Goodbye to Mikhail Klashnikov, Hello to a New Age of Warfare

Last month, Mikhail Klashnikov died. He was the inventor of the AK-47, the world’s most popular gun.

There have been a number of articles profiling Klashnikov and discussing the legacy of his invention. Basically, the AK-47, especially at the time of its invention, was more reliable, less likely to jam, and less likely to have its function impaired by things like exposure to elements, etc. than other similar guns, like the American M-16.

The gun immediately became popular in Klashnikov’s native Russia, but also among guerrillas and terrorists all over the world. It’s cheap (in South Africa, they are only $12), it’s easy to use, and it won’t break under the conditions of guerrilla and/or urban warfare. Today, I want to focus in particular on one specific aspect of the AK-47’s legacy: the increase in the use of child soldiers.

For most of history, weapons required a certain amount of strength and significant training to operate effectively. So while children were in some ways present in many historical conflicts (messengers, drummers, etc.) they could not always take the active combat role they have today.

The AK-47, in contrast, only weighs 8 pounds and is so simple to assemble that child soldiers can put one together in under 30 seconds. And they can learn to use it in under 30 minutes.

As of 2009, children serve in 40 percent of the world’s armed forces and have been involved in 75 percent of its conflicts. The use of the AK-47 in armed groups using child soldiers is so ubiquitous that one of the major organizations working to end the use of child soldiers has called itself Project AK-47. Their work emphasizes how the use of child soldiers also ties in to issues like child trafficking, sex slavery, and forced labor. Groups like the now notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, in Uganda capture children and force them to fight, as well as using them for labor around their camps and as sex slaves.

But that’s not the only way children become soldiers. A rebel leader from the Karen ethnic group in Myanmar brought his own third-grade son into his army, saying that since he thought his son would have to fight sooner or later, he might as well get it over with now and hopefully have the opportunity to study later. And of course, there are children who take up arms on their own out of fear for themselves and their families.

The appeal of a child soldier for a commander is clear: they obey orders, their superiors can intimidate them more easily, and they are less likely to demand a salary or other conditions for their “employment.” They can be indoctrinated more easily and more completely than many adults. In short, “They are cheap and efficient weapons in asymmetric warfare.”

It’s easy to think of child soldiers as a problem for the developing world, distant from our lives in places like the U.S. or Western Europe. But this issue affects in a number of ways that are not immediately obvious.

Think of the psychological impact being a child soldier must have. Adult veterans of wars often develop PTSD: now think of how much worse those effects must be on a still-developing psyche. Brutal violence becomes a normalized part of life for many child soldiers.

That has a geopolitical and strategic impact on us. The Taliban commanders U.S. and NATO forces fought in Afghanistan in many cases started as child soldiers fighting the Soviets. And of course, those same Taliban commanders, having grown up as soldiers themselves, have few qualms about recruiting children to fight in their wars today. And that presents its own problem for U.S. or other forces: do you engage with child soldiers? Retreat? Perhaps try to capture them to then put them in some sort of rehabilitation program? A 14-year-old suicide bomber killed a NATO soldier in Afghanistan – so what should an adult soldier do if he suspects a nearby teenage has a bomb under his jacket?

Beyond that, the normalization of violence creates a more conducive atmosphere for the growth of gang violence. For former child soldiers who have adopted violence as a way of life, gangs can hold the same appeal as being a member of an army or guerrilla group: a sense of belonging and a chance to do what they have been taught, to fight. Add to that the migration flows that civil wars using child soldiers can spur, and you can end up with offshoots of gangs that formed in, say, Central America, spreading to other countries in the region and even to other parts of the world. (MS-13 is an example of how violent conflict in one country, in this case El Salvador, can fuel gang violence in another country, the U.S., and then spread across the region.)

All this is not to say that civil wars, terrorist organizations, child soldiers, and gang violence would not exist without the AK-47. But it does show how a 1940s Russian invention meant to help keep the Nazis out of the Motherland can have an incredible impact on the growth and nature of conflict and crime all over the world.

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