Child warriors

Everyone should read this article in today's NYTimes about Omar Ahmed Khadr, an Al Qaida fighter who was captured after a fire-fight in Afghanistan when he was 15 and who has been detained in Guantanamo for five years — one quarter of his life.

The Times goes out of its way to point out that, for all his youth, Khadr was a dangerous warrior from a dangerous family. And I have no doubt that he was. But he was also 15. And he was one of many child warriors being used in wars around the world:

To American military prosecutors, Mr. Khadr is a committed Al Qaeda operative, spy and killer who must be held accountable for killing Sergeant Speer in 2002 and for other bloody acts he committed in Afghanistan.

But there is one fact that may not fit easily into the government’s portrait of Mr. Khadr: He was 15 at the time.

His age is at the center of a legal battle that is to begin tomorrow with an arraignment by a military judge at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, of Mr. Khadr, whom a range of legal experts describe as the first child fighter in decades to face war-crimes charges. It is a battle with implications as large as the growing ranks of child fighters around the world.


“More and more child soldiers are being recruited, and they are committing heinous crimes. This is an issue the international community is going to have to confront,” said Michael A. Newton, a former military prosecutor and expert on the law of war who teaches at Vanderbilt University Law School.

The article gives the last word to one of the soldiers Khadr wounded:

One person who has reached a different conclusion about the culpability of child fighters is Layne Morris, a housing administrator in a Salt Lake City suburb. Mr. Morris is a former Army Special Forces sergeant, who, like Mr. Khadr, is half-blind because of the firefight that day outside Khost, Afghanistan.

On a recent day, Mr. Morris remembered the stream of shots from AK-47s inside a compound a coalition patrol had surrounded. He remembered the hand grenades that kept coming over the wall. And he described the feeling of the shrapnel that took half his sight.

He said the battle did not unfold quickly, as it sometimes seems in the retelling. American forces surrounded the compound. And then they waited. Some women from the compound emerged and were allowed to leave, Mr. Morris said. A boy fighter would have had the chance to walk out of the gate, too, he said.

There were shots. And more waiting, as the Americans called for air support.

Anyone who was inside had a choice of fighting or surrendering, he said, including Mr. Khadr.

“There is just no way you can say this is a poor befuddled, brainwashed kid,” Mr. Morris said. “This is a kid who made a whole lot of decisions on his own.”

I don't think Mr. Morris's final statement holds up. The brainwashed do not suddenly become rational. It takes a while.

But even if Mr. Morris is correct, I fail to see how imprisoning and/or executing children solves any of our problems.

The law should not be an instrument of revenge.

I don't mean to be bleeding-heart about Khadr in particular. But the problem of child warriors has been one that has disturbed me for years.

I can't write a closing for this post. To turn a child into a killer is a crime against humanity. But more violence doesn't seem to be the right solution.

Cross-posted at Sherry Chandler.


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