Tag Archives: children and combat

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.


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So I got a question about the sparing and padding post that you recently made. I like to read Assassin’s Creed fanfictions that shows Altair (the main character) in his early years, which often includes his training to be an assassin. In most of these fics they focus more on the sword and knife fighting but some does include the hand to hand fighting too (without protection). So realistically what kind of injuries would someone training without any kind of protection should expect?


I’m only sort of kidding, because I know the kinds of fanfics you’re talking about and like every writer trying to be edgy, they have them spar without protections and with live weapons. There’s a reason why we use practice weapons during training and in sparring matches, where rules are in play. 

Now, the Assassin’s Creed variant of the Hashashin live for that super edgy, very stupid state of supposed badass where one must constantly prove their worth so I totally believe they’d do it. I’d also believe this would lead to an incredibly high turnover with their recruits, which is not sustainable in the real world.

I’m going to point out here that the “Asassins” or Hashashin were real. That’s the etymology for the word. The suicide jumping is also real and, instead of landing on bales of hay, they jumped to their deaths. There are a couple of stories about that piece of the order. The real Assassins were religious fanatics. These stories are not so much a testament to the quality of their training so much as their fanaticism.

For what it’s worth, the Knights Templar were also real and a prominent militant order up until they were excommunicated by the Pope.

The history of both groups is actually far more interesting than the Assassin’s Creed franchise. This is a persistent problem with the games, they invariably include historical figures who are far, far, far more interesting, competent, and badass than we’re presented with. If you encounter a historical personage in an Assassin’s Creed game, remind yourself of this simple fact: the real one is about 200x more awesome. It’s this weird inverse where the reality consistently surpasses the fiction.
(Black Flag, I have my eye on you. Honestly, how do you mess up Stede Bonnet, The Gentleman Pirate? And that’s the least of your sins!)

The more serious answer is that unless you’re training with weapons or making an active effort to hit each other, in the real world we don’t train using pads on the regular. The pads are so you can essentially go full out against another person under controlled circumstances and then come back for training tomorrow. If your students are constantly getting injured that hampers their ability to train, then they fall behind and you turn out fewer fighters. Injuries on the training floor should not be a common occurrence.

Barring accidents and mishaps, if you’re simply practicing your techniques on your own or against a wooden dummy then all you should expect afterwards is standard muscle pain (maybe some bruising). The same should be true for practice with human opponents (which is not sparring) and sparring itself.

Anything else is a waste of time, energy, and resources.

Remember, injuries take time to heal and if you’re prepping someone to go out and murder that’s time you don’t have.

In the land of “edgy training”, try to remember that you want evil as opposed to incompetence.

The vast majority of training, like the kinds you listed, are edgy incompetence. They don’t serve a purpose other than sadism and your students don’t learn anything. Unfortunately, cruelty on its own doesn’t teach much (the Spartans were abusive jerks, but their methods worked). The beat up, abuse them, cruelty methodology simply doesn’t work unless you understand the kinds that work and, from a storytelling perspective, it also isn’t interesting.

The kind of “edgy training” you see in most stories is a round of Kinder’s First. People mimicking what Hollywood has taught them or what they’ve seen in fiction elsewhere. The assumption in this line of thinking is that the more brutal the training then the more dangerous the fighter. This isn’t true. More importantly, there are much better ways to sadistically mess with your students’ (and audience’s) heads.

1) Depending on your teaching style, you may murder a student on occasion to motivate the others. However, the control over who lives or dies remains with the instructor because the instructor is god. If a student gets a bright idea to kill another student without your approval, kill them.

2) Live weapons should never be used by students on each other except as a graduation gift. The graduation gift being only one of them will be accepted into the Order, so prove your worth. (In the real world, you’ll probably need them both but in fantasy land… why not?)

3) Use the threat of death to keep your students from getting comfortable, make good on this promise every so often. Bring in an established warrior to kill off your best student in demonstration to the others. (Why? It reminds them at no point are they safe.)

4) Encourage your students to break the rules, punish them severely if caught. (Playing favorites? Punish them more, push them harder.)

5) Limit their resources. Make them fight each other for their food. Survival isn’t a given. It’s earned.

6) In the early days, force them into physical exhaustion. Keep them up late. Wake them early. Limit their sleep to the minimum of hours they need to stay functional. Tired minds are easier to manipulate.

Force them into direct conflict with each other.

There’s never a solid baseline they can achieve, and they’re always watching over their shoulder. Furthermore they never become loyal to each other. They are only loyal to you. Appeasing their teacher is their only means of survival.

8) Got a problem child who won’t play along? Don’t make an example of them. No, no, make them your new favorite. That’ll turn the others on them, and they’ll solve the problem for you.

9) Change the goalposts regularly, so they never know what to expect.

10) You’ve got someone who doesn’t want to participate? Say okay. When others move to join them, punish those students viciously instead. Do it in front of the class and for everyone to see. (This is called: creating heroes and wrecking them.)

11) Have your students inform on each other.

If this is starting to sound like abuse, well.. you’re right. It is. It also very successful in terms of achieving its goal. The goal is attacking the student’s perceptions, beliefs, and their understanding of the world while reshaping them into who you want them to be.

Real cruelty is clever and inventive. It is also patient. Like a good interrogator, this teacher will leave their students so they’re never sure of exactly what the teacher wants or how to please them. They give them hope, then snatch it away. Someone who excels at social manipulation will use this position of power to maneuver their students feelings and their expectations, indirectly point them at certain targets by stoking negative feeling such as jealousy, paranoia, anger, or fear. In the other hand, those rare moments of kindness offered will ensure gratitude. When a good teacher wants their uncooperative students to band together, they make themselves the target the students need to fight against. The abusive teacher does the opposite. They ensure they are the only boat in the storm and turn their charges on each other. They make sure their students never know what to expect. This includes going hot and cold. They change up to batter expectations, handle some problems themselves and let the students handle others.

An experienced teacher will have seen plenty of student characters, all the versions you can imagine. A good one will break the problem kids to bridle without them ever realizing it happened, and they exit the experience more hardcore than the ones who invested themselves honestly. The purpose of “brutal training” isn’t to churn out a better warrior. It’s to break the individual down so you can reshape their mind and ensure the weapon you’ve created is loyal to you. That level of conditioning is very difficult to break. You’ve re-oriented their entire training into status positions they’ve fought for and earned. This training becomes a foundation for their identity, and you’re not going to get it out of them.

So, before invoking the trope, choose wisely and understand the purpose for what it is. Actively abusive training is done with the express intent to recondition and brainwash. More than that, in competent hands, it’ll snap the “rebellious teenage hero” contingent like twigs.

As a member of a fanatical cult, Altair is a direct example of this sort of training writ large.


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In Rogue One, Cassian Andor states that he’s been fighting for the rebels since he was 6 years old. Assuming he meant literal combating, would his personality be similar to that of a child raised for combat? Would there be any differences?

This is sort of a yes and no, as all children involved in violent conflicts from an early age are affected by it. However, the children who take part in rebellions aren’t in the same category of the child soldiers discussed on this blog before, though they absolutely share similarities.

Kids involved in rebellions are rarely used as frontline combatants. They’re far too valuable for that. Instead, they function as informants, carriers, and, occasionally, saboteurs. They’re not the one who picks up the gun to shoot down enemy soldiers in a safe zone. They’re the ones who move the gun past the security perimeter or receive it from the old man or woman who did and plant it. They’re the ones hanging around befriending enemy soldiers in bars or cantinas so they can tip their friends off about where the troops are moving to next. Children, women, the elderly, those generally viewed as non-combatants, the ones that society overlooks or views as “safe” are often the backbone of any resistance movement.

They get the goods, they move the packages, they carry the messages between resistance cells, they sometimes take care of the equipment, and they do most of the footwork that allows a resistance to engage the enemy. When they do fight, it’s generally in the form of sabotage like finding and slipping poison into the enemy troop’s stew, planting bombs, or because survival necessitates it when their cover is blown.

As a child, Cassian Andor would have a background common with other children in rebellions depicted in media like ‘Phan Duc To’ from Good Morning, Vietnam! (1987) and the children involved in The Battle of Algiers (1966).

If you’ve never seen Good Morning, Vietnam! I just spoiled the movie.

The Battle of Algiers is a great movie if you’re looking for an honest overview of how rebellions function on both sides of the conflict or just a treatment on the French colonization of Algeria. Fair warning, it is not an english language film. Kiera Nerys from Star Trek: Deep Space 9 is another decent character to look at when wanting to model a background for a resistance fighter who joined as a child. G’kar from Babylon 5 and the entire Narn/Centauri conflict is also an excellent example of the enduring hatreds and issues brought by colonization.

One of the qualities you see in these children and then again as adults is pure, unadulterated hatred for their oppressors. More so than the other kinds, they hate. Often to the point of becoming a new version of the enemy their resistance was attempting to drive off.

Cassian would’ve spent a lot of time hanging around rebel fighters, doing odd jobs for them until the day came when they were short a man or needed a message run by someone who wouldn’t attract attention.

If this has started to sound like spycraft, well, you’re not far off. Resistances don’t have the luxury of major battle offensives like an army, and even guerilla warfare is actually a step up from what happens on the ground, and there is a common word you’ll find familiar for what they do: terrorism.

The actions of a resistance fighter and the actions of a terrorist are one and the same, the only difference is in who is telling the story. If you want to investigate real resistances without the judgements, study up on World War II, the French Resistance, and the Maquis.

Yes, that Maquis not the one from Star Trek.

On the ground resistances are rough and ready, they’re often split apart into distinct cells comprised of only a few agents, and almost no one knows who is higher up the food chain. This is important because it protects the other operating cells and resistance leadership in case an operative is captured by the enemy.

For the most part, whether you’re writing historical fiction or a foray into science fiction, the philosophy, goals, and strategy of a resistance will remain the same. What changes is how they go about operating within their setting because, like spies, a resistance requires the author have a solid grasp on how the enemy functions, the details in how they hold power, the technology they have access to, and how their army works.

On a literal and literary level, the Resistance is about disruption. Whether they’re sabotaging train tracks, blowing up food transports, or bombing nightclubs, their goal is to disrupt everyday life and make it as unpleasant as possible. They’re ghosts in the system, you’ll never know where or when they’ll strike, and they’re out to destroy enemy moral every way they can. A resistance drives the enemy from their homeland by making the cost of holding it no longer worthwhile. Though, historically, this is often impossible unless the majority of the population joins the cause and/or the tide of public sentiment back home within the enemy’s homeworld or nation turns against the invaders. A resistance occurring against the powerful within their own homeland is much, much more destructive.

What marks a character like Cassian, who grew up in a resistance movement, more than other children engaged in violence is first and foremost betrayal. Betrayal from without, betrayal from within, the people he’s lied to and betrayed, seeing many friends vanish overnight or die, and never quite knowing who he can trust. He probably has very few friends left alive from his early days with the Rebellion, and more than likely experienced the Imperials wiping out his cell(s) on multiple occasions. He worked his way up the ranks until he became an operative working closely within the Rebellion’s inner circle.

Star Wars is functionally much more clear cut than the real resistances that occur throughout the world.

Happy writing!


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Two questions 1) If a child, say about 8, is just starting to learn how to fight how ‘skilled’ would they be after 6 months? Like obviously they wouldn’t have anything mastered but would they at least be halfway decent with the very very basics? 2) How would puberty affect someone’s training? I’m imagining growth spurts might throw someone off if they shoot up four or more inches in three weeks but I’m not sure about what else might cause minor complications. Thanks you.

It’s pretty difficult to say, honestly.

For children, developing skill depends on a lot of factors. Only one of which is natural ability. You’ve got your obvious prodigies, who pick it up right away and are competing in adult competitions by the age of 12 (like Ernie Reyes Jr). Those are extremely rare. You’ve got children with natural inclinations toward physical activity, are naturally more flexible, and simply have better motor skills than the average child. You’ve got the kids who haven’t started developing any of those yet, so everything is a challenge and training is slow. And then you’ve got the ones who are just bad at it in the beginning.

Then, there’s interest. Children learn faster when they’re interested in learning. So, a child who struggles but loves their training will learn faster than a child who struggles and hates it. Children who naturally have better aptitude will be ahead in the start, but if they don’t develop an interest or love for what they’re doing, they’ll inevitably fall behind/grow disinterested. This disinterest can occur anywhere between a few months to a few years. You can keep pushing them based on parental approval, but that will die.

Then, there’s the amount of time they spend learning. A child who is trained by their parent or responsible adult figure and spends most of their day learning is going to be in a very different place in six months than a child who only trains for forty-five minutes (standard recreational martial arts class length) three to four days a week.

Then, we have the type of training.

In traditional martial arts like karate or taekwondo, a child training for 6 months will still be a beginner. They’ll have some of the basics on lockdown (a few stances, the double punch, the front kick, and maybe they’ll have put it all together into a form) and that’ll be about it. They (more than likely) won’t have done any sparring yet unless their instructor okays it. They won’t know a lot in six months, but they will by the time they’re thirteen/fourteen. It takes two to three months to get out of white belt.

In practical (police combat training/military combat training), someone who has been in training for six months can kick your ass. You don’t put children through that unless you’re a sadist who loves child abuse. Kids can’t handle it. Children also cannot fight adults, they don’t fight like adults, and they don’t have the same understanding of permanent consequences that adults do. They are developing human beings, so work is slow.

And yeah, puberty/developing bodies have a serious effect on a child’s/teenager’s ability to perform. You’re constantly having to re-calibrate and readjust your balance, re-learn distance, all the ancillary stuff. A child’s body is changing on the regular, so every few years they take a hit where they need to readjust themselves. So, you can have a child who has excellent technique between 4-9 and then hits the awkward years between 10 and 17. (Whatever point they stop growing.) They don’t lose their skills, but they have to relearn/get used to their new body and that takes time.

The thing with training children is that its a balancing act. One of the biggest issues in fiction when it comes to writing children is that they get treated like little adults. They’re not. Children are in a constant state of growth, development, and change. Their understanding of the world is constantly evolving. It can change drastically in just a few months.

They’re also not all the same. They learn at different speeds.

When you want to sit down at write a child character or just establish their background, you need to start with specifics. General knowledge about training children isn’t going to be helpful because there are many approaches.

First, establish what their life is like. What do they do in their day to day? What is their focus? Figure out where the training fits in, who is teaching them, how much they practice.

By establishing the character’s background before you begin your research will be incredibly helpful because it narrows the field in which you need to search. If your kid was handed off to a school to focus them on martial training, which happens to countless talented children in China, then you know to begin looking at martial arts academies in China. If your character is trained by their parent, then you can start looking at historical martial artists trained by their parents. There are many of these, especially well-documented in Eastern traditions. If your child is some kind of noble, trained a few hours a day by a fencing or other kind of combat instructor then you know to look at European swordsmanship traditions to get an idea of what that kind of training looked like.

The more you can narrow down what you want, the easier your research will be and the easier the answers you need will be to locate.

Children have been practicing and training in martial combat for sport and for combat all across the globe for centuries. It is an area of study that is fairly well documented (if uncomfortable). General knowledge will help you start, but it won’t help you much.

Figure out who your child is, what their background/circumstances are, and then research similar children in similar circumstances.

Specifics are always key.


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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.


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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.

Well holy skipping heck. Is the below 16 a common average to not being able to think on par with adults? Because personally I was fine with that by age eight. Not a brag, genuinely curious.

No, nineteen or twenty is the point where your brain really finishes up developing. Sixteen is a rough guess of when that stops being an insurmountable disadvantage in combat.

This isn’t an intelligence issue, it’s that your brain is the single most complex organ in your body and it takes a couple decades to finish up.

At eight there are cognitive functions that simply aren’t finished. Generally speaking, from what I remember, an eight year old’s risk assessment will be completely shot. Philosophy tends to play havoc with them as well. The basic cognitive functions necessary to chase an existentialist down their rabbit hole are out of the reach of an eight year old. For combat, the real problem for kids is that they can’t think as far outside the box as an adult, and have less ability to predict the outcome of actions. Intellectually speaking, an adult can switch up and go places a kid can’t imagine, and this has immediate combat applications.

Concrete things, like game rules, an eight year old can grasp fantastically (specifically I’m talking about games like Chess or Risk, not ones where you just roll the dice to wander around a track), those systems are already there and working just fine. Depending on their upbringing, they can get into fairly sophisticated stuff. Self contained logical puzzles and scenarios work the same way. But, when you can step outside “the rules” then they have issues. Unfortunately, that’s combat, among other things.

All this means is, you weren’t surrounded by adults who were happy to use you as an intellectual punching bag, or willing to exploit your developing brain just to make you shut up. I’d like to say I can relate; I’d probably be a nicer person if that were true. But, then again, I also probably wouldn’t be writing this now, if I was. And, I certainly wouldn’t have my first hand experience with violence. So, it all comes full circle, we are who we are.

If this stuff really interests you, I’d suggest looking into developmental psychology. There’s a lot of stuff there, and it doesn’t easily condense into a few paragraphs, but the way the brain keeps adding functionality from birth to adulthood is pretty fascinating.


Why aren’t hits to the groin more common in martial arts? You said there’s no way a kid can beat an adult, but the whole time I was thinking that even a kid can beat a grown man if they get a good hit in between his legs.

A blow to the groin is a good way for a child to create an opening so they can flee. It will not win the fight. A 12 year old can survive being attacked by an adult if they know to get away. One that tries to stand and fight will not.


One of my characters is a 12-year-old girl who kicks ass. How do I realistically describe her skills overcoming an older person’s strength and size?

She can’t. 12 is too young to actually be surviving serious combat with adults. Bones start to mineralize between 10 and 12. At her age, she literally cannot take the hits. Her bones are too soft to deal with full force strikes from an adult.

Neurological development will put her at an insurmountable disadvantage. This is a process that continues from birth to your late teens or early 20s. At 12 she’s just not going to be sharp enough to take down an “average” adult, at an intellectual level. This might sound unrelated, but your character needs to be able to at least keep up with their opponents on a mental level. At 12, she can’t.

Finally, she’s not going to be strong enough fight an adult. There’s no significant biological difference in strength based on gender, but there is a huge difference in strength between children and adults.

Unless a character has superpowers or is something other than human, they need to be at least 16 or 17 before they can start taking on adults. They’re still at a significant disadvantage, but it’s something that they might be able to overcome, with difficulty.

Also, I’ll just say this one again, in case anyone forgot, hand to hand combat is grueling, and it takes a serious toll on anyone. Frequent combat with adults will leave your character a complete mess in a few years. A 12 year old who tries to go toe to toe with an adult who isn’t pulling their punches will die.

Anyway, if you’re after further reading on the subject, here’s a few older posts.

If you want Michi to tell you basically the same thing, we’ve got you covered. If you want an in depth discussion of child soldiers that will probably ruin your day, we’ve also got that. There is actually a Children and Combat tag, though it’s fairly sparse.


Hi! I apologize in advance if this isn’t the right place to ask this kind of question, but I read through a couple of your tags and you seemed to be answering quite a bit of stuff about the psychology connected to fighting, so… I’m trying to write a fanfic for a story where I feel the author really didn’t do his research on the fighting/training. There’s one thing in particular that’s been bugging me; (continued in 2)

(2) He has one of those Super Elite Secret Ninja organizations, and it’s claimed that they are raised together in pairs ‘like brothers’ and then suddenly forced to fight to the death when they’re – I’d guess around 14. This is supposedly to ‘kill their emotions’; it’s claimed that after that they don’t have emotions and are obedient to their leader. I… have a feeling that it wouldn’t work that way, but I don’t know much, so I wanted to check it against somebody more knowledgable.

You’re right, it doesn’t work that way.

The mistake the original author made is one that is very common. I’m going to use a historical example, the Spartans are generally used when writing these kinds of stories because their training methods for preparing children are more brutal than, say, the Vikings. (Brutality doesn’t necessarily make for a better warrior.) Often cited is this one:

The Spartans would take their boys and place them in special camps, they would purposefully limit the amount of food given to the trainees. In order to survive, the children were forced to steal. If the children were caught, they were beaten within an inch of their life.

Many authors look at this concept and assume that the brutality was the lesson. The idea is basically: “looking at this shocked my emotions into shutting down, that must be the goal of the training exercise” and they don’t take it further. But, brutality is only a tool. The goal of the Spartan training method was to teach the idea of consequences. The children were expected to steal food and they weren’t doing anything wrong, what they were being punished for was being caught stealing. Those that succeeded at successfully stealing food without being caught were not punished, they were rewarded. The extra food allowed them to become stronger, better, and more capable of keeping up with their training. The ones who failed at stealing food or sneakily fighting the others for it died.

When you encounter these sorts of methods, you have to look past the brutality to the inherent concept of what the lesson is there to teach. It’s best not to discard these lessons as lesser or bad simply because they are unpalatable. If you understand what the lessons are there to teach, then you will understand the kind of person the training is creating.

The concept of “two enter and one leaves” is actually a common practice among highly elite/specialized military units. The Army Rangers engage in this practice (though their fights aren’t to the death) and so do many others. The goal of this though isn’t to “kill the emotions”, it’s to generate an intense feeling of loyalty to the leadership by the participants proving their dedication. Loyalty does not equal obedience, you need emotions for loyalty.

Pause, stop looking at the killing and think about what the roommate really represents to the character in question. They are their closest companion, their confidant, their battle buddy. They may have been the character’s source of support, the one who helped carry them through their training. When the characters dreamed of joining the organization, it was always with the idea that their friend would be by their side. The roommate is more important than family, more important than friendship. This is a bond that connects to the deepest part of the protagonists soul.

This is who he is being asked to kill.

The character killing his roommate is him proving how much he wants to join the brotherhood. The goal of the lesson is to show that there is no emotional connection more important than the ideals of the brotherhood. Killing his roommate ensures that he will consistently place his loyalty to this organization above any bonds of friendship or love with any single individual he meets later in his life. Essentially, the goal is to create an incorruptible fanatic who will remain utterly devoted to the ideal of the organization long after the organization itself is ashes and rubble.

The goal of the organization is not to kill off his emotions or even his ability to connect with other people. It’s an act of embracing the ideals of the organization over any individual person. He is devoted to a higher cause, whether that cause is a person or a greater system of belief.

A good personality to look at for this kind of behavior would be Kir Kanos from Crimson Empire, who remains a devoted servant of the Emperor and hunting for vengeance long after the Guard has been destroyed and the Emperor dies. Even when he does develop a relationship with a member of the Rebellion, it can’t override his devotion to revenge. He’s notable for remaining loyal to the ideals of the Empire, not the individuals and throughout the comic’s run hunts down those Imperial betrayers who are seeking to use the Empire for their own gain. The training sequences are worth looking at.

However, this will really only work with mature young adults in their late teens (18-19) at the earliest. The reason for this is this level of psychological manipulation requires an emotionally mature mind capable of comprehending what is being asked to do. To build the best, most devoted warriors, you need your warriors to make the decision that this is what they want. It’s not about having the best warrior, if they’ve survived this far into training then they are among the best. It’s about who wants it most, who is willing to fight the hardest, you want the one who wants to be in. These sorts or death matches are really about characters embracing their commitment to the cause. The individuals, friends, family, the people you trust do not matter, the ideal is all that matters. In particular, killing a roommate is teaching the lesson: “One day, you may be asked to kill your brother to protect the ideal, to rid us of corruption. Can you? Prove it.”

It’s easy to assume that this is about creating an emotionless killing machine, but it’s not. It’s about creating a fanatic. If this is starting to sound an awful lot like fundamentalist religious cults, then congrats! This is very similar to the psychology cults use to ensnare members.

A child, even in their early teens, can’t fully make those decisions. 14 is too young to have them killing their friends. Introducing death into the equation there is an excellent way to create shock troopers/child soldiers/suicide bombers, because the authority doesn’t care about ensuring their emotional stability. The kids are prepped with the idea of their own immortality, but they are being sent in to die. They aren’t expected to live long and they don’t need to understand.

Your Elite Ninja School is looking for a long term investment. I’d suggest looking into Military Academies/Boot Camps/The Boy Scouts if you’re going to rewrite (or just write for yourself) the childhoods for these characters. These characters are going to be raised with the idea that they are valued, important, and special. Their training will be hard, but they are part of the elite. The select few. They will trust in their authority figures and, later, they will kill for them.

A person who understands what they are being asked to do and chooses to participate is far more valuable than one who has to be tricked into it. They are also much harder to corrupt and the personal sacrifices they make strengthen their commitment.

If you change it, then change it so that killing the roommate happens as part of the graduation exam, make it the final challenge. You can also start introducing death as part of training accidents earlier at around 16/17 by making training more dangerous (adding in training with real weapons for example). One of my favorites from Crimson Empire was Vader coming in during the middle point of their training and killing the best in the class as a lesson to the others. It’s important to keep in mind that every trainee is expendable, even the most talented. Killing the best reminds the students that there are always more dangerous opponents and will spur them to work harder. After all, if that guy died then anyone could.

I hope that helps.


Okay so I was wondering how for one of my fight scenes the twelve year old could beat an adult. There are two characters in the scene, one a renowned assassin trapped in the body of a twelve year old and a 22 year old information broker who’s armed with a knife. However, the info broker is kinda hesitant (he’s not a bad guy) although he knows what he’s doing. Any tips on how it should go? The child is aiming for the kill.

Well, you’ve got a serious problem and so does your assassin. (For purposes of the question, I’ll assume it’s a he, change to the appropriate pronoun as needed.) Although he has all his training, knowledge, and experience, he’s suddenly taken a huge hit to his coordination, speed, strength, weight, and bone density. Not only that, but because of his previous training in a much larger adult body, the reach he’ll expect to have versus the reach he’ll actually have are world’s apart. Even if he was originally trained as a child, the days where this could have helped him in a physical sense are long behind him. He’s going to have to adapt to work under an entirely different rule set, all of which will leave him vulnerable to getting killed if he tries to continue in his line of work in the same manner he would have as an adult.

He can’t fight the way he used to and the best choice for him (which he’d know) is to not fight at all. Assassin’s aren’t really trained for standup, straightforward scraps anyway. If he’s intending to kill the Infobroker (I’m not even going to ask why, but infobrokers are more useful alive), then he’s going to stalk him and kill him, preferably without the infobroker seeing him or he’ll use his child stature to get close to him and prove he’s not a threat before shanking him somewhere lethal.

In a child’s body, he’ll be much more reliant on surprise and he’ll be walking the razor thin line (which he’ll know) that if he gets caught, he’s dead as opposed to when he got caught before, he only might’ve kinda been dead.

No more jumping off rooftops. No more sniper rifles. He’s going to be limited to a very small subset of guns that don’t have much recoil. It seems weird to me that he’s not carrying a knife on his person, unless he has a rather thick skull and hasn’t gotten it through his head yet that things are no longer business as usual.

A child has two major means to beating an adult: surprise and superior force of arms. They can’t take them in one on one physical combat, it doesn’t matter how skilled they are or what they’re willing to do. Your twelve year old is about four to six years away from having a body that can use those skills. So, alternate approaches are necessary.

The Infobroker is not a bad guy, which is something he’ll pick up on because an assassin should be good at reading people and social situations. The Infobroker, like most non-psychopaths when faced with a small child, doesn’t want to kill him. He’ll use that to his advantage. Your assassin can do two things, engage in a game of cat and mouse by running away and coming back later at a more opportune time or he can curl up in a small ball and start to cry. The crying is a ploy to get the Infobroker to drop his guard, once that happens, he’ll take the knife and shank him.

If neither of these solutions work, the assassin will run with the purpose of leading the Infobroker on a merry chase to a place where he can fight to his own advantage. This may be a place he knows like an alleyway with a ready supply of objects that can easily become improvised weapons. A place with lots of people so he can convince the cops to arrest the infobroker and then sneak back in to offer him a means of escape from the precinct in exchange for information.

He can’t straight up fight him, but if the infobroker has something he wants, then the body he’s in is a convenient way to convince other people to do his fighting for him. This can be anyone from random bystanders, to crooks, to convincts in lockup, to policemen on the force. He looks small and innocent. He appears to be helpless. People who would have spat on him before will help him now.

The answer to the question is: the character must use the advantages he has access to and his brain, not the traditional combat skills he never used much anyway. Though, if he’s famous, he might not have been doing his job right anyhow.

This isn’t me saying don’t do this and I know it’s not what you were after, but it’s important to recognize the limits a character is placed under and how they use those limits to prove who they are. The most interesting thing you can do with a character who is exceptionally good at their job is put them into a situation where they have to use skills that they haven’t spent a lot time cultivating. You get all their experience but also force them to deal with the world in a new and different way. Your assassin can’t just pick up where he left off. This includes many of the combat skills he’s cultivated over his years in the profession, he has to deal with life as a child and with a child’s limitations. If he remembers what it was like to fight adults as a small child, then he’ll know what he’s in for. If he doesn’t, then he better learn quickly or risk not just death, but crippling injury.