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Review: Non-fiction

Arms and the child Add to ...

As the military trial of Omar Khadr concluded this week, with all sides still hotly at odds over whether he was a child soldier at the time of his detention (reader's caveat: my own position on this is squarely in the affirmative), enter Roméo Dallaire with They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children.

The retired lieutenant-general, Canadian senator and national icon strips away the usually emotionally laden language surrounding child soldiers and argues that they are an effective, efficient and morally repugnant weapons system - "Tools used by adults to wage war," the central metaphor of his book - which, with concerted effort, can be dismantled.

They Fight Like Soldiers is a sobering look at the systematic failures of peacekeepers, United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, governments, militaries and policy-makers to effectively deal with the pervading abuse of children in combat.

Dallaire is always pointed in his efforts to protect civilians. He was first exposed to the issue of child soldiers during the Rwandan genocide, and has spent years wrestling with the problem.

Recently, he founded the Child Soldier Initiative (CSI) - a research project that seeks to understand critically, and prevent, the child-soldier pandemic. They Fight Like Soldiers is the culmination of that body of work and builds on Dallaire's experience navigating both sides of the ideological divide (he is unquestionably the only Canadian expert working on the issue of child soldiers who has leverage with both the aid community and the military) in order to arrive at a solution to this complex problem.

The book is structured around a combination of Dallaire's personal contact with child soldiers and his own military experience, an exhaustive review of the current literature on this issue and two fictional stories, one about a young boy who is abducted and indoctrinated as a child soldier, the other from the perspective of a peacekeeper. It adds up to a thought-provoking read.

I must admit that when Dallaire sets up his fictional stories in the introduction, I cringed: With so many children who have been exploited in this way, why substitute their stories for one he made up? In the end, I was surprised by how well it works. Paralleling Dallaire's own childhood, in which he spun fictional worlds in the forests beyond his family's log cabin in the Laurentians, and inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince, the book perfectly captures the innocence and experience of childhood that war so savagely steals from them.

Here, the story lingers on the creative dimensions children inhabit, their pleasure in the simplest things, the trust they place in their environment and the adults who control it. It also shows how easily manipulated children are when uprooted from everything that once made them feel secure, and how this vulnerability is exploited to transform them into instruments of war. "Child soldiers," Dallaire writes, "are a commander's dream come true: the perfect low-technology, cheap and expendable weapon system that can perpetuate itself ad infinitum."

Dallaire also goes to great lengths to expose the much-neglected side of the issue: girls, who make up 40 per cent of child soldiers worldwide and are used both in traditional combat and informally as porters, sex slaves, cooks and "rewards" for male soldiers. The progeny of the rape and brutalization of girl soldiers, in some cases, serve to replenish the ranks of militia and rebel armies; they are children born of torture and raised on violence.

After a thorough review of the challenges child soldiers present to conflict and post-conflict communities, the book shifts to the obstacles hindering dismantlement of this lethal weapons system. Dallaire argues that programs for DDR - Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration, to which he adds another R, denoting everything from rehabilitation to repatriation - are for the most part ineffective because they send children back into communities that, in many cases, do not welcome their return, and which typically have very little to offer them beyond half-hearted skills training.

Anyone who has ever worked in these complex environments knows precisely how frustrating this cycle can be: Even children who abhorred their life as soldiers feel compelled to return, if only because it offers them a degree of emotional and financial security they cannot otherwise get. Dallaire points to the lack of consistent investment in prevention - including educational and employment opportunities for youth - and public, political and media uninterest in protracted conflicts as significant impediments to progress.

As someone who has devoted considerable energy to filling precisely the kind of programming gaps Dallaire identifies (War Child, Canada, of which I am director, is a participant in the Child Soldier Initiative), I could find no argument with this. However, there are many examples of effective strategies being implemented on a smaller scale worldwide that demonstrate what can be accomplished through persistent effort, and these could have been further explored.

What's especially interesting about They Fight Like Soldiers is Dallaire's struggle to align humanitarian and military "actors" in pursuit of a common cause - how to deal with the use of children in war - with limited degrees of success. With two disparate groups that do not even speak the same technical language, let alone agree on the approach that needs to be taken, it is little wonder that significant gains have eluded the movement to end child soldiers.

They Fight Like Soldiers is a compelling, moving and insightful book that exposes the problem of child soldiers in all its dimensions. While it is much less personal than his powerful, award-winning memoir Shake Hands with Devil, the book is emblematic of Dallaire's resolve, compassion and abiding commitment to justice. His Orwell-like sensibility, in which "all humans are human; not one of us is more human than any other," is refreshingly sincere. As Dallaire reminds us, he has come face to face with the absolute worst of humanity; if he can still believe in our collective capacity for change, so can we.

Samantha Nutt is the founder and executive director of War Child Canada.

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