A book review for Peacehawks:
They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, by Senator Romeo Dallaire, Arrow Books, London, 2010 (307 pp, 12.07 LBS)

By Jamie Arbuckle


Canadian Senator and retired General Romeo Dallaire, the author of the best-selling Shake Hands With the Devil (Random House Canada, 2003), and the original commander of the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Rwanda in 1994, has written another book, just as timely, urgent and compelling as his first.  Peacehawks  thinks it important that we inform you of this book as quickly as we can – I finished reading it an hour ago.

My life and my career have been very short on living heroes: Robert Rogers died almost a century and a half, and T.E. Lawrence five years, before I was born; I was 22 years old when Dag Hammarskjold was killed, and 23 when JFK was assassinated; my father died when I was only 32.  I didn’t expect to have any more heroes in my direct experience of life.  But I have been rarely privileged to know, even briefly to work with, Romeo Dallaire, and he is every inch a hero for our so dusty, spiteful and divided time. I thought you needed to know my view of the author as you read this review.


Search as we may, there are no comprehensive or reliable figures for child soldiers around the world. The only reference to outside figures I have found on scores of websites is from Human Rights Watch, who estimate that there are  “hundreds of thousands” of child soldiers between the ages of 8 and 17 years old.[1]They are however ubiquitous in some of the most chaotic parts of the world, and they are in certain areas a major impediment to the peace process. They were perhaps at their worst in Sierra Leone in 2000, when a spate of pointless and random killings and kidnappings peaked with the taking of nearly 500 U.N. peacekeepers as hostages. I have written about that elsewhere in Peacehawks.[2]

Dallaire poses straight from the outset a quite arresting view of the child soldier: as a weapon system. The child soldier, he says, has several systemic advantages: he, or often she, is plentiful, inexpensive, easily disciplined, expendable and easily replaced. The child soldier is thus the obvious weapon of choice of those for whom violence and outrageous cruelty are their own ends.


The problems of child soldiers – the wanton cruelty of their recruiters and their “leaders”, the damage they do and which is done to them, the lengthy and fraught rehabilitation required for them – all this is clearly and succinctly set forth. To illustrate some of his points, Dallaire skillfully and movingly fictionalizes some encounters and episodes. So realistically and effectively is this done that I assume he was synthesizing actual cases, and he alludes to this;  such a section was “fictional, but all too real.”

Dallaire also states early and clearly in his book his dual aims: while he is deeply engaged in the rehabilitation of child soldiers, he quite sensibly insists that the real strategic aim must be to prevent the “system” from coming into being at all. “If it is possible to use the child as a weapon system …, it should be possible to decommission or neutralize that weapon system: to eradicate the use of child soldiers.”  That is setting his own bar quite high, and it needs to be said at the outset that this book doesn’t quite clear it.  I will come back to that.

Dallaire spends some pages analyzing one of the keys to the attractiveness of child soldiers: the proliferation of light weapons, cheap, simple and robust, just like good toys should be.  Most children could never have carried, let alone used the service rifle of most of my career. It is estimated that there are around the world today about 650 million of these smaller small arms, readily and inexpensively (AK 47s as low as $6) available to anyone with the means to buy them. Nearly all were produced in the developed nations, especially the Permanent Members of the Security Council (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China – the P5) and Germany, who the Carnegie Institute estimated (in 1997) to be the source of over 90% of the world’s conventional weapons production[3]. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute updates and confirms: from 2000-2010, the top six suppliers were the usual suspects: the P5 and Germany.[4] Thus, the Carnegie Institute, with figures from 1990-96, and SIPRI with figures from 2000-10, together establish a continuum over 20 years.  Dallaire says these same six nations now produce about 1 million small arms each year, and he calls small arms, rightly, “weapons of mass destruction.”

An attempt in 2006 in the General Assembly to introduce a treaty to ban all small arms, deliberately styled on the land mine ban and treaty, was quickly stalled: there were 24 abstentions, including Russia, China, Pakistan and India, and a “no” from the United States.[5] Thus measures to limit or even to discuss what must affect a major industry of each of the P5 states, may seem to have little chance to prevail and, if so, this is unlikely to change.

There is a reason for this.

Sometime late last century, there was a great slight-of-hand manouevre at the United Nations: the discussion was re-framed to focus on illicit arms transactions, which it was alleged amounted to about U$7 billion per year[6]; by contrast, the Carnegie Institute estimated the total small arms transfers in 1996 at more than three times that figure, over U$21 billion per year, and SIPRI’s figures for 2010 are about the same.  By thus finessing the issue, the Security Council has been able to line up solidly behind illicit transfers – the Security Council members are advocating an international crackdown on their competitors.  Catch–22, anyone?

But even this is only one half of the issue – the supply side of small arms. I return again to the question of demand – who uses these weapons to arm children?  Who is they? We need a typology of the “leadership” of children soldiers: who are they, what do they have in common, especially what weaknesses do they share and how are they commonly vulnerable. Especially as the supply side may be protected by a geo-political situation which they are able to dominate, there is all the more reason to focus on the demand for small arms for children – and, of course, for others.

Dallaire notes once again the familiar problem of the disconnect between the time frames of treating chronic and systemic problems, and the attention span of governments and the media and, of course, donors.  Especially in the post-conflict stage, when rehabilitation is both possible and urgent, “money follows interest, and interest is largely driven by media attention, which is more easily captured by the drama of conflict than by peace.”  With good reason the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre called its course on DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation) “The Long Road Home.”

So far, the book has been a skillful and eminently readable survey of a problem as awful as any plaguing the international community – as chronic, as cruel, as neglected and as seemingly intractable, but with the additional burden on fragile mechanisms of treatment, that it is visited on children by adults. But, as Dallaire himself admits, a particularly effecting passage on the horrors of the child soldiers is “in equal parts awful and self-evident” (page 179), by this point a view I was very reluctantly coming to hold of the book in general – we were in  the introduction promised more, a “so what” section, a  “way ahead”.

And here this excellent book just sort of dried up, and we cut to anodyne solutions to well established problems: communications (terrible, especially civil-military, but I wrote a whole book about that five years ago and, as Dallaire’s more recent experience attests, thereby changed absolutely nothing); political will  (see R2P); the use of force (inevitable say some, others hold all forms of force as reprehensible and a sign of failure); “neutrality” (considered indispensable by some, as a chimera and a blind alley by others; among the latter the writers of the Brahimi Report[7]).  In many of the many meetings Dallaire attended and chaired, it seemed that language was a key issue (the military unwilling to yield on the need for strong central authority in managing a multi-agency response to a complex humanitarian emergency, the NGOs resisting any use of the language of any form of senior management). The military terms “command and control” have admittedly become largely anachronistic; their replacements: coordination, cohesion, integration, cooperation are consensual rather than authoritarian, and may be too soft for a situation which is anything but.  It also seemed to me that Dallaire was not always meeting with actors at the right, and his own, level.

Dallaire eventually comes to R2P – the Responsibility to Protect.  I have written nearly all I have to say on that subject elsewhere on this site[8]. Suffice it for me here to say that, the Arab Spring and the British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 notwithstanding, international intervention, especially the non-consensual use of armed force, in the affairs of member states, no matter how miserably failed those “states” might be, is far from becoming a norm.

So I would like to offer Senator Dallaire two possible methods for the untying of some of the knots he seems to now face.

I have inferred from Dallaire’s language that he is often not meeting at the appropriate collegial level – one of his discussions concerned the use of the term “war game”, which was eventually re-titled “simulation exercise”.  Very well, but my first suggestion is that he might need to look up several levels from this sort of chat rooming to identify his real negotiating partners.  These would be the senior managers, military and civilian, who might more fundamentally and to more lasting effect lead the way to real solutions to the communications problems, which I have elsewhere suggested are really cultural problems. His descriptions of his meetings, which he sensibly abbreviates for us (“I am not going to recount here every step of the journey we’ve been on … Six years of meetings, conferences, round tables, war games, draft working documents, reviews of those drafts, and re-drafting.”),  are anguishing.  I think I spent most of the 90’s in meetings like this, then I spent the first five years of this century writing my book, and I can hardly bear to hear of similar crossed transactions still regularly occurring.

It seems to me that his military contacts should be with very senior defense department officials from troop contributing nations, in and out of uniform, either policy makers or very close to those who are. His civilian interlocutors ought to be from the senior ranks of the UN Secretariat, representatives of regional and sub-regional organizations, such as the AU and ECOWAS, as well as from the specialized agencies of the UN, from the EU and from major international organizations such as the Red Cross (ICRC). They would represent the strategic (diplomatic and political) level, and would have broad access across a considerable range of power structures,  nationally and internationally.

And just what is it Dallaire would want these senior policy bods to do? It’s a continuation by other means of the question I asked earlier: how do we “neutralize that system”?  Who recruits, arms, trains, employs, abuses the children? What can be done about them?  If it is the purveyors of the weapons, then the object might be to reverse the re-framing of the question  from the narrow focus on illicit transactions, to embrace consideration of all small arms and conventional weapons transfers, and let the vetoes fall where – and from whom – they may.  If it is the “host governments” who are to be targeted, this raises a whole other spectrum of targets, and possible actions to stop – whatever they are doing  in respect of child soldiers.  Of course, it’s probably all of the above.

My second suggestion concerns the need to isolate the conflict area. Whether it is the neighbours, a far-offshore great power, or a local (often illicit: diamonds, oil) source of support, the opponents of peace do not stand alone, and must be isolated. For example, Linda Melvern has described how, in 1993, Rwanda began to import “agricultural tools”, largely from China; this eventually provided a new machete for every third adult male in Rwanda. One of the poorest of African countries, from 1990-93 Rwanda was the third largest importer of weapons on the continent – the  source of the finances for this seems to have been unsupervised international funding, as the economy of Rwanda had since 1990 been in the hands of the IMF and the WB.[9]  So the poor just kept on getting poorer, until they were murdered by weapons purchased by their government with their money.

The external support for the governments of Sudan and of Zimbabwe has been well documented and the facts of this issue are not in dispute.

As the Brahimi Report has said:

would-be spoilers have the greatest incentive to defect from peace accords when they have an independent source of income that pays soldiers, buys guns, enriches faction leaders and may even have been the motive for war. … To counter … conflict-supporting neighbours, a peace operation will require the active political, logistical and/or military support of one or more great powers, or of major regional powers. The tougher the operation, the more important such backing becomes.[10]


This is an excellent book. As we might have expected from this author, it is on an urgent topic, it is clearly and compellingly written, and as we have long argued, there is just nothing wrong with an important book being a good read.

Dallaire takes a unique and arresting viewpoint when he posits the child soldier as a weapon system, and he gets our undivided attention when he details for us just how attractive that system can be.  He sets himself a very high goal when he announces that he aims in this book to show us how “it should be possible to decommission or neutralize that weapon system: to eradicate the use of child soldiers.”  He might well admit, without a trace of shame, that we are just not there yet.  Perhaps this book takes us several steps closer, and Senator Dallaire at any rate clearly deserves our unreserved admiration for his efforts.

There remain however some strategic issues which are not going to be easily or quickly resolved.

The civilian and military actors must grow into their 21st Century roles. They have bickered and indulged themselves in their narcissism of small differences for quite long enough.  Inter-agency cooperation must be initiated at a level that can compel compliance, and that will usually mean at the level which holds the purse strings.  This is probably not going to solve a lot of the major problems, but better coordination of the moving parts of an effort or a mission is important nevertheless.

The small arms epidemic is now about where the anti-landmine issue was over a decade ago, but small arms production (and, of course, sales) is a major undertaking of all permanent members of the Security Council, and they have been so for at least two decades.  Those who aid, and those who tolerate, such senseless cruelty as is described in this book should be named, even if they cannot be shamed, and that goes specifically for those who hide behind such semantic quibbles as whether a transaction was illicit or “legitimate”.

Conflict areas, and especially peace spoilers, must be isolated, but this also involves members of the P5, who will not be easy to discipline.  Here is where the demand and the supply sides of the equation meet, and here might be the focus of efforts: identify both halves, and prevent them from coming together.  As we say here at Peacehawks: “Whatever it takes!”

Read this book, and think for yourself, as we know you always do: “What can be done? How can it be done? And where am I in this?”

Some suggestions for further reading are at:

[1] See

[2] See Not by Doves but by Hawks: Peace gets a Chance in Sierra Leone, by Jamie Arbuckle,, 25 March 2010.

[3] Preventing Deadly Conflict: The Final Report, The Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, the Carnegie Commission of New York, New York, 2007, page 18.

[4] The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “TIV Arms Exports From the Top 10 Largest Exporters”, 12 September, 2011, file:///Users/jamesarbuckle/Documents/Peacehawks/Child%20Soldiers/SIPRI%20Top%2010%20for%2010%20years.webarchive

[5] The Africa Europe Faith and Justice Network Journal, “Small Arms – the World’s Favourite Weapon of Mass Destruction”, by Hugh McCullum, 2006.

[6], Security Council S2011 255, 5 April  2011

[7]  Popularly known and referred to as the Brahimi Report: “50. Impartiality for such operations must therefore mean adherence to the principles of the Charter and to the objectives of a mandate that is rooted in those Charter principles. Such impartiality is not the same as neutrality or equal treatment of all parties in all cases for all time, which can amount to a policy of appeasement.”

[8] See “R2P vs State Sovereignty: The Last Refuge of Scoundrels”, by Jamie Arbuckle (presentation to Canadian Studies Centre Symposium, the University of Innsbruck,12 November 2009)

[9] Melvern, Linda,  Conspiracy to Murder, the Rwandan Genocide,  Verso, London and New York, 2004, pp. 56-7

[10] Brahimi, op.cit. Italics added.

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