Tag Archives: child soldiers

Q&A: Shooting Strung Up Humans Is An Ineffective Training Method

Until what age would a responsible adult wait to give a kid real bullets to shoot? The kid is training to be an elite assassin/met/hitman and begins target practice at age 5 with nonlethal laser guns that mark where on the target they hit and are gradually introduced to recoil to prepare them for real guns. Not long after switching to real bullets, they switch to living targets (the organization training them buys people who have been sentenced to death and uses them as targets).

Stringing people up for target practice and putting bullets in them is a pointless exercise, especially with children. It won’t make them better at killing people, or less likely to hesitate. All you get is a shattered psyche and a nervous breakdown not long after they reach adulthood. That, or they’ll be a sociopath and lack the necessary emotions to be good at the social engineering. Unlike the fantasy sociopath, the real life sociopath has a great deal of trouble functioning when among neurotypical people. If a child soldier was your end goal then this method will work great, and they’ll be broken by the time they’re twenty. That’s a lot of effort to put into someone just to break them before they make their first kill as a working assassin.

This is probably the best advice on assassins you’re ever going to get, so it’s best to internalize it:

Assassination is one percent shooting, ninty-nine percent preparation: anticipating moves, devising approaches, recruiting sources, finding the perfect opportunity so the bullet’s almost an after-thought. Usually that’s when a target’s on the move, when there are too many variables to control them all… There are ways to lessen the risk: an armed escort, taking an unpredictable route to your destination, having back-up in a trail car. But ultimately, as long as the assassin knows where you’re going, they have the upper hand. – Burn Notice, “False Flag”

When it comes to writing children and their training, the trick is understanding they’re children. Unless you want to have an “elite” assassin who is a “one and done”, their teacher must be very careful with the pace.

The point of an assassin is not to be good at fighting. They are good, but that’s an extra component. Assassins are covert-ops, and they function like spies. The difference is in their end goal, but they aren’t like a regular soldier or even special forces. If you’re going to structure their training then it isn’t about killing off their emotions or making it easier for them not to hesitate. You’ll get that recruiting young adults from rough backgrounds and broken homes. What you need with an assassin is preparation and, like with Batman, that prep work is what elevates them to elite.

Assassins use people the same way spies do, they assume false identities, they make contacts, create assets, observe the situation, scout locations, all in order to find the best way to their target. They don’t just sit in a watch tower waiting. They’ve got to learn about the person they’re going to kill. This includes their schedule, and where to find them. They need to plan their method of attack. They might walk into the target’s house when they’re not there or even when they’re sleeping, hack their computer, stand over their kids in the middle of the night, look through family photos, steal their datebook, stalk them on social media via some internet cafe, and go through their trash.

Whatever helps them figure out how to make the kill, and pass the blame off on some other poor schmuck in the target’s life.

They need to be able to use their emotions, learn how to turn them on, learn to shut them off, and distance themselves from what they’re doing. They are actors. They need empathy, they need compassion, they need to understand their emotions so they can manipulate others. This can’t be forcibly taught by asking them to shoot people strung up for target practice. That teaches all the wrong lessons.

A basic rule of covert ops, is let someone else do your dirty work. Let someone else find the guy you want to kill. It’s a great technique… as long as you’re not the someone else. – Burn Notice, “False Flag”

If you’re going to train kids to be assassins, then combat training comprises about 25% or less of what they need to be learning. The ancient order of Assassins, from where we get the term, were for the most part what we’ll call “one and done”. The expectation was they’d die in the attempt to kill their target or afterward, which is exactly what happens with most assassins. They may make their kill, but they’re going to die on the way out. This is why the preparation component is so important. Beyond just making the kill, the assassin must have an exit strategy.

When working with individuals who begin as children and whom you plan to keep using, you need to ensure they’ll be functional adults at the end of their training. This is why starting with adults is generally preferable. They’re fully developed, they have the ability to make choices, it takes less time to train them, and you can push them a lot harder. With kids, one must go slowly. We’re talking a time investment of nearly two decades per assassin.

Focusing on your would be assassins killing people in order to kill off their feelings is nice and sexy, but that’s not great for long term health or sanity. If you’re going to spend lots of time developing assassins, you want them to keep working for at least a decade rather than burning out or having a mental breakdown to compromise your organization.

Most kids in this situation don’t get to do any murdering until the final test. This is the first of two, usually. One test happens in a controlled environment and then when they succeed, they get sent out in the world with their first contract.

Depending on the motives and methods of the Organization, that first kill will be them killing a comrade they trained with (the way of true sadists is with their roommate) or running down some person provided for them by their trainers. Or, both.

The first contract happens under the supervision of another more experienced assassin (or two), who will take over if the new assassin proves unable to finish the job. If they succeed at that, they may then serve as an apprentice to this other assassin for the duration of their apprenticeship and learn about functioning in the real world from them. This is the culmination of their training though, and they’ll be somewhere around sixteen to eighteen by the time these events occur.

Children need to be given the opportunity to grow up before they’re put on the fast track to killing. Children are still developing as people, both their minds and their bodies. You can’t force them to do anything. You encourage them with rewards. You push their bodies and their minds, develop their self esteem, provide breaks in their physical training with the education they’ll need to be able to pass themselves off as an actual human being. This education is going to comprise most of their training and act as a way to give their young still developing bodies necessary relief time. For extra motivation and fun, you provide them with games like you would any other child.

These games are going to be structured training, putting them in a controlled environment where they learn and practice their new skills while having fun. One example is Viking children throwing spears back and forth as a childhood game, which graduated to them catching Roman javelins as adults and throwing them back. There are plenty of games we have today from tag to capture the flag that will work when training children and adults.

Fifteen to twenty years of training is a long time, the purpose of a prolonged training period is not to break your trainees by moving too fast. Instead, you want to push them so they are slowly breaking past their internalized physical and mental limits. When you’ve got a character pushing themselves past what they believe is possible, tapping into their desperation, anger, fear, to force themselves beyond their physical exhaustion then you’re at the more advanced methods of martial training. This is the extreme end purpose behind conditioning like running, sit ups, push ups, etc. This is not just to build up your body, but also your mind. Conditioning teaches us how to work through our exhaustion, when we’re tired and want to quit, and find the fortitude within ourselves to keep putting one foot in front of the other. How to find that last spurt of energy, even when we believe there’s nothing left.

You can’t start a child in extreme training, especially since this extreme training isn’t a learning component. This is a pushing component. You can build them toward it, but you need to train them up first. Training them in the physical techniques and all the boring stuff which goes with it. You also need to include the necessary spy school stuff such as infiltration, surveillance, pickpocketing, breaking and entering, chemistry, general education skills like reading, writing, arithmetic, languages, politics, etc, all while slowly pushing them harder bit by bit beyond where they’re comfortable.

You can teach a kid how to make poisons, for example, without actually hurting their mental development. There was a ninjutsu master who talked about how when he was a child, his father would take him around to houses in the neighborhood while the owners weren’t home and he’d have to break in. (Also go through their things, memorize the original positions, and then put the objects back exactly as found.) Supervised at all times, of course, but this is also something you can do with a child that won’t cripple their emotional development.

Even when they do reach the point when they’re ready to make a kill, a responsible/clever organization or handler is going to be there to support them through it which further binds the trainee to their trainers. These children are valuable, and they know it.

Guns will comprise a (comparatively) small part of their training. They don’t take that long to learn how to use. We’re talking a couple months here at most, and after that its just drilling.

You can give kids real bullets at almost any age, so long as they’re not shooting another human being. You want them on the gun range and under supervision with an adult who knows what they’re doing. There are plenty of parents who train their kids kids to shoot, either for hunting or for other reasons. The trick is understanding the supervision component. This is going to be the same in any martial system where children are given live weapons to handle. Supervised at all times is what a responsible adult does, and drilling weapon safety as the first lesson before they ever learn to point and shoot.

Again, killing is potentially damaging to the human psyche at any age, even when we know that the person who is being killed is objectively “bad”, an enemy, or we feel they deserved it. Some people genuinely are fine with it, others aren’t. The difference is in the individual, however these people are all adults. An adult can rationalize killing, they can understand it, and they can make peace with it. A child can’t.

The biggest mistake in fiction is treating children as little adults. Children lack an understanding of permanent consequences, and they cannot rationalize in death in the same way an adult can. They lack the tools to process these complex emotions because their brains are still developing. You can’t treat them like adults because they’re not, and if you do you’ll break them. A broken child or broken adult is too unstable to be a good assassin, much less an elite one.

Even then, killing a “bad person” who “deserves it” is the wrong motivation for an assassin. Assassins kill for money, they kill for country, or they kill because they’re told to. You can get the rogue assassin who has turned on their organization and is seeking redemption as a vigilante, killing the people they think are bad. Still, that’s not how most assassins function and certainly not the ones who survive for extended periods. The organization might hold to some higher principles, but at the end of the day their killing has nothing to do with a moral good. Righteousness from a world of black and white will break someone who must function in shades of gray.

An assassin needs to be able to make the choice of who will die. They must decide how they will die, and if anyone outside of the contract they’ve been given must die. They have to do a lot of groundwork before they ever fire a bullet. They may need to do unsavory things like arrange a kidnapping, or murder the spouse or children of some target’s family. They may be hired to target children. Their job is to identify and create the situation where they can make their kill.

Learning to accept that part of who they are can be difficult if the writer is looking for a way to morally justify their behavior or excuse it. Assassins are, at the end of the day, like every other hired gun.

They’re a hired gun.

Assassin is a nice way to phrase it, but they’re just mercenaries skilled at targeted killing and social engineering. That’s what these kids are in training to be: killers for hire.

-Michi

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What would be some behavioral/psychological differences between a kid who’s been raised for combat and a child soldier? She’s in her mid-teens on what was supposed to be a routine training mission when shit hits the fan and she ends up getting captured. The enemy armed forces that have her assume that she’s a child soldier that’s been otherwise coerced into this and treat her as such. So how would they be trying to establish rapport with her or subvert her loyalties? (and utterly failing) [1/2]

What, if any, chance do they have of actually succeeding, given that
she’s been training since she was 5? Is there any way for them to manage
to turn her loyalties? And what would be going through her head during
all of this beyond disdain and escape plans, regardless of whether or
not she turns? [2/2]
       
    

I get what you’re asking here, you’re asking if a child soldier can be saved through the power of friendship. The answer to that, upfront, is no. Child soldiers and children raised for combat are not misunderstood misanthropes who’ve never had a support network but know what it is and can be approached in the same way you would the average loner.

Child soldiers/kids who’ve been put through any kind of brainwashing are a difficult subject to discuss because it is profoundly disturbing and messed up. The assumption is that if they’re kidnapped from their families, they’ll grow to secretly hate their captors and jump when the first opportunity comes for escape.

That isn’t how it works. In the training, they’re driven to hate their parents and view them as weak. As they’re systematically broken down, they grow to love their captors and consider them family. They develop a deep and abiding loyalty to them.

Falling prey to this conditioning has nothing to do with how strong someone is or isn’t. It’s not a matter of mental or emotional strength. Breaking them down and rebuilding them from the inside out is what their handlers do. They are very adept at it. These children are conditioned through empowerment, which is part of why it’s so seductive. They’re taught to believe that they are better and stronger than everyone else, that other humans are weak. That weakness must be destroyed.

You won’t reach them by treating them in any way they’ll perceive as weakness and if you react the way they expect then you play into the hands of the people who programmed them, then you’ve reinforced the child’s conditioning. The mental conditioning is a booby-trap for the people who might try to help them. Every intuitive choice, every choice that feels natural is going to be the wrong one.

You cannot reach them if you come to them with an assumed understanding of who they are and what a human being is. There’s the person they were, who they’ve learned to despise and the person they see themselves as now. Approaching either of those individuals, whether it’s the person they were or who they currently are, will lock you out.

The average person with no understanding will simply reinforce the child’s views and their handler’s views, and shut out of any way to help them by the child’s dismissal. That’s if the kid doesn’t kill them first, which they will because that’s what they were conditioned to do.

A child overcoming this programming requires years and years of therapy, if they’re fortunate enough to receive it at all.

Abuse isn’t cured by the power of friendship.

We’ve talked about #child soldiers and #children and combat on separate occasions, we’ve even compared them to each other and explained the difference. They are not, however, totally separate.

The main difference:

1) Children Raised to Combat are a long term investment. This is someone whose training has been the focus of their life, with the intent to turn out a solid, above average combatant. These children who won’t see combat until they reach their late teens/adulthood.

2) Child Soldiers are expendable assets given a gun, often given drugs like “BamBam”, told they’re immortal, and shoved onto the battlefield on the idea they’ll give the adult soldiers pause, gun a few down, before getting gunned down themselves. They’re not “soldiers” so much as they are distractions. They are also never sent out alone. You’re not up against one, you’re up against many.

Both have the option of having been put through cultish/psychological programming, but the difference between the two is fairly obvious. It’s a disoriented and drugged child violently kidnapped from their village versus a member of the Hitler Youth or another, similar, organization.

They are both psychologically damaged but in vastly different ways, and those circumstances make it nearly impossible for anyone who isn’t a child soldier or comes from a similarly abusive background to relate.

The irony is going that the Child Soldier is going to be much, much easier to turn because they were never really inside the system to begin with. However, even with just a scant few months, the deprogramming is going to take years. They’re never treated as important. A child who has been raised to combat is valuable, they often see joining as their choice, and they know their own worth. They’ve never known any other kind of normal and are in a much better place to evaluate why their side is the right one. They are co-operative participants, rather than forced. They’re going to see the instructors in their lives as friends and family. They’ll believe in the cause.

A good way to look at the thought process of the adults behind these training programs would be to take a look at the French novel/film “La Femme Nikita” where the assassins are all druggies and runaways pulled off the streets, cleaned up, sobered out, and trained to kill people.

Why is this important?

Because it inspires loyalty. You take people no one will know and no one will miss, people who are not regularly getting four square meals a day, and get them off the streets. You give them a safe place to sleep, regular food, and a purpose. From their perspective, you save them. The threat of expulsion comes next, but what you ask them to do next is not that much worse for them than the hell they were living in before.

The problem when most people look at these situations and setups is that they miss the deeply embedded trust, loyalty, and respect these children feel for those who train them. They have a lifetime and a normative societal state to banish their doubts. They will know what the outside world is like. They’ll have been educated. If they’ve been handled by someone skilled, then everything they see will merely confirm their sociological programming. Questions will be encouraged. Pride in their skills, pride in their country/mission, ego, and self-esteem are encouraged.

You’re looking at your character having an attitude similar to the Spartans in 300.

Or, you know, Starship Troopers.

A person who understands their ideology and philosophy is far more useful and capable of independent operation than a blind follower. You want your elites to be capable of independently operating on their own.

You can’t force someone to be good at fighting. You can’t force someone to learn. Like the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

However, the real problem with this question is a critical failure to understand how soldiers operate in warzones, specifically in regards to enemy combatants.

Child Soldiers are still soldiers. They’re enemy combatants and they’re treated like enemy combatants.

This is the concept that’s hardest for most people to grasp.

It doesn’t matter, at the end of the day, whether or not they’re a forced conscript.
Child Soldiers are treated as enemy combatants, not children because, well, they are.

The sad truth about them is that they’re not really kids anymore. They’re brainwashed and weaponized. The moral barrier that will stop the average child from killing someone doesn’t exist for them. It’s gone. Their innocence is gone. They are exceedingly dangerous. They’re likely to betray and kill their “rescuers” if left to their own devices then return to those who kidnapped them in the first place.

This is a behavior pattern which does not normally make sense to those who have never been abused, but it is very real.

What’s been done to them can’t be cured with kindness, at least not in the early stages and the average person can’t relate to them. It’s difficult enough for most people to relate to adults who’ve been through your garden variety child abuse, and this is on a whole other level. These kids are systematically broken. That is the point of the breaking. So, that when the average adult treats them like a kid they kill them.

Child soldiers are unpredictable, including for seasoned combatants. It’s hard as hell to tell when they’re going to snap, and there’s a certain level of psychopathy just lingering beneath the surface because (as children) they’re brains can’t register that death is real.

This is true with children and you see it a lot with children dealing with grief, they lack an understanding of permanence and struggle with the concept of death. Minors don’t grasp consequences the same way adults do, and there are different standards regarding their ability to do so consciously.The training child soldiers undergo preys on that. It preys on the limbo. So, they’re handlers feed them cocaine and tell them they’re invincible and they believe them. The important thing about child soldiers is that they don’t know what they’re doing. Their psychology is exploited by their handlers.

You can feel pity for the dog that’s been abused to the point its mind is broken. It won’t stop the dog from killing you.

So, you’re asking these soldiers to take a ticking time bomb with them. Someone who is a direct threat to their lives and their mission. No matter the amount of pity they feel, this is a time bomb they know better than to take. This is especially true if they’re working in enemy territory where she’ll have numerous chances to betray them to her comrades. They’re not equipped to handle her.

She belongs in a POW camp, away from combat, with people who can devote their time to helping her figure out how to be a human instead of a weapon.

Right now, a weapon is all this character knows how to be.

-Michi

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References and Resources:

It is worth remembering that child soldiers exist in the real world, both in our present and throughout history. There is a body of research available on the subject, and worth looking into if you want to do it justice.

If you are a minor, I insist that you approach this subject with the aid or help of an adult. Child soldiers are disturbing material.

The CNN article on Ishmael Beah is an excellent place to start. Beah was a child soldier in the Sierra Leone eventually captured by enemy forces and rehabilitated by Unicef. His memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier is worth looking into if you intend to take the true child soldier route.

If you’re interested in being depressed or learning more about the African diamond trade and how it ties into the Sierra Leone then Blood Diamond with Leonardo Dicaprio is a good movie to invest some time into. The movie goes through great pains to ensure the treatment of child soldiers and their training is accurate.

The book Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Path of the World’s Most Precious Stones which the movie referenced extensively, though only two chapters in the book discuss child soldiers directly. Instead, it focuses on the use of diamonds to fund the RUF in the Sierra Leone. You may find this book more helpful for worldbuilding and it’s discussion on the funding a revolution.

Monster an autobiography by Sanyika Shakur aka Kody Scott about his sixteen years spent as a gangbanger may be helpful. Gangs have a different method in their recruitment of child soldiers but, at the end of the day, the attitudes and mentalities end up in a similar place.

Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J. Massaquoi isn’t a book about child soldiers per say, but it does document the effect Nazism had on the German people. If you ever wondered how the average person could fall victim to widespread propoganda, participate in such heinous acts, or wondered how the Nazis worked then this is a must read book.

Check out Boy Seamen on Wikipedia, a page discussing the ranking and usage of young adults as sailors in the British Navy and others at the turn of the century. Russel Crowe’s adaptation of Master and Commander: Far Side of the World has an accurate representation of the ages that were put to sea. Patrick O’brien’s series is a must read for anyone interested in doing any writing about the British Navy.

We bring up the Boy Scouts of America sometimes when discussing children raised for combat and while it isn’t a direct 1 to 1 comparison, most of the skills studied and mastered by the Boy Scouts as they gain badges are the sorts of supplementary survival skills you start children on when preparing them for a lifetime of combat.

You don’t have to look far to find the history of children studying and used in warfare. There’s a wealth of information out there, if you start looking for it.