Krista Thomason on Child Soldiers and Moral Responsibility
It is common to think that child soldiers cannot be morally responsible for the violence they commit; not only are they underage, they typically are forced to join paramilitary units, they suffer psychological and physical abuse, and they participate in combat only under threat of harm or death. Yet when first-person accounts of former child soldiers are examined, we find that they see themselves as responsible for their actions. It is tempting to think that their feelings are simply misguided or a result of their trauma.
In a talk this spring, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Krista Thomason argues to the contrary that child soldiers, like adult ex-combat soldiers, suffer moral injury and their feelings of responsibility are part of the process of redrawing the boundaries of their moral selves.
Presenter: And today I have the great honor of presenting my colleague in the Philosophy Department, Krista Thomason. She is ... been a wonderful addition to our department. She got her Ph.D. at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her areas of specialty are moral philosophy, Kant's moral philosophy, and social and political philosophy, but just to give you a hint of the range that she's brought to the college, she also teaches courses in human rights and atrocities, ethics and economics, bioethics, and other things, I won't go on.
She's published essays in journals like the Kantian Review, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, An Ethical Theory in Moral Practice, just to name some. And, just this year, hot off the presses of Oxford University Press, is her new book Naked: The Dark Side of Shame and Moral Life. In the words of one of her reviewers, "This is an elegant and original account of shame with a strikingly explanatory power. Thomason shows with style how even the darkest of shame have and deserve a place in our moral life."
Today the title of her talk is "Child Soldiers and Moral Responsibility." I hand it now over to Krista Thomason.
Krista Thomason: Alright, thank you very much to everybody for coming today. I am going to wander around a bit. As Tamsin Lorraine said, and thank you very much for that lovely introduction, the title of my talk is "Child Soldiers and Moral Responsibility." Before I get started on the content, you guys know this is my post-sabbatical research talk, so I thought maybe what I would start with is questions about maybe answering little bit about to be on sabbatical, just in case anybody needs to know.
So I used ... when I wrote my paragraph for- this is not me, FYI ... when I wrote my paragraph for the Lang fellowship to sort of say a little bit about what I did, I decided to try to illustrate this with a water sports metaphor, and so I thought I would use the same thing for you guys today. So, you know that what we know as faculty, we're doing research all the time. We're doing research even when we're teaching, even when we're doing community work, even when we're doing all sorts of other stuff. I like to think of that kind of research as, sort of, like snorkeling. It's cool, it's fun, you can see a lot of great things, but you're always staying a little bit close to the surface because you have so many other things that you're trying to do.
Sabbatical, on the other hand, is like deep-sea diving. There's cool stuff that you can see when you're snorkeling, but there's even cooler stuff that you can see when you're deep-sea diving, and there's only going to be certain things that you can see when you have that chance to be fully immersed in what you're doing. I think of sabbatical as having the opportunity to do deep-sea diving into our research. That's what I got to do while I was on sabbatical and it was great. So, how great is sabbatical? Really great, as it turns out. Why is it really great? Because you get a lot of stuff done when you're not teaching and you're not doing community stuff. Look at all the things I did, I finished my book, as Tamsin said, yay that was really wonderful. I'm really proud of the cover, I like to put that on there for you.
I also did other stuff. I revised three articles, I wrote two conference papers, I wrote two book reviews, I wrote a magazine article, I edited a special volume, and I attended conferences. That's all the things you can do when you have teaching and community work off your plate. It's kind of amazing.
I'm going to steal a slide from somebody who when he did his post sabbatical talk, he did this too ... you also get to do other things, life things, that sometimes you don't always have the opportunity to do when you're busy with other stuff. I took a vacation! What? An actual vacation where I didn't have to work or anything? I visited friends and family. I took up kickboxing! If you're looking for a great kickboxing gym, Palangi Plus in Morton is fantastic, you should go. So, thank you, thank you, thank you very much to the Provost's office and to the Lang family for their generous support that allowed me to do all this wonderful stuff while I was on sabbatical.
I want to talk a little bit about the research that gives rise to this talk, okay? So, one of the reasons that I picked this talk is because, for me, this is a really great example of ... a good Swarthmore story, as I like to call it. The first piece that I ever wrote about child soldiers appears in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, which is a very standard, very good philosophy journal in ethics. So, that's kind of standard fare for philosophers, we publish in philosophy journals, that's the kind of thing we do. But, the hidden feature behind this paper is that is actually arose out of a class that I was teaching.
So, Tamsin mentioned my Human Rights and Atrocities course. Several semesters ago, when I taught that class, we watched film in there called The Flute Player, which I'll talk about a little bit later, in the talk. Out of my discussion I had with my class, I started formulating this philosophical question about this guilt the child soldiers seemed to feel, and what to do about that. So, it was from that conversation that I had with my class about that film that I ended up working on this paper, writing this paper, and publishing this paper.
It's thanks to this paper that I got invited to do an article for the Critique Magazine. The Critique Magazine is a kind of intellectually-aimed magazine, it was a special issue they had done on philosophical issues surrounding Africa, and I was contacted by the editor and invited to do an article on child soldiers for that piece. So, it's because of that regular old philosophy work that I got something that's a little bit more publicly oriented. From that, I was invited to be a guest editor for Essays in Philosophy on a volume on world psychology and war.
Thanks to that I was ... Kohl library put out a call for people who could possibly contribute to their summer reading series, and one of the books that they were reading is A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, who I'm going to talk about also in the talk. So, I went and gave a public lecture at Kohl library over the summer.
Lots of different pieces of my research were all related to the same topic, so a lot of what you'll see in the talk is from all of these different sources, I'm pulling from all these different things.
Let's talk about child soldiers first. So, the title of the talk is Child Soldiers and Moral Responsibility, being a good philosopher that I am, I've got to define my terms. So, we're going to talk about child soldiers first, then I'm going to tell you about moral responsibility, then we'll combine the two.
Let's talk about child soldiers. Here's a real challenge, when you talk about child soldiers. I'm going to call it "the challenge of images." I'm going to show you a photo, and then I'm going to talk about why it's a little bit problematic that I'm showing you this photo, and why it's a little bit problematic that I'm going to show you other photos, but how I think it's also kind of important that I show you these other photos.
So here's the photo. This is, I take it, the stereotypical image that people have when they think of child soldiers, right? Dark skinned boys, in fatigues, with guns that are almost as tall as they are. This is a very classic, UNICEF uses this photo, a lot of people use this photo. The problem with this photo is that one, there's a sense in which you can be sort of exploited, because these are minors. There's a sense in which it can both illustrate but also perpetuate a stereotype, and that's an issue, that's something that I want to talk about later.
One of the challenges when you're talking about child soldiers is to try to do your best to kind of disrupt the sort of narrative about who child soldiers are. In part, because I'm interested in the complexity of their stories, and if we're only paying attention to one subset, then I think we are not doing justice to that thing that I want to do justice to, which is the complexity of their lives.
I wanted to talk about this in more detail in the article that I wrote for The Critique magazine. So, I started off my piece in that magazine with this sentence, forgive me for the giant text, "The stereotypical image of the child soldier is a dark skinned boy in military fatigues, holding an assault rifle. He's presumed to be African. Whether he's from Sierra Leone, South Sudan, or Somalia typically doesn't enter into the Western imagination. The fact that this image is the one most often associate with child soldiers both originates from, and perpetuates the vision of Africa as one dark blob of violence, instead of a continent of 54 countries, each with a unique history and culture."
Something I wanted to pay close attention to. What do you suppose they used as the photo in the magazine? Yeah. That one. So, again, kind of a problem, right? On the one hand, yes, I'm talking about the stereotype, and on the one hand I want to illustrate that, so again, not my choice. On the other hand, I kind of would have preferred maybe a different photo, obviously. Little bit of trouble.
So one of the things I'm going to do through the rest of the talk is include some photos that are non-standard, that don't look like this, of child soldiers. In part, to point out this issue with this overly simplistic narrative that we have about child soldiers.
So, are there child soldiers in Africa? Yes, of course there are child soldiers in Africa. It is not as though that is not a problem. Here are all of the countries where, and this is drawing on the UN report from 2016 where there had been confirmed reports of children being conscripted into conflicts. So, yes. Is that a problem? Yes. Are there countries in Africa with child soldiers? Yes. But, there are a lot of other countries that have child soldiers also. So again, from the same UN report, we have all of these different countries that also have child soldiers. So, again, don't want to get the idea that somehow this is a problem that's unique to countries in Africa.
Alright, so, I've told you a little bit about child soldiers, now let me tell you a little bit about moral responsibility. Doing some good old philosophy stuff here.
There are actually two different senses of moral responsibility, when we're thinking about moral responsibility, at least philosophers like to identify two of them, at least two. There's what we might call "being responsible," and there's what we might call "holding responsible." Those are two different things. Let me go over a little bit about what those are.
Being responsible. This one, I think, is the more familiar one for people. If you're familiar at all with the the mens rea standard in law, then it's usually sort of along those same kind of lines. The idea that somebody knows what they're doing when they're doing it, and is in some sort of control of their actions. That tends to be a kind of feature of when we think people are responsible for things.
The ability to do otherwise is something that philosophers in particular have made a big deal about, so you're responsible for your actions when you could have chosen not to do that thing. Typically, although not always, when we're thinking about the sense of being responsible, we're often thinking of it from the third-person point of view. So, we're looking at somebody from an outside-observer perspective and we're trying to say "Is that person responsible for her actions?"
There's another sense, though, and moral psychologists, which is my area, have made a bigger deal, I think, out of this one: Holding responsible. Holding responsible is actually to see someone as open to evaluation or criticism for their actions. This typically involves attitudes like blame or resentment, those are the two that philosophers usually pick on, from others, or if you're thinking about your own actions, guilt, typically. You see yourself as open to certain kinds of evaluation, particularly if you've done something wrong, although, holding responsible doesn't just have to be when you do something wrong. You can also hold responsible for doing something good, right? So that would engender attitudes like gratitude for people, or something like that.
Typically this takes place in what, again, philosophers call the second-person point of view. Not from a kind of observational perspective, but from a participant perspective, where we're in kind of interpersonal relationships with one another, so you hold your friends and family responsible for what they do, that sort of thing, because it's about attitudes and how you express stuff.
Being versus holding. Sometimes these things go together because you can imagine a situation, and we typically do, where if somebody is not responsible in the first sense, being responsible, then we typically don't think of them as open to various kinds of evaluation or evaluative attitudes like blame or resentment. So, if you weren't in control of your actions, you didn't know what you were doing, often times we then don't blame you. We're not angry at you. We don't hold you responsible in the second sense. But, there are a few philosophers who argued, and I think they're right, that actually these two things can come apart in some cases. So, I'm talking about Angela Smith and George Sher here.
Smith's example is: suppose you have a friend who's going through a really stressful time in their lives, and they lash out at you. They snap at you, they're short with you, they're impatient with you. You might think that they're responsible for their actions, it's not ... they have the mens rea, they sort of have a sense of what they're doing, so you think that they're responsible in that first sense, but you might decide, given everything that's going on, it would be more charitable or forgiving of you to not blame them, not resent them for that.
In that sense, being and holding tend to come apart in these kinds of cases. Sher's case is interesting and even a little more challenging, maybe. Think about something like a character trait. Imagine you know somebody who's selfish. You don't know anybody who's selfish, of course, okay, I'm joking. Everybody knows somebody who's selfish, right?
You know people who are selfish, and you might think of them as, you might hold them responsible for being selfish, especially when they act in selfish ways. When they don't do what they're supposed to, or something like that, don't hold up their end of the bargain. But, would it be true to say, because you hold them responsible for that, would it be true to say that at every point in their life they've been in control of the possibility of developing the character trait of being selfish?
Sher, and I think he's right about that, thinks this a little bit too much. Our lives are very long, the way in which we develop character traits is not always obvious. It's not clear what kinds of things happen to us versus what actions we take make us the kinds of people that we are. So, here's a case where maybe we're actually not necessarily at every moment in control of becoming a selfish person, and yet, we still blame people for being selfish anyway. All that's to say, maybe being and holding responsible can come apart in important and interesting ways that it's good to pay attention to.
So, I've told you a little bit about who child soldiers are, told you a little bit about what moral responsibility is, now let's ask the question: Are child soldiers responsible in either sense? Let's start with the first one, let's start with being responsible.
From the National Archives, again, disrupting that sort of narrative about who child soldiers are. As I said, it's important to remember, there's no one singular experience of what it is to be a child soldier. There are male child soldiers, there are female child soldiers, there are child soldiers ages anywhere from five to 17. They are all over the country in various kinds of regions in the world. Some of them are conscripted into conflict, some of them volunteer for conflict. Some of them see combat, some of them never see combat. Some of them are in sexual slavery, some of them are just in reconnaissance roles or something like that.
The experience is really varied. What I'm going to do is focus on the core aspects of child soldiering that make it really difficult for questions of responsibility. And these are, I think, some of the stereotypical ones.
We think they don't have the mens rea. In part, because we think they're too young, oftentimes. So we don't hold children under the age of 18, at least in the U.S., legally responsible for certain things, why hold them morally responsible for certain things, if they're too young? Oftentimes they are coerced or kidnapped, this is not uncommon at all, for child soldiers to be conscripted into conflict in this way. Rebel forces come into your village, destroy your village, kill your family, and then conscript you into conflict. That's a really common experience for child soldiers. Looks like that's got to rule out responsibility in that first sense.
Oftentimes during combat, during the conscription part, they are drugged. For example, child soldiers in Sierra Leone had what was called brown-brown, which is a mix of heroin and gunpowder, stitched into gashes in their foreheads, so it would get them high, and then they were unable to wipe the drugs out of the gash because the gash was then stitched up. This was, again, feeding the children drugs or alcohol, violent movies, pornography, all really common in child soldiering experiences.
Again, when we think of normal people outside child soldier context who are drugged, we typically don't think they meet mens rea standards. So, again, probably not. They're threatened. Usually while they're in the armed groups, they're often threatened with death, severe beatings, if they disobey, if they try to escape. It's often the case that they are initiate into the rebel groups with a certain kind of violent ritual so new child soldiers who are recently kidnapped will be forced to execute villagers that have been kidnapped.
Any child soldier who is caught disobeying or caught trying to escape will oftentimes be beaten in front of other child soldiers, if not killed in front of other child soldiers. So, all of this is pointing to, look, anybody else under these conditions we would clearly say they can't be responsible for what they do.
How about holding responsible? Then again, disrupting that narrative. If they don't meet mens rea, this looks like a case where being responsible and holding responsible standard fall together. It seems really weird to suggest that if they don't meet the first definition, that somehow we them as open to criticism. But even more so than that, look we've been through severe hardships, I mean, these are all incredibly traumatizing experiences. How could we think of ourselves as licensed to hold them responsible? Doesn't that just seem incredibly, excessively cruel and hard-hearted? To sort of blame or see them as open to evaluation in these ways. Look, at the end of the day, they're just kids. Just traumatized kids, so what should we do?
Gosh, that was a short talk, right? They're not responsible in the first sense, they're not responsible in the second sense. Why aren't we done? There's more to it, I think, than that. So, here's where I'm going to talk about what I'm going to call the "moral complexity" of the situation.
When you actually look as first-person narratives, and that's something that, in my own work, I think is really important. I think philosophers generally oftentimes think this is an important thing to do. We think of the phenomenological aspect of people's experiences is incredibly important, their first-person experience is incredibly important, and we like to theorize about those things.
How do child soldiers feel about themselves? I'm going to give you several examples. This is The Flute Player, I mentioned earlier, this is the film that inspired that first paper that I was telling you about that came out of a discussion in my class. There's this guy named Arn Chorn-Pond who was a child soldier during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia and The Flute player is about him.
It's about him trying to reclaim the traditional music in Cambodia, as a way of kind of healing in some sense, after his time in the Khmer Rouge, but also as a way of kind of preserving his culture. In the film there's this really incredibly powerful moment and I was going to show you a clip, but the link died, so I can't do that. So, I'm going to tell you what he says. There's this really beautiful and incredible moment where he is visiting the killing fields in Cambodia, having gone back there after having been there as a child soldier. It's a moving and difficult scene, and there, he describes the things that he was made to do as a member of the Khmer Rouge.
One of the things that he had to do was help with executions. He had to strip the victims of their clothing, because the clothing would be reused, before the victims were bayoneted and then executed. He talks about how while he's trying to remove the clothing of the victims, he could feel them kicking him, fighting back against him. He can remember that, so he talks about those moments. At the end of it, he's standing in front of this one monument in the killing fields, and he says "I continue to think that inside of me, I'm a perpetrator and a victim, and that, inside me, I'm never ... I've never thought I'm a good person. I always think I'm a bad kid, and a bad person."
In addition to Arn's experience, he goes and visits another former child soldier who is also in the same situation he was, and they have this conversation about what they did, and the other child soldier expresses the exact same sentiments, "I feel remorse, I feel guilt. There's a lot of shame involved in what I've done." There are several interviews from an Alcinda Honwana book Child Soldiers in Africa where she interviews child soldiers who were involved in the wars in Zimbabwe and Angola.
This drawing is actually a drawing by Solomon, a former child soldier, through an art therapy program that UNICEF was doing. Again, a couple selections.
"What I think of all this, namely the killing that had happened before, my heart beats and becomes very sore and I'm unable to sleep at night."
"I didn't like killing innocent people, I was very sad to witness and be a part of that."
"It was very hard to kill and look at the dead bodies."
"The spirit of those I killed in war are haunting me and making me ill."
Ishmael Beah from A Long Way Gone, this was the flyer for the talk that I did on this one. "The more I speak about my experiences, the more I begin to cringe at the gruesome details," this is Ishmael talking about learning how to remember the things he did as a child soldier, after he is in the Benin Home, which is kind of like a halfway house or recovery house for child soldiers. But then more he says, "I hated the 'it's not your fault' line that the staff members said every time anyone spoke about the war." So, this is something that I'll come back to, but the refrain "it's not your fault, it's not your fault" is something that the staff members tell he and his other former child soldiers over, and over, and over again, and they oftentimes get very angry about it, so we're going to talk about that a little bit later.
What does this tell us? Here's me, as a researcher, faced with these two different things. My conceptual tools of philosophy are telling me, that under no definition of responsibility can child soldiers be responsible, and yet, when I read their first-hand accounts, and their memoirs, and their notes about themselves, they seem to see themselves as responsible. They express feelings of remorse. They express feelings of guilt. They express feelings of shame, and sadness, and disappointment in themselves.
So, what do we do, in that case? I think there are some tempting responses, and I'm going to try to argue against these. "Look, they're just traumatized. They're just deeply traumatized, they've had really difficult lives, what do you expect."
"These feelings are irrational somehow, they're just misguided in what they feel."
"They shouldn't feel this way. They shouldn't feel that they had no choice."
"We just really don't want them to feel bad about themselves because we think they've been through enough."
This, I think, is a rhetoric that has kind of dominated, particularly in NGOs and non-profit groups that try to help child soldiers.
This is a poster from UNICEF campaign, which has done a lot of work in helping former child soldiers, they use the hashtag "Children Not Soldiers."
So, you can see, here's this little boy in these very realistic combat boots, and very realistic hat, but the idea is, you're supposed to be seeing them in a certain way. You're supposed to be seeing them as just children, not soldiers. I think that rhetoric is, although powerful, ultimately misguided.
Trauma, let's talk about trauma a little bit, and the limits of PTSD. So, I'm borrowing, this talk is interdisciplinary, I'm borrowing from a lot of my friends from a lot of different places. A lot of philosophers, psychologists, folks who work on child soldiers, have brought up this issue about what we might think of as the limits of PTSD. There are ways in which PTSD is helpful, because is it the case that child soldiers develop PTSD? Sure. Of course they do. Is it helpful to think of them as just traumatized children? Maybe not, maybe not.
You have, first of all, that obscures other factors that might play a huge role in their lives after being in combat. They face poverty, they face lack of employment oftentimes. Oftentimes it's incredibly isolating because they can't return to the communities that they were once a part of, because their communities know that they were child soldiers and they don't want to welcome them back, because they know all the terrible things that they've done. So, that's really difficult.
The label PTSD, again, I'm borrowing from a lot of this literature, the label PTSD can be sort of a one-size-fits-all sort of approach, and oftentimes, there's a bit of a down side in that that approach is really popular with NGOs and with donors to NGOs. What ends up happening is donors who want to give money to NGOs to help out child soldiers in recovering will give money to programs that work on things like trauma therapy and that sort of thing, when, sometimes, the child soldiers might get more out of more traditional approaches, so Honwana, for example, talks about traditional cleansing rituals in Angola that were incredibly helpful to some of the child soldiers, not all, of course.
That sort of approach is oftentimes not seen as real, or not seen as actually helping, because it's not medicalized, or it's not taking place through this particular sort of lens. So, there's a way that in which that can be a little bit limiting.
Some of the psychologists have pointed out, I'll leave it to the psychologist in the room to tell me if this is convincing, that the PTSD model is usually built more on victims of violence, rather than perpetrators of violence, so there are some people who have expressed doubt that those theoretical models can sort of map very neatly on to people who are actually perpetrators, or and victims, rather than just victims.
There are limits, in other words, to this label of trauma. What about their feelings being irrational? So now, we're squarely in my territory with moral psychology and moral emotions. Okay, well. We have to think about what makes feeling irrational in the first place. Here's a kind of common possibility, false beliefs. I'm hiking in the woods, and I think I see a snake, and I scream and I go "Oh my God it's a snake!" Turns out, it's just a stick. My fears, in some sense, are rational. Maybe a small sense, maybe a likely criticizable sense, but it's irrational in some sense because my beliefs are false. I thought I saw a snake, turns out, there's no snake.
But here's the thing. Child soldiers actually don't ... we typically think their false beliefs might be ... they have false beliefs about their own control over the situation. They thought that they could have done otherwise. They thought they were in more control, but they weren't. That doesn't match up with their first-person experiences. They actually know, quite reflectively, that they had no choice. That what they were doing, they were just doing to survive.
In fact, Arn, and his fellow child soldier in the film The Flute Player, had the extensive conversation about the fact that they were thrown into it, they were kidnapped, they had no choice, they were doing what they had to do to survive. And, on the heels of that conversation, they then say, "And I feel so guilty," and "I have so much remorse over doing the things that I did." Those kinds of ... it looks like those false beliefs aren't there. They know. They know that they were conscripted. And yet, somehow, that doesn't inoculate them against these feelings of guilt.
"They didn't do anything wrong." But they did, And they know that. They did bad things, very bad things. They killed people. Sometimes they killed people who they think of as enemies. Sometimes they kill innocent people, and they know that. Sometimes they do it for fun. They have those experiences, so, it's false. It's false to say that they didn't do anything wrong.
"No control." Again, back to being and holding responsible, is it always the case that control has to be present for us to feel guilty about something? Probably not. So, again, I'm going back to one of Smith's examples, talk about forgetfulness. I forget my very best friend's birthday, because it just happens to be around a really stressful time in the semester. Did I try to forget? Did I intend to forget? Was I in control of forgetting? No, because if I was, I probably wouldn't have forgotten. And yet, I can feel really guilty. And, she can be mad at me. And she might be right to be mad at me, even though I didn't try, or intend, or mean to forget. Control is not always a precondition for feeling guilty.
How about no choice? "C'mon, they had no choice. They were conscripted, they were threatened." More from the UNICEF campaign. It's common to see child soldiers as lacking mens rea, and I think the parents in the room are going to sort of agree with me here. It's a little bit more complicated than that. Do we always treat our children as though they lack agency? Even though we don't hold them responsible in the same adult sense? Parents in the room know this is false, it's got to be.
Hello. They're not a brainwashed robots. And this is, again, I'm borrowing from other folks who have done research on this, too. They're just not. It would be false to suggest that that was the case. They don't behave in those ways. They exercise what Honwana calls "tactical agency," if nothing else. They're strategic about the kind of things that they do, and the ways that they adopt their situation. They try to do jobs well to win favor. And, when favor sometimes just means "safety." But, they do that, intentionally. They help each other in clandestine ways. So, one of the things that commonly happens with child soldiers is that they take on new identities when they are conscripted into combat. They're given new names, oftentimes they're really militaristic themes, so like Rambo was a really popular one.
They're not supposed to be acknowleging anything that happened in their previous life, but, if they happen to meet somebody who they knew in their previous life, oftentimes what they'll do is try to sort of protect that person, in ways that they know how. In secret sort of ways. They remember that. They see themselves as skilled fighters, they're proud of themselves for the things that they've managed to accomplish when they're part of the conflict, when they're part of the combat. So, it's more complicated than we think.
I think we need to rethink this. I think we need to rethink what we're talking about when think of child soldiers and moral responsibility. I'm going to start with a story from A Long Way Gone, from Ishmael, and we're going to try to use that story as an anchor point to see if we can figure out what's going on here.
So, there's this moment- this is Ishmael, at post child soldier ... there's this moment in the book, so, later later, after Ishmael has been at the Banin Home for a while. He has stopped lashing out, he is off the drugs that he was on when he was in combat. He's starting to heal, both from his physical wounds and also from his psychological wounds. He tells this story to Esther, so Esther has been pestering him- Esther's his nurse ... she's pestering him, asking him about a lot of his scars. He has a scar on his foot, and so she asks him about the scar on his foot and he tells her this story that he was on a mission with his team at one point, and they ran into fighters from the Armed Forces, and the Armed Forces shot him in the foot.
He lives, obviously, and heals his foot. Later on, several days later, the team comes across this same group of people from the Armed Forces, and this time, his team wins, and they take those soldiers hostage. Ishmael shoots every single one of them in the foot, and then executes them. He shoots them in the foot as an act of revenge. And, Esther's response to him is, "none of what happened was your fault. You were just a little boy." And Ishmael is angry at her response. He says "I became angry, and regretted that I told someone, a civilian, about my experience. I hated the 'it's not your fault' line from all of the staff members, that all the staff members said every time we spoke about the war."
He mad, and he feels hurt, and the question for me is, why? I think he feels hurt because he doesn't feel listened to. I think he is trying to tell Esther about some part of his experience that he sees as salient and important, and she's very well intentioned and well meaning, but she's only paying attention to one small sliver of his experience, and that's him as a victim, and that's where you see the UNICEF campaign, that's where you see the "it's not your fault," line that you see at the Benin Home.
The problem is, Ishmael might see himself as a victim, but he also sees himself as a soldier. He sees himself as having done really terrible things, and in that moment of opening up to Esther, I think he's trying to come to terms with that. In the same way that you and I would try to come to terms with something really terrible that we've done.
Telling him "you're not responsible," simply dismisses what I think is this incredibly important self-reflection, actually, that he's trying to do. So what I want to try to do is spell out, a little bit more, that self-reflection. So, how do I do that? I borrow some help from a couple of other folks who have been doing this work with ex combat soldiers. Adult ex combat soldiers. This is Jonathan Shay on top, and this is Nancy Sherman on the bottom.
Nancy Sherman's a philosopher, Jonathan Shay is a psychologist. Both of them have been working on the moral aspect of combat soldiers. What it's like to go through combat, and how that damages or affects your moral character. Not just your psychological character, but your moral character. They share some of the same experiences, so I think let's borrow some help from people who have been working on this, to see if we can't make more sense of what's going on with child soldiers if we think of them as combat soldiers.
Nancy Sherman has this idea of what she calls "moral dislocation." The basics of moral dislocation is that you end up, because of the situation that your in, you're sort of standing apart from what we would think of as the common, standard, moral world that the rest of us share. And, she thinks combat soldiers experience moral dislocation. So, combat and conflict are incredibly morally disorienting. The rules are very much different, you're surrounded by death all of the time. You're surrounded by violence all the time. You're expected to respond in ways in combat that you would never respond outside of combat. That's morally disorienting for combat soldiers.
After combat and conflict, combat soldiers have to go through this process of kind of morally reorienting themselves, what we might think of as rejoining the community that they left, the moral community that they left. This is a photo of Major Corporal Chris McNair, there was a program that, I forget who it was that did this program, but it was a mask making exercise with former combat soldiers. They made these various paper mache masks as a way of representing to themselves the things that they had gone through in combat. So here's Chris McNair with his mask up here.
These feelings of responsibility that I've been talking about, that child soldiers seem to have, that family of guilt and shame and remorse, I don't think they're irrational, and I don't think they're damaging. I think what they are is part of that moral reorientation process. That's them sorting out the experiences that they had, and trying to make sense of those things. Just like ex combat soldiers, I think they're reflecting on their moral selves and their moral identities. They're trying to figure out who they are, morally, now that they've done all of these terrible things, and endured all of these terrible things.
Who are they? And, well meaning outsiders might be really trying to be compassionate in telling them that it's not their fault, but I think what they are doing is trying to convince them that their feelings are mistaken, and, actually, that's not helping them. That's not helping them go through this process that they need to go through, of trying to reorient themselves morally. So, these feelings, and this is what I argue in the first paper, these feelings might actually be really central to self forgiveness, because they might need to see themselves as moral agents just like you and me, in order to forgive themselves, and come to terms with the kinds of things that they've done.
What does that mean? I'm going to take a line from Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam. "Before analyzing, before classifying, before thinking. Before trying to do anything, we should listen." Maybe that's what we should do for child soldiers as well.
That's it. References. Thank you.