- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2005

The table talk was as light as the lunch of thinly sliced chicken breast on a bed of lettuce, a smidgen of Roquefort cheese and grape tomatoes on the side, with unsweetened iced tea. But the ladies’ luncheon Tuesday at the Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC, hosted by Women of Washington Inc., turned out to be far from standard fare.

The professional women, who moments earlier slipped into comparing cutesy notes about growing children and grandchildren, suddenly were rendered speechless by the guest speaker. Peter W. Singer, a national security fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution and director of its project on U.S. policy toward the Islamic world, stood to tell shocking tales from his latest book, “Children at War.”

“The rebels told me to join them, but I said no. Then they killed my younger brother. I changed my mind,” “ L., age 7.

“I know [the growing global trend of child soldiers] is not a happy topic, but it is a compelling one,” Mr. Singer, an expert in 21st-century warfare, told the silenced audience of about 100 women. “And, I’m attempting to tell [this story] in a manner that doesn’t just evoke sympathy but understanding to end this terrible tragedy, not only for its moral imperative, but for the strategic implications of our own security.”

It is difficult hearing that “300,000 underage children are combatants in warfare from Afghanistan to Colombia, Congo to Iraq, and Liberia to Myanmar, and Sierra Leone to Kosovo, Sudan to Somalia to Rwanda, virtually every continent but Antarctica.” It’s heart-wrenching to discover that “more than 2 million children have been killed, at a rate of more than 500 a day, or one every three minutes, for a full 10 years.” It’s shameful to realize that U.S. corporations are benefiting from the exploitation of these vulnerable children by evil profiteers.

Yet, Mr. Singer said Western armies increasingly are facing juveniles in places around the globe where wars for nation-state causes rarely are fought solely by men in uniforms. “The first U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan in 2001 was killed by a 14-year-old sniper; more than 100 young Iraqis have been captured while fighting against U.S. forces and multiple juvenile al Qaeda terrorists have been held at the U.S. military prison on Guantanamo Bay.”

“It’s chilling,” said Gail Berendzen, president and founder of WOMEN Inc., with which Women of Washington Inc. is affiliated, of the sad stories of boys and girls as young as 5 toting cheap, easily accessible, lightweight war weapons to do the dangerous and dirty work for adult agendas.

“Everyone treats me with more respect now that I have a martyred son. And, when there is a martyr in the village, it encourages more children to join the jihads. It raises the spirit of the entire village.” “ a Kashmiri father.

Even after one war ends, some orphaned soldiers will travel thousands of miles to fight other wars because they have no education, no skills and no means of support. Many of the tsunami orphans, who survived the tidal waves, are at risk of being swept up by rebel armies, Mr. Singer said.

Girls often are abducted and made to be sex slaves. In Nepal, girls were tricked into becoming soldiers under the guise of fighting for women’s rights.

Mr. Singer was surprised to learn that older boys were frightened by younger boys because the latter committed more atrocities because their sense of morality and mortality was not developed.

“It’s like magic. I killed people, and it doesn’t stick to me. I still go to heaven,” “ Bad Pay Bad, age unknown.

Mr. Singer, 30, earned a graduate degree from Harvard University and attended the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He became interested in child soldiers during interviews with military men for his first book, “Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.” He formerly worked at the Pentagon on the Balkans task force and as an adviser to the Marine Corps Atlantic Forces.

“I had one private soldier, formerly with the U.S. Army, tell me he fought against child soldiers in one region and trained them to fight in another,” Mr. Singer said yesterday. Another in Iraq told how hard it was to “shoot to kill” a child after firing a warning shot that did not deter him.

However, “they are not lost for life,” he said, pointing to a former child soldier who is now a Marine Corps officer.

The United Nations’ approach of shaming the adult abusers is not working, he insisted. Existing international treaties and child-labor laws need to be enforced. Harsh prosecution and punishment must come from tribunals and the International Criminal Court.

For homeland security’s sake, Mr. Singer said, policy-makers cannot continue to marginalize this problem and shove it aside with other women’s and children’s issues. He suggested ways to assist. To affect policy, you can write and lobby Congress, particularly the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees. You can get involved with nongovernmental agencies that concentrate on prevention and awareness, such as the international Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, or the Washington Network on Children in Armed Conflict. Or, you can support or volunteer for rehabilitation after-the-fact programs like Mercy Corps.

As Mr. Singer said: “We must match their evil versus our will to do good.”

Just light ladies’ luncheon food for thought?

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