We are often told that we have a lot to thank the Greeks for; they were the fathers of democracy, liberty, theatre, literature, physics, maths, astronomy and philosophy.
They may not have spilled so much foreign blood as the Caesars or the Khans and their leadership and governance may not have spread so far as the Persian or British Empires, but within their historic culture lies the blueprint for all modern society. Even in Italy, their Roman rivals followed the course of civilisation that they had begun. Today we thank Ancient Greece for the Olympics, for deep thinking, for the stage and for science. But we should also thank them, in part, for warfare.
Ancient Greece was not always the unified country that it is today; instead it was a group of City States that each vied for cultural, economic and societal domination. Athens, Corinth, Macedon and Sparta all played a part in forging the history of the Mediterranean – but is mainly in the latter, in Ancient Sparta, that we can find the first ingredients of civilised, organised, brutal war. You might recognise the title of this piece from Zack Snyder’s modern classic, 300; you might recognise and assume that it was Hollywood’s way of crafting a dialogue with guts – but no; King Leonidas of Sparta really did tell the Persians to Come and take them!
…Spartans can best attribute their military prowess to is Agoge…
ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ – the inscription of the same words that will forever be chiselled into the monument to the Spartan king; forever his stone likeness will look down upon the field of Thermopylae where he lost his life. Perhaps the practise that the Spartans can best attribute their military prowess to is Agoge – coincidentally enough, King Leonidas was one of very few Spartan leaders who had himself gone through the trying and often deadly process. Agoge was the traditional Spartan preparation for those eligible to partake; through Agoge, young Spartan boys were trained for their lives as full members of the City State of Sparta.
Stealth, loyalty, pain tolerance, hunting, communicating and everything else that would make them into the perfect soldiers formed the syllabus of their education – the ancient city of Sparta had no walls, because the young men who undertook Agoge were better than any mix of stone and mortar. From the age of twelve until twenty-nine, the young men and boys of Sparta were trained constantly, turning them from raw recruits into the fearsome Hoplites that so epitomise the Ancient Greek armies.
…it was an opportunity for wealth…
The selection process was simple – military forces would raid villages and small towns; they would capture children, often forcing them to kill their own families as an early method of indoctrination. Of course, some would join almost willingly – joining the military force provided many of them with an education that had been otherwise available, for many it was an opportunity for wealth, an opportunity to escape the meagre wealth and poverty of their erstwhile home. Following their selection, training included, amongst other things, being taught how to mutilate their enemies. As groups the children were taught how they could collectively force their foes to the ground and, from there, remove limbs.
Of course, such a brutal selection and training process was not without psychological consequence. The effect was such that many of the children experienced traumatic flashbacks, particularly of the killing of their family; many suffered from nightmares, anger, depression and deep seated guilt. Additionally, many of the children were branded, leaving with them a constant reminder of the life that they had once been a part of.
…they took children willingly from the arms of their mothers and fathers…
Now, the processes listed in the previous two paragraphs may read like an antiquated and inhumane process, but in those last two paragraphs lays the indoctrination and training programme of only the last two decades. Spartans did not raid villages and towns for their recruits; they took children willingly from the arms of their mothers and fathers. And so the joining of children into warfare might sound like some sort of Spartan legacy, a mythological practise banished to the pages of history, but such was the practise during the Sierra Leone Civil War between 1991 and 2001. Contrary to our modern sensibilities, child soldiering is not as seldom as we might hope.
To date, there is an estimated three-hundred-thousand child soldiers active in at least twenty countries. Around forty per cent of those active child soldiers are in fact female, young girls enslaved and often sold into sexual slavery. The unfortunate fact is that child soldiering is a loose, umbrella term for a much larger catalogue of child abuse – rape, murder, mutilation, robbery and any number of other crimes is all a constant and vulgar part of child soldiering.
…they cost less to feed, pay and clothe…
As we might expect, child soldiering is primarily, although not exclusively, maintained within the poorer countries and weaker governed states. Across the African continent and across the Middle-East, in Nepal and Sri Lanka, India and Burma; children are taking from their homes and used for evil men’s devices. Of course there are several reasons that can be attributed to this wide reaching and vicious problem – children are easily manipulated, they are easy to come by and capture in countries already hosting a depleted adult population, they cost less to feed, pay and clothe, and within the increasing trade of small arms they have become easier and easier to outfit for violence. Finally, and to me perhaps most disgustingly, children are used because they are without the fully developed sense for danger that so afflicts the adult population – it is a child’s innocence and naivety to violence that makes them perfect for the warfare in which they are trapped. It is their innocence, the fundamental trait that so many fight to protect, that makes such easy targets for the paramilitary groups that take them hostage.
In recent years there has been one name in particular that has become unanimous with child soldiering; a film made about him by Invisible Children, Inc. led a 2012 campaign that, for a short time, was an international phenomena. Joseph Kony, a Ugandan warlord and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army has been in the last decades responsible for the taking of nearly sixty-six thousand children into child soldiering or slavery within his native Uganda and in the Sudanese regions of Africa. It is unfortunate that a man like him can evade justice, but to this day and even following his massive international exposure, Joseph Kony remains at the top of most wanted lists the world over, and children continue to suffer at his hands.
…Will a child robbed of his innocence be happy to fight…
Having read what you have so far then it may strike strange that I chose to compare modern child soldiering with the Spartan process of Agoge. But it is in several fundamental differences that I would like to outline my point. Child soldiering, in one form or another, is an age old practise that predates historical records. But we must wonder as to the minds of the children trapped within it. In Ancient Sparta boys would be trained to kill alongside their brothers in arms, they would learn to fight and to maim for the glory of great Sparta. Spartan boys would have been proud to defend their city walls – would have been proud to lay down their lives in war – would have been proud to kill for their families and for their King. Will a child taken hostage and forced to kill his own family be instilled with this same honour and pride? Will a child forced to burn his own village be happy following the warlord who ordered him to do so? Will a child robbed of his innocence be happy to fight for a cause that is not his own choosing?
We thank Ancient Greece for the societal blueprint that they set down in their cities; and I should say that it would be unfair of me to say that child soldiering is a result of their own practise of Agoge. A Spartan boy would fight, a Spartan boy would follow his King, a Spartan boy would respect the possibility of death. I could not say with any certainty at all that in Sierra Leone there were young boys, soldiers that respected their hidden warlord, I cannot say that they wanted to kill. All I can say is that there was, and still are, men and women who are happy to hide behind the most terrible soldiers imaginable – children robbed of innocence and given guns in return.
…parents and brothers dying before their eyes…
A child might be sitting happily one day, poor perhaps and hungry, but perhaps also content to be so. They might hear gunshots and screams and then a blur of motions. Days later and they might remember their parents and brothers dying before their eyes; they might remember seeing their village burning in the distance. Perhaps a month later and they might be burning a village of their own; they will know that their lives are in as much danger as the man at the end of gun barrel. Years later they might wake up at night and they might scratch at the place on their arm where they know their brand is scarred; years later they might cry and hate and distrust because they were once forced to follow the law and ruling of a warlord that they could never see.
Children do not care about diplomacy and warfare; they do not care about money or government; they do not pick sides in a civil war that is not their making. A small boy might play at war, but he should be a part of one. No child, and no person, should have to kill their family.