They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers

  • Roméo Dallaire
  • Walker Books U.S.
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by John Wilwol
  • June 20, 2011

From experience in Rwanda, a plea for a humanitarian response to a despicable practice.

In the introduction to his harrowing 2004 memoir, Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Roméo Dallaire recalls an incident that occurred on a cloudless day about seven weeks into the 1994 Rwandan genocide. On that May afternoon, having successfully delivered some 200 civilians to safety behind Rwandese Patriotic Front lines, Dallaire, then Force Commander of the United Nations Mission in Rwanda, and his comrades were returning to Kigali when a 3-year-old boy crossed the road up ahead of their white U.N. Land Cruiser. “I had seen so many children hacked to pieces, that this small, whole, bewildered boy was a vision of hope,” he writes. 

Dallaire decided immediately that he would pluck the boy from the bush to raise him as one of Dallaire’s own. Moments later, a child-soldier about 15 years old walked out of the jungle and, after an argument, snatched the boy “wolf-like” out of Dallaire’s arms. “That moment, when the boy, in the arms of a soldier young enough to be his brother, was swallowed whole by the forest, haunts me,” Dallaire writes.

Roméo Dallaire is widely regarded as the hero of the Rwandan genocide. After defying United Nations orders to flee the country, he struggled valiantly to save roughly 30,000 lives from the most efficient wholesale slaughter of human life since World War II — 800,000 Rwandans were massacred over 100 days. Relieved from duty due to post-traumatic stress disorder upon his return home to Canada, Dallaire refused to fade away. He testified at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 2004 and has served in the Canadian senate since 2005, receiving fellowships and humanitarian awards along the way. 

Through all of this, Dallaire has homed in on a single cause that he calls “the driving force” of both his work and his new book — the elimination of the recruitment and use of child soldiers by militias around the world.

They Fight Like Soldiers They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers is an important, if uneven, primer on Dallaire’s current mission. An odd mix of three fictionalized chapters and seven nonfiction chapters, the book opens with Dallaire recalling his youth, from carefree days spent tramping about an Arcadian wilderness where his father built a cabin to his time at army cadet camp, where he claims to have found his soul. Part dreamer, part soldier, Dallaire emerges here as both a romantic and a realist, making him an especially effective agent for this particular cause.

On the one hand, the problem of child soldiers is a humanitarian issue addressed by many non-government organizations and other aid groups. But it’s also a security issue confronted by police and military personnel. Dallaire recognizes the importance of bridging the gap between these two interests, and responds accordingly in an effort to win both hearts and minds.

A maudlin moment or two notwithstanding (at one point, he apologizes for his occasional “dissolution into a puddle of tears”), Dallaire is at his best in the seven nonfiction chapters in which he clearly and concisely lays out what the problem of child soldiers looks like in the real world. We learn that children become soldiers in places like the Great Lakes region of Africa for reasons not unlike those that compel youths in the United States to join gangs. In desperate worlds filled with unspeakable poverty, militias promise a sense of community, status, power and stability.

Dallaire goes on to claim that children are extremely attractive to the leaders of these militias because they are plentiful, expendable and easily trained and manipulated. Girls, he says, are especially valuable recruits because, in addition to their ability to fight, they also serve as bush wives and sex slaves.

Dallaire’s attempts at fiction are forced and treacly, and the book suffers mildly because of them. Two of the chapters are written from the perspective of a boy who ends up a child soldier; a third is written from the perspective of a U.N. peacekeeper who kills a child soldier. Certainly, Dallaire had access to actual child soldiers (Ishmael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, writes the foreword) and peacekeepers who might have lent authentic accounts to the book, eliminating the need to fictionalize. Why he chose to invent the narratives given here is a mystery.

While he acknowledges that his current struggle is an uphill battle, Dallaire is undaunted. His first major step has been his establishment of the Child Soldiers Initiative, which attacks child soldiering from its security dimensions. In other words, rather than conventional Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration strategies typically used by peacekeepers to reform adult soldiers, the Child Soldiers Initiative approaches child soldiers as a weapons system that must be rendered unsustainable. It aims to do so by holding those who utilize such systems accountable in such a way that the potential costs of using child soldiers would outweigh the benefits. 

Dallaire points to the success of the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, a recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, as evidence of the potential of this approach. Other keys, Dallaire believes, lie broadly in raising public awareness around the globe to effect political action.

Though its literary merit doesn’t quite live up to the merits of the man who wrote it, They Fight Like Soldiers They Die Like Children is worth reading. On balance, the intellectual and emotional acuity of the nonfiction chapters survives the speed bumps of the fiction chapters to make a grave and insightful contribution to the growing body of literature on this nightmarish issue.

John Wilwol is a writer and teacher living in Washington, DC. His reviews have also appeared at the Rumpus and the Millions.

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