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Child Soldiers in the Western Imagination


Child Soldiers in the Western Imagination: From Patriots to Victims

By: David M. Rosen

Audio Interview

Please listen here for the interview with David M. Rosen and his colleague, Robert Houle. Visit the SHCY Podcast website for more episodes.

This review appeared in Journal for the History of Childhood and Youth 10, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 279-281.

Child Soldiers in the Western Imagination: From Patriots to Victims.
By David M. Rosen.
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015. xiii + 238 pp. Cloth $90, paper $28.95.

Child Soldiers opens with the stories of two young combatants separated by several centuries: Andrew Jackson, who fought as a teenager in the American Revolution; and Ishmael Beah, who wrote a bestselling memoir detailing his forced participation in Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s. Both young men witnessed and inflicted suffering. Both feared for their lives and lost their families. Yet Jackson’s experiences were later celebrated in campaign literature as a symbol of his patriotism and stalwart character, while Beah came to represent the modern child soldier, invariably pictured as a brutalized victim in need of rescue by Western humanitarians. “What process,” Rosen asks, “turned the heroes of yesteryear into the victims of today?” (2) While he points to the rise of new ideas about childhood as a distinctive life stage marked by innocence and helplessness, Rosen is ultimately less concerned with unraveling how the now ubiquitous image of the child solider as victim took root than he is with demonstrating its relative novelty and its “mobility, transferability, and disconnectedness from history” (x).

child soldiers in the western imaginationThe book begins by laying out historical instances of child soldiers, a discussion that encompasses brief accounts of boys who fought in the American Revolution and the Civil War, followed by sketches of a handful of individuals. Rosen goes on to depict how underage enlistment became a battleground as the interests of the family, children, and the state came into conflict over the course of the nineteenth century. This conflict, he notes, had little to do with concerns over children’s capacities or unique vulnerability. Instead it revolved around how to balance parental rights with the needs of the state in times of national crisis. Far from seeing a resolution, this dilemma cropped up repeatedly, especially during the American Civil War, and its lack of resolution opened the way for adults to profit from children’s military service by coercing them into enlisting while withholding bounties or wages.

In the chapters that follow, Rosen demonstrates that child soldiers also played important roles in WWII, as members of the Hitler Youth movement, Nazi guerrillas, partisan fighters, and resistors. He notes that the memory of their service could be employed for divergent purposes, imagined as either an embodiment of national sacrifice and courage, or as a symbol of enemy brutality that demanded redress. But whereas representations of these real child soldiers from the West retained some complexity, the same could not be said for recent portrayals of non-Western child soldiers in popular culture, which remain decisively one dimensional. Inverting nineteenth-century tales where martial children performed brave deeds and died glorious deaths, modern fiction presents children in war as “at best a terrible tragedy and more profoundly a threat to any sense of morality and social justice . . . [subverting] not just the social order but the natural order as well” (111). The only space left for heroic child soldiers is in juvenile fantasy and science fiction writing, such as the Harry Potter books or the Hunger Games series, where young fighters appear smart, capable, and morally grounded. But these depictions are a far cry from works focused on non-Western settings, in which black or brown-skinned children usually appear as tragic figures, caught up in wars that appear out of nowhere.

Although Rosen begins with the question of historical transformation, his analysis does not focus on explaining change over time. The first two-thirds of the book describe examples of child soldiers in the past without tethering this discussion to an overarching argument about the meaning or significance of child soldiers in history. Instead, Rosen uses history to illuminate the contingency of an idea that most now take for granted, namely that of the “child soldier.” And this is where his work shines. In the last part of the book, he shows how humanitarian and human rights groups in the late twentieth century helped to create modern images of child soldiers. With admirable brevity, he unpacks the dangers of this creation. Despite the best of intentions, those advocating against the use of child soldiers ignore their own history while demonizing the complex conceptions of age that exist in other cultures. Preferring simplified, usually sensationalized, tales of lost innocence, they disregard the real reasons young people participate in war, as well as the varied effects of their service. Imagining all underage fighters solely as victims, they limit the kinds of reckoning that local communities might otherwise seek with the per- petrators of atrocities. And, perhaps most importantly, narratives of evildoers brutalizing the young remove the focus from the causes of war, allowing readers to congratulate themselves on their own sympathy for helpless victims while ignoring their complicity in supporting regimes or benefiting from the conditions that led to the wars in which children are engaged. By shaping our perception of the problem of children in war, Rosen shows, human rights and humanitarian groups have also shaped our understandings of proposed solutions. While more historically grounded research is needed to show how this point was reached, Rosen leaves readers in no doubt as to the dangers of historical amnesia.

Frances M. Clarke
University of Sydney

david m. rosenAbout David M. Rosen

David M. Rosen is Professor of Anthropology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. His recent books include Child Soldiers in the Western Imagination: From Patriots Victims (2015) and Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism (2005). His articles have appeared in leading scholarly journals including the American AnthropologistEthnology and Anthropological Quarterly. His current research is on Jewish child combatants in World War II and is based upon interviews with former child combatants as well as testimonies collected at Yad Vashem while the author was Associate Fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University.

This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.

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