambushed by Chetniks.
In the most notorious case, the Khmer Rouge communist group exploited thousands of desensitized conscripted children to commit mass murders and other inhuman acts during the Cambodian genocide. The brainwashed child soldiers were taught to follow any order without hesitation.
Thousands of children were recruited and used by all sides during Sierra Leone’s conflict (1993-2002), including the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and the pro-government Civil Defense Forces (CDF). Children were often forcibly recruited, given drugs and used to commit atrocities. Thousands of girls were also recruited as soldiers and often subjected to sexual exploitation. Many of the children were survivors of village attacks, while others were found abandoned. They were used for patrol purposes, attacking villages, and guarding workers in the diamond fields. In his book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier, Ishmael Beah chronicles his life during the conflict in Sierra Leone.
In June 2007, the Special Court for Sierra Leone found three accused men from the rebel Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, including the recruitment of children under the age of 15 years into the armed forces. With this, the Special Court became the first-ever UN backed tribunal to deliver a guilty verdict for the military conscription of children.
Originally created to protect Northern Ugandans from the 1986 military coup by the People's National Resistance Army, Joseph Kony began the LRA - Lord's Resistance Army in 1987. Stating that he "received messages from God" Kony began attacking his own people - the Acholi - to establish a new theocratic government in Uganda based on the principles of the "Ten Commandments of God." This attempt by the LRA to gain control of the Ugandan government via roaming armies has used boy as well as girl-children as soldiers. The LRA expansion into South Sudan, Central African Republic and the DRC - Democratic Republic of Congo has armies with children active in efforts to destabilize the regions by the displacement of civilians through abduction and extreme violence. A 21 Oct, 2008 appeal by the UN Security Council, was made asking for the LRA to cease all military actions humanitarian violations in the DRC immediately. On 14 June 2002 Uganda deposited its instrument of ratification of the Rome Statute, and on 16 December 2003 the Government of Uganda referred the situation concerning Northern Uganda to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC investigated the situation, and on 14 October 2005, issued indictments against Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, and four other commanders, (Vincent Otti, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen) for war crimes. The warrant for Kony, Otti and Odhiambo includes the alleged crime of forced enlisting of children (Rome Statute Art. 8(2)(e)(vii)).