This is the last anon, and thanks so much for your answer! I left a couple things out that I shouldn’t have – for one, the world is a dystopia, and the soldiers actually enlist around 12, and start their training after pushing a lot of different things to accelerate growth. So even though he’s only 24, he’s actually been involved in the military for half of his life, which I’m assuming is enough time for a specialty? I don’t know what that specialty is yet, but thanks so much for your help!
This is going to be a sensitive topic for a lot of people and as such, we requested for the sake of our followers and all of you out there who’d like to avoid this very traumatic topic that we could put it in a regular post so we could have the “read more” option, beyond just the ability to list it with trigger warnings for child abuse, abuse, and child soldiers. This will be a disturbing topic to go through and we are by no means experts on the subject, we’ll answer this question as best we can and give some help to those of you out there looking to write dystopias dealing with kids. In this post, we’ll be some basic developmental psychology, the technical limitations of messing with human biology in regards to creating human weapons, child soldiers, and with some helpful suggestions for what a writer can do instead, if this topic proves to be a bit too much to handle.
Child soldiers, while very dramatic, are one theme that can go off the rails very quickly. It’s important to remember when dealing with dystopia that the limitations of human nature, psychology, and the world today are very important to the novel’s dramatic elements. A dystopia isn’t a potentially bad future with a totalitarian government. It’s a society characterized by human misery, disease, and overcrowding and living within that society with no hope of escape. Dystopias are not, despite what the current climate may lead us to believe, happy stories.
Some good Dystopias to turn to for reference are: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, 1984 by George Orwell, Native Son by Richard Wright (A rare non sci-fi version), and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (slightly lighter than the rest on the list).
Warning: These are all ridiculously depressing books, so prepare accordingly.
The rest is under the cut. It’s pretty long.
Take it away, Starke!
Well… this was not what I wanted to write when yesterday started.
So, I’m going to start with a few caveats: I’m not doing a lot of research on this one, it’s going to be mostly off the top of my head, from memory. The reason is; the phenomena of child soldiers can be really fucking depressing to look at in any depth. Again, it’s important to remind everyone that I’m not an expert on the subject. So, research on your own will still be required (like it usually is). I took a few classes in college that required I learn more than I’d like on the subject, most of which dealt with politics in third world countries, and I’ve tried not to think about it too much since.
Finally, once again, I’m not a psychologist, developmental or otherwise, I’ve had some psych classes, but I’m a political analyst by education, which means I’ve had to learn more about this than I’d like, but I’m by no means an expert.
Let’s start with the easy stuff, the sci-fi setting and working with growth acceleration. We’ll start with talking about some basic economics surrounding growth acceleration, how this technology gets funded and some reasons why real scientists today are studying it. Then, we’ll get into some basic world building questions and discuss some of the weaknesses of this particular technology, before moving on.
Growth acceleration as it exists today is based around the idea of creating meat more rapidly by introducing hormones into livestock at earlier ages, so that they grow faster and thus be slaughtered more quickly. Growth acceleration is studied and tested for two very basic but different reasons:
1) The Capitalist Reason: by reducing the amount of time it takes for an animal to mature into adulthood, means that there will be more meat available to sell and more money ranchers and slaughterhouses can make. Before it sounds like I’m being unfair, let me remind you that both farming and ranching are both incredibly difficult jobs. Much of what they make relies on the climate of the markets they sell to (whether or not people want to eat meat and the amount of meat they are eating), weather (to provide grass and grain for the cows), and disease. Growth acceleration is a way for them to make up the difference and feed their families when they’ve been left to the vagaries of fate. It’s an idea that sounds appealing to most of them. So, this is one way this sort of research gets funded.
2) The Altruist Reason: Meat is expensive to produce, it’s expensive to ship (it’s expensive to flash freeze and by the time it ships overseas it’s usually rotting), and most of the major buyers and sellers are limited to first world countries such as those in Europe and America. This cuts the vast majority of meat being bought and sold out from those starving in Third World countries. Growth acceleration through hormone treatments would be a way, once spread widely, to substantially cheapen meat on the global market and to allow smaller farmers who only have a capacity to maintain a limited stock to produce more meat to make more money, and feed more people in the places where meat is too expensive and the locals too poor for meat to be a regular part of their diet. Feeding people is generally a pretty good, understandable goal.
Sounds pretty reasonable (Michi Note: if you’re not a vegan), for the most part right? Remember, when setting up a sci-fi society, it’s important to look at things like economics, politics, and sociology, so that it is clear for the reader where the tech came from. Sci-fi is often (though it doesn’t need to be) Earth future. So, there has to be a clear line for how we got from here (using growth acceleration on livestock and crops) to there (using it to artificially accelerate the growth of children into adult-sized soldiers). You’re also going to have to be able to answer some basic questions for your reader, such as why are they using children when they could be using adults? If they have the tech to artificially age soldiers, then why aren’t they just using clones? We’ll deal with this below. Whose children are they using in this endeavor? People generally take issue with their children being taken from them, though there are some easy ways to get around this such as using slaves, the socially disenfranchised, the fiscally indebted, and orphans. There are other more basic questions also like how did this happen and who is in charge? Remember, you can’t just say how it happened. You have to present it in a manner that is easy for the reader to grasp and see when looking at the world around them.
Secondly, there are some serious problems with growth acceleration and the indications of what that could mean for using it on people. First: the skeletal system has a tendency to rapidly harden instead of growing to adult size. This wouldn’t be as large a problem for an adult force, but since you’re talking about 12 year olds, this has some very serious implications for how useful your society’s combat forces will be overall.
Now, this flaw can be overcome with extensive surgery, but this is expensive. More than that, soldiers need to be relatively cheap and easy to mass produce. An expensive solution is just that and every government, (Michi Note: even corrupt ones!) must weigh their decisions based on overall effectiveness at producing the desired result versus whether or not it’s economically viable. No government is going to get very far by running out of money in the middle of a war and even if they put the majority of the budget towards military expenditures there’s a lot more important things than soldiers to spend money on. Ordinance, new technologies, etc, are all considerations. If you take a look at modern American military spending, you’ll notice that the vast amount of their resources are put towards R&D projects, developing new and better ordinance, and even some of the weird stuff that comes out of D.A.R.P.A. pulls down more money than what goes towards taking care of America’s current standing forces and retired soldiers. So, here’s the question: why spend money on creating better soldiers when you can take normal humans and just give them better weapons?
Find a realistic answer to that question and you may have the basis for your book.
The second consideration on growth acceleration is that it’s designed around causing musculature to overdevelop, (Michi Note: More meat from fewer cows) meaning you’d end up with people who look like bodybuilders and they’d end up with some fairly substantial heart issues. For a modern combat force, this isn’t really desirable. You want your soldiers strong enough to carry their gear, and be able to operate it, but you don’t want musclemen, because muscles are freaking heavy.
Extra muscle means extra weight your vehicles have to account for and designed around supporting, you’ll need more downtime for your troops to keep their muscles from atrophying during the extended periods of required travel, they’ll need more food, and (to an extent) too much muscle means less mobility in the field.
The growth hormones we use have the side effect of increasing aggressiveness, at least in males. This is good if the society in question is looking to create suicide bombers, but over-aggressive responses are undesirable in a disciplined military force. You don’t want your soldiers beating up each other in the barracks before they get on the battlefield, too much testosterone and you end up dealing with too many soldiers in the Medical Tent who could be serving on the battlefield. Remember, the reason soldiers are created in the most basic and cruel sense is to spend them against the enemy. If they’re ignoring orders and attacking each other then why bother using them in the first place? Their usefulness to the society must outweigh their detriment, even if the intention is just for them to die on the battlefield.
The third consideration involves cell replication: because the process is massively accelerating cell replication, you’re going to end up looking at a much higher risk of mutations, including cancer. Basically, we’re talking about “replication errors”, whenever a strand of DNA copies itself, it will create a strand to verify that the copy is accurate. Obviously, even in nature this isn’t 100%, if you speed up the process, more errors will occur.
The only reason this isn’t an issue with modern growth hormone technology, is because we’re not really accelerating the replication process. It’s the difference between saying “don’t stop”, and “go faster”.
Finally, and I could be wrong here, but you can’t really artificially stimulate the brain to develop into adulthood. Even if you can get the brain and body to adult size, some fairly simple concepts like risk vs. reward, critical thinking, and threat assessment are simply not going to be there. And because of the accelerated growth, those traits probably never will be. (Michi Note: Those are essential traits to have in any soldier other than a shock trooper.)
Now, here’s some of the good news. Depending on your setting, you can pretty easily wave off the skeletal/muscular issues, and, with the way the technology has evolved for use on the farmyard, we’ll probably actually have those dealt with before your story’s set.
The bad news is that the neurological issues are harder to overlook. First off, because the primary application for the technology right now isn’t humans. Since, the development revolves around spurring growth to create more meat on the bones of cows with the intention of them not surviving long after, there’s little attention being paid to the neural problems that come with acceleration and there’s little interest in dealing with it because, frankly, it’s not a concern.
Secondly, the brain is unlike every other organ in your body.
Still with me?
This is where we get into the idea of genetics. One of the basics of genetics is that your DNA produces the basic template for your body. The same is not completely true for your brain. You can blame your DNA for it’s warm butter consistency, it’s color, and the basic structure, but the content, and even the way it works are apparently very customizable.
This is where we get into the importance of developmental psychology.
Here’s what some research on nature vs. nurture has left us with: the brain is incredibly good at picking up new skills, new information, and new ways of processing data. These traits are especially strong in childhood. In this field, we’ve begun to find that a lot of those old boys vs. girls debates have more grounding in how these children were socialized in early childhood. Many behaviors we express are not inborn and natural, but gained as we develop, there are even some studies that state that there’s very significant neural architecture acquired by the child as they age. Some stuff about us is hardcoded into our DNA, but a lot of what’s been chalked up as predetermined by nature, actually isn’t.
This is why studying developmental psychology, even without the child soldier context, is extremely important to look at. I strongly advise you study up on at least some of the research that’s come out of developmental psychology in the last 10 years. Honestly, there’s some really fascinating stuff to be had there for any writer, with a lot of implications for writing any type of character you want. It’ll also help you sidestep some common stereotypes.
Okay, now that we’ve dealt with growth acceleration, let’s look at some alternate options for sci-fi before we get to the child soldier aspects.
Let’s start with neural control chips. I’m not sure on a timescale of how soon something like this will be possible, but it has some really scary implications for your characters, if it can simply override the soldier’s brain. (If you want to keep some of the child soldier themes, while getting rid of the actual child soldiers, this could still be a good option for you to work with.)
Second is direct neural encoding. That is to say, using drugs, technology, whatever, you actually imprint a lot of information into your soldier. Depending on the technology, this could give you a way around the development issue, and it doesn’t have quite as much the control chips. I would strongly caution you against pushing it into actual mind control serum, as that wouldn’t really fix the basic problems, and it would leave your soldiers much more vulnerable to manipulation by enemies. Even basic intelligence could yield methods of disrupting any force using mind controlled troops. An intelligent and aware soldier can distinguish falsified orders a lot more effectively than a brainwashed one.
Okay, take a step back and let your brain think about the last stuff. Good, now, let’s get into the child soldier discussion.
The honest truth is that child soldiers don’t make for good combatants and they’re not supposed to. They make for convenient shock troops. But the point of a shock trooper is that they are expected to die in combat, not that they are expected to fight. A shock trooper is not given any real training and they are considered to be completely expendable by the force that’s using them. So, why would someone want to use child soldiers? Well, unfortunately, the assholes that use them have recognized that giving children guns comes with some convenient perks. The major advantages to child soldiers are these: adult combatants have a harder time killing them, thus giving them more opportunity to kill the enemy before dying themselves; they’re cheap to obtain in most warzones with a convenient unprotected supply already in place, and securing their loyalty is much easier than with adult combatants, who are better able to critically think and process information in the world around them.
The indoctrination process with child soldiers is one that’s designed to shift their loyalties from their parents to the warlord who is using them. Unlike adults, they’re not going to have conflicting loyalties based in ideology or nationalism, so if a warlord can remove their parents, the child has nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to for guidance but the warlord and other, already indoctrinated children.
In Africa, the warlord’s lieutenants will force the child, at gunpoint, to kill their parents. If the child refuses, they’ll be executed with their parents and another child will be selected. The child will be renamed something suitably aggressive sounding (most of these names are drawn from comic books or other media, so things like Psychokilla and Superboy are common). They’ll be placed in a community with other child soldiers and before battle they’ll be dosed with something called BamBam, (a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder) which they’re told makes them immune to bullets, immune to harm, and or immortal.
Then, they’re sent out to die. When they do, they’re replaced with new conscripts, and the cycle begins again.
A few do survive into adulthood. But those who make it are left, understandably, with serious psychological issues. Severe PTSD is practically automatic, they commonly have issues with human empathy that’s probably best described as psychopathic and have a general inability to interact with other human beings as, well, human beings, rather than something to be shot and killed. This isn’t beyond the range of psychological therapy, but without it, survivors are a real mess.
Survivors wouldn’t be able to train other characters, really, at all. Their own training would have covered using their weapon, and nothing else. They don’t receive training in leadership, or command, those are handled by less expendable adults. They couldn’t receive training on a lot of more advanced hardware (artillery, aircraft (helicopters or other VETOLs especially, but fixed wings are also out), any naval craft larger than a launch or (maybe) a soft bottom PT boat).
We’ve seen a rise in recent years of the use of child soldiers in South America, they’ve been used in southeast Asia, and (arguably) in some places, young gang members in the United States may actually qualify. The methods aren’t always as extreme as in some African nations, but the long term damage is.
It’s important to remember that current international law regards child soldiers as a form of slavery, because of the coercive control over the children. There have been many, mostly unsuccessful efforts to curb the practice by various international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in the last 30 to 40 years.
Child Soldiers, as adult characters, aren’t really suited to war stories. I’m sorry. If you want to handle the material in a serious way, this is probably an element that should be jettisoned. If you want to write about a child soldier dealing with their experiences, you can certainly do that, and you could develop something very interesting and compelling, even within the scenario you presented. But the focus would need to be on the internal emotional state of the character.
If you’re setting needs to use child soldiers, there needs to be a pretty solid reason.
As I’ve said earlier, children do not make good soldiers, and they aren’t really more readily available than adults. They do make more fanatical soldiers, but if that’s all you want, then I’d actually suggest looking at the concept of youth programs such as the Hitler Youth (Michi Note: Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J. Massaquoi is an intense and interesting biography to read for anyone interested in fascism and how it takes root in a culture’s psyche) that seek to indoctrinate their members with an ideology. There needs to be a credible and tangible reason why parents would accept their children being taken away from them and sent to war. Remember, in the real world, this is done by killing them, but African warlords aren’t looking to maintain a stable government. Any credible government, totalitarian or otherwise, would need to do something, to keep resentment from boiling over into outright rebellion. (Michi Note: This would also happen very quickly, that sort of government would probably be overthrown within the first few years.)
I’ll go into the politics of revolutions in more detail at some point, if I remember, but for now: the government you’re presenting has to have a real concrete reason it’s taking the children and this reason must be convincing to the parents. The government cannot credibly intimidate the parents into this, because that would lead to insurrections and all smart politicians know that they need belief just as much as they need fear. These reasons don’t need to actually be true, but they must be believable enough for the civilian population to turn over their most precious asset: the continuation of their society. (Michi Note: You’ve also got a problem with how this society self-replicates, if most of the kids are going to war.)
Now, what you want isn’t actually impossible, even if it feels like that right now, especially since you seemed more focused on the war story itself, with your protagonist as a functional leader. So, I’m going to make a couple suggestions on how you can do that and tie those themes back into the ones that come with child soldiers, while at the same time avoiding the problems and baggage that need come with them if you’re playing it straight.
The first is clones.
Star Wars: Episode II, of all things, can give you some pretty good ideas on this front. Clones that have been grown to adulthood in 8 years, with intensive training can get around the neural issues, and because their growth rate is accelerated by around 2 to 2.5 times rather than forcing them to go from 12 years to adult in the course of 8 weeks to 6 months, the risks associated with growth acceleration are a lot lower.
You still get to keep a couple things you probably want, clones could be trained in command. You still get the idea of characters with very limited life experience outside of warfare. You can keep the idea of someone’s life, and or childhood, being stolen. The idea that your character was raised as a disposable shock trooper, to live and die at the whim of a system they were excluded from. You can keep a lot of the slavery elements without actually getting into a direct discussion on slavery.
You also have the society creating a stable base to convince their population on the merits of going to war, without their people having to make sacrifices on their own. Clones aren’t just a convenient source of labor, for most people, they’d be a convenient moral hand wave. Sure, you’d have some members of your society who are (minimally) outspoken against it. It would even be to the government’s credit to allow some small dissension that allowed them to claim they were keeping free speech while simultaneously making a mockery out of those people to sway the general population to their side. Look at modern American society and some of the general attitudes against minorities, a vast majority of people will not care so long as their lives go on unaffected. This is the true terror of a dystopian novel. It is not that people were forced. It’s that they were willing. There really is some merit to “the trains running on time” philosophy. Remember, anon, people will accept a lot, so long as they are not inconvenienced by surrounding events. Sometimes, the cultural acceptability of atrocities is all about framing. (Michi Note: We leave it up to each author to decide whether or not indifference is the same as evil.)
The best part about clones is that you can still push the idea of your character as towering over the local population. This kind of cloning leaves the door open to various levels of genetic modification. I’d say, look at Warhammer 40k’s Space Marines, and Star Trek: Deep Space 9’s Jem’hadar for ideas you can incorporate into how to handle your troops. The Jem’hadar have the element of using drugs to keep characters in line, through simple addiction. 40k’s Marines play with the idea of massive cybernetic and biotech enhancement to the point where characters cease to be human at all.
If you can find it, White Wolf’s Exalted setting, particularly the two Dreams of the First Age books have a fair amount on the idea of genetically engineered slave races that could also provide some good fodder to play with.
If you want to scale back the sci-fi elements and keep the overall realism, then I’d suggest looking at the idea of indoctrinating kids with an ideology over actually putting them on the front line. Toss the growth acceleration technology and have children, who are conscripted from school at 12, spend the next four years being trained in warfare, before being sent out at 16 as actual combatants. There are plenty of societal incentives a government can provide (and even provides today) that will encourage parents to give up their children into the system. You’ll keep a lot of what you want and ditch some of the most egregious problems that come with using child soldiers in your story because you gave them the time they needed to grow up.
Finally, and I know this isn’t what you were looking for initially, but, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon deals with the idea of bodies being little more than clothes for people (the actual personality is simply uploaded into an implant in the body’s brain). The material has a couple ideas worth thinking about.
First, because soldiers are jumping between bodies fairly frequently, the bodies themselves are equipped with “reflex packages”, which take a lot of elements out of physical control, but also limit the amount of control someone has over their body in a fight.
Second, the concept of moving minds around between bodies is actually very interesting. This could be useful for you, if you’re setting has similar technology, but is engineering and altering the minds they’re uploading. Morgan already addresses the idea of duplicating minds, and bodies, using the technology, so you can poke around at that in more depth.
If you got this far, I’m impressed. I hope this information will be of some use to you and maybe even help get you started. There’s also the ask we posted earlier from KickassFanfic, who also provided some helpful reading material.
Again, if you need anything, our askbox is always open.