Where Wings Take Dream: On Children in the Work of War and the War of WorkSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Many shifts occur in the nature of war and the character of childhood. The patterns of change in both require vigilance and critical attention because, with regard to war, forms that have been established to hold, confine and define conflict easily fall away and contribute to the proliferation of wars of the sort that the 20th century witnessed. With regard to shifts in the conceptions of childhood, a similar level of vigilance is called for as conceptions can obscure children's experiences. Obscure in the ways, perhaps, that the 43rd United States President George W. Bush did in talking about the importance of families: He said, "Families is where our nation takes hope, where wings take dream" (quoted by Alison Mitchell, 2000). Children depend on an ethical attitude that is the basis of sociality and, where conflict erodes it (as it always does), they become the targets of and/or the participants in war.
A consideration of the manner in which war affects children calls for an analysis of the character of relationships between child and adult, and between child and child, within the atmosphere of tension that accompanies the disruption of the everyday. Veena Das (1998:174) observes that despite studies of socialization, "…rarely has the question of how one comes to a shared culture as well as one's own voice in that culture in the context of everyday life been addressed anthropologically." How much less, then, do we know about how one comes to share in the long duree of wars now making their amoeba-like progress across vast territories? We need to study "the relation between dailiness and the rupture of dailiness" (A.S.Byatt, 2000) as it affects the young.
I suggest that there are no wars where children do not walk; that childhood is not another country (that is, relationships between adults and children are entwined and children are participants in the social, economic, political and moral conditions of the moment); and that because children move through childhood, its constituents alter: the passage can seem swift and can be foreshortened, for example, through poverty, loss, exploitation or war. (I adopt, for clarity's sake, the definition in the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child that childhood lasts until the time a person reaches the age of 18.)
There is little dispute over the desirability of peace (more urgent than that of truth in the view of Emmanuel Levinas, 1999:136) for all. Given the absence of peace in so many parts of the world, many people hold that the child should be separated from conflict and few argue against this with regard to the young child. Contention arises over the experience of children age ten and up. The paper addresses the young aged from ten to 18 years. It is a time when children begin to move from childhood through a period that leads them, in Stanley Cavell's words, to the moment when they have "to consent" to adulthood. He describes it as a choice based on insufficient evidence and as an agreement to join the public world (when agreement is possible given other conditions in society). The entry to adulthood is, he says, at best an entry into a world of possibilities towards which curiosity reaches. It is a time of reversal of the rites of passage entailing a shift of responsibility of pain from the world to the young (1984:99 -100). War undeniably removes the possibility of choice from many of the young but some engage in it with a consciousness that reflects their views of themselves as integral to sociality and to the limits of sociality. One asks: what for the young (or for any of us) are the limits of consenting to horror? Of adapting to it? Should we credit the revulsion of youth to horror as conceivably political responses, even as they participate?
In order to begin to research such questions, it may be useful to ask when it is that local worlds lose the sense of powerful moral constraints that organize collective experience (Das and Kleinman, 2000:17). The authors suggest that we trace the "lineaments of interaction of collective and individual experience." I am emphasizing the view that the young are introduced to, engaged in and contribute to the pattern of sociality and the form that a local community takes whether or not they are engaged in conflict. War does not leave them out. In writing an account of wars in the former Yugoslavia, Jasmine Tesanovic (1999:46) says that the two most recent conflicts began with no milk and that, "The message is: death to the children."
South Africa's style of oppression under Apartheid is well known. It led to a revolt and thousands of young people participated between 1976 and 1990. There is a broad, popular knowledge of the form that the struggle took, yet it is curious how inadequately the contribution of the young is documented and it is distressing how little of their needs and desires have been met during the aftermath of the conflict.
During the 1990s, I undertook two studies of the experiences of people who, since their school days, had been politically active in standing against the former regime. The first study was conducted from 1991 to 1993 with 45 people who were released from prisons, most from Robben Island, after the release of Nelson Mandela. The second piece of fieldwork (1996 to 2000) was with 14 young men who, in the 1980s, had been leaders of local activists in their stand against the government in a small rural town in the Western Cape: it formed part of an ethnographic study of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The number of people under the age of 18 who had been directly involved in the conflict is not yet known. No liberation organization has the figures. Nor do the prison officials. The former government carefully obscured the numbers held in detention and the number who had been harmed. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission admitted in its report that it had failed to capture the nature and extent of the role played by the young in helping to achieve a democratic dispensation in South Africa. The report admits that few political activists gave testimony before the Commission. Not knowing how the young fought and with what consequences suggests a lacuna in the description of the recent past in the country.
Most of the young who fought within the country have been excluded from pensions granted by the government and by liberation organizations and, at the time of writing, none have received reparations, although some have received interim reparations, from the TRC.
Based on my work in the aftermath of war, it seems likely that the young will voluntarily become involved in the kinds of fights that rage in many countries now. In Zimbabwe and South Africa, children between the ages of 12 and 18 participated in the fight for democracy. Some elected to join liberation organizations in exile in order to fight. Many of them were placed in schools in other African countries and given rudimentary military training. Some of the young, aged about 17 years or more, joined armed units. In Zimbabwe, it is said that children were abducted from schools and taken across the borders. For two years, from 1982 to 1984, I worked with n'anga (traditional healers) in three areas of Mashonaland, studying their concepts of childhood, their training of acolytes and their treatment of children who had become distressed as a consequence of their involvement as mujibha and chimbwido (messengers) between the guerrillas and the villagers (Reynolds, 1996). What is pertinent here is that most of them were aged 12 to 16 at the time and most of them, it seems, had voluntarily assisted the guerrillas. The story of the struggle by the young against the apartheid regime is well known. Less well documented is how young political activist leaders within South Africa were inducted, how they grew in political consciousness, what ethic of behavior they developed, over how many years they fought (many did for more than 10 years), and what networks they established to ensure continuity in resistance.
Faced with violence, many will eschew a passive role in their own interests or in the interests of others, especially their kin. They are agents in their own life trajectories, which, in turn, affect the experiences of those close to them. Besides, their political engagement has force and this is taken into account in the strategy of leaders in some arenas. Their labor, both as combatants and in an array of other tasks, is valued and a variety of means, including coercion, will be used to draw them into wars. I do not mean to underestimate the forces of control that are exerted over the young, nor the power of obligations and duties that are carved into patterns of family relations, social negotiations and political orders that hold the young and inform their decision-making. Nevertheless, it is hard to keep the young from exploring, sharing moral positions, formulating sets of moral tenets, and acting in accord with them - whether others see their arguments as right, logically coherent, or in the best interests of individuals or groups.
Let us take, as an example, one of the ways in which children will be drawn into wars whether or not they actually shoot or maim people. The International Labour Organization recently narrowed their call for the abolition of child labor (Convention 122) to the elimination of its "worst forms" (Convention 138), one of which they identify as child labor in armed conflict. To effect this, the first step is to know how children's labor is used in war. There are two broad fronts to examine. The first is to acknowledge that adults need and use children. When the social order is disturbed, people seek fresh means to organize daily life and, therefore, those engaged in conflict frequently draw the young to them as carriers, messenger, cooks and washers; they use them to bolster their status, keep them company, satisfy their sexual needs, act as their shields and accompany them in combat. Peacetime roles are blurred, cancelled and/or reversed. The young may or may not be able to choose whether to participate and how. Soldiers down the ages have claimed to protect the young by including them in their units. The second front is to acknowledge that new forms of war require descriptions that can lead to the re-consideration of myths, fantasies, negotiation formats, conflict resolution models and the categorization of combatant versus civilian as they affect the situation of the young.
To abolish the use of children as soldiers is to abolish only one use to which they are put during war; girls, in particular, may be left unprotected. It may be supposed that there will be little difficulty in granting the contributions that the young make in terms of their labor to the everyday in the conduct of war except that we know how difficult it is to measure children's work and how reluctant individuals and institutions are to grant its value and shape policy in accord with that value. To know how adults use children during conflict, full cognizance of the kinds of labor they do for whom, at what age, at what cost, within what context, under what conditions, in whose interest; and with what access to protection are some of the questions for which answers need to be sought.
Other questions to ask with regard to any child caught in armed conflict include the following:
- To whom are children tied? Over what time span? How do loyalties shift? Under what conditions? (These questions suggest the need to investigate the relationships children establish with adults and peers, within and outside the family, because in the areas where many wars are being fought the situation of children's protection and security was fraught before hostilities began. Many children have already had to rely on their own resources and seek ties with others where they could. It cannot necessarily be assumed that adults are in situations in which they are able to fulfill the tasks of being consistent caretakers or spokespersons for the young (see Reynolds, 2000). Times of conflict exacerbate the difficulties of caring for children and, given the duration of many current wars, children's primary relationships may be disrupted for decades.)
- How do wars strip the everyday of the ordinary, releasing attitudes and behavior into a maelstrom?
- What does our continuing romanticization of war contribute to its conduct? What are we still saying about war? How are we still allowing it? What are we documenting about it for the archive? ("Some military ideologies are related to specific notions of masculinity, honour and chivalry…. In the idealised Western imaginary of warfare soldiers in regular armies are associated with strength, aggression, responsibility and the maturity of adulthood [and] … there is a clear boundary between soldier and civilian, battlefield and home, war-zone and peace-zone. A powerful set of cultural prescriptions develops around the concept and conduct of war" (Carpena-Mendez, 2001). The myth obscures, for example, the involvement of women and the young in war, at the centre or on the periphery. It continues to shape attitudes towards violence in art, history, games, the media and gender stereotyping. And it moulds responses, particularly those of members of international and non-governmental organizations, when conflicts end to the detriment of some of the people who had participated.)
- What forms of healing are we prescribing in the aftermath of war? In accord with whose assumptions and beliefs? (Here the questions imply the need to investigate current claims that talking about gross violations is the start of recovery; that truth heals; that post traumatic stress disorder is widespread among people after conflict and can be cured; that Western psychological and psychiatric models are universally applicable and require intense, systematic therapeutic encounters for healing to occur.)
- Are we assuming that the pursuit of justice at the end of conflict can only happen after certain kinds of war? If justice is transformed into purely political calculation, what are the implications for children who were embroiled in the violence? (It could be that one of the effects of international participation in settling conflict will be the quick disbandment of certain groups like those composed of young fighters so rendering them impotent in the claims for redress and reparation.)
- In the interests of children in particular, do we name evil for the "irrevocable harm" (Iris Murdoch, 1993:263) it does?
I am suggesting what a wide terrain our investigation must cover to begin to understand the position of children in war and so begin to know how to limit and/or cancel their participation. The young are deeply embroiled in the everyday life of society: its production and reproduction, its political ambitions, its fantasies, its ideals and its delusions. Concentration on the role of children in armed conflict should not obscure our analysis of the way in which powerful forces (global and national), including progress in the industry of war, exploit and oppress the young.
Pamela Reynolds, a native of Zimbabwe and a citizen of South Africa, is the leading authority on the specific crises of children involved in warfare, civil war and revolution in modern Africa. She has written several books and co-authored Remaking the World: Comparative Ethnographies on Violence and Recovery (2001, Berkeley: University of California Press) and co-edited Violence and Subjectivity (2000, Berkeley: University of California Press) . Dr. Reynolds received her doctorate from the University of Cape Town, where she now teaches in the Department of Social Anthropology. The U-M awarded her, as convener of the Contested Childhoods Seminar, a Presidential Professorship for 2001-2002, which is being held jointly in the Department of Anthropology and the School of Social Work. She is teaching a course on children in armed conflict this semester.