Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Children dressed for war

I was out and about doing chores for Kaitzer; subsequently I had a late start writing “Thoughts from Dr. Joe.” Since my brain was tapped out, I had no clue what subject matter to attempt to write about.

I crossed Gould en route to Starbucks and came face-to-face with a picture of a child holding an ice cream cone with a Kalashnikov rifle precariously balanced over his right shoulder. The boy highlighted the cover story, “The Face of War,” in that day’s Los Angeles Times. The kid was no more than 10.

I didn’t want to write about this. However, I was compelled to do so.

In conflicts around the world there is an increasing popular weapon system that requires negligible technology, is simple to sustain, plentiful, expendable, has unlimited versatility, and has an incredible capacity for both loyalty and barbarism. There is in fact no more concise end-to-end weapon system in the inventory of war-machines than children.

Child soldiers as young as 8 are compelled to become instruments of war, to kill and be killed and are forced to give violent expression to the hatred of adults. The children’s vulnerability makes them attractive to militias. They are easy to manipulate, more impressionable and susceptible to indoctrination. They’ll do the unspeakable without question or protest, partly because their morals and value systems are not yet fully formed and are seen as more loyal and less threatening to adult leadership.

Human Rights Watch estimates, 250,000 children have fought in three dozen conflicts throughout the world, but growing exploitation of children in war is staggering and little is known. From the “little bees” of Colombia to the “baby brigades” of Sri Lanka, these children become fighters, sex slaves, spies, and human shields. They are expendable and considered cannon fodder. Child soldiers are changing the face of terrorism. It is the loss of innocence.

As a Marine officer, I learned about Dan Bullock, the youngest soldier killed in the Vietnam War. Private Bullock was 15. Subsequently, I developed a macabre fascination of the nuisances of child soldiers and read prolifically of their plight. A 14-year-old boy shot the first American soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. A sizable number of child soldiers serve throughout Africa, Middle East, South America, and Southern Asia.

Their angelic faces accentuate a contrived innocence, masking a dark soul capable of the most heinous atrocious committed in warfare. Theirs is a definite journey from girl or boy to killing machines. Children are forced into service, abducted from their beds, kidnapped from their homes, and some enlist to escape abject poverty. The conscripts undergo varying degrees of indoctrination, often verging on the brutal. Some receive primary school instruction or long periods of forced political introduction where beatings are part of the curriculum. The children become fierce warriors by being subjected to terror and physical abuse. They are socialized into violence, forcing them to witness or partake in the torture and execution of their own relatives.

I struggle with the timeless inquiry of philosophers. The nature of man! Is it good or evil? If only it were that simple. The border dividing humanity’s nature dissects our heart. Who would destroy a piece of their own heart? Viewing a picture of a child dressed for war instead of play is evil incarnate.

Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel “The Killer Angels” is more than an analysis of the Battle of Gettysburg. It demonstrates that we are capable of both good and evil.

I recall captured enemy soldiers subdued by the muzzle of a rifle. Some were no older than 14. They trembled from fear for they heard we were monsters. I watched as a few Marines approached the boys giving them chocolates. The Marines lit cigarettes, took a few puffs, and then handed the cigarettes to the boys. We are indeed killer angels.


JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

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