The Real Revolution in Military Affairs (it’s not what you think)

Summary: one of the most important and least discussed changes in the nature of warfare is who does the fighting. Women and children acting as soldiers are not unknown in the past, but never with such a large and increasing role. Their participation changes the very nature of war, with effects today we can only guess at.


  1. About the increasing use of women and children as soldiers
  2. Causes of this trend
  3. What might this mean for warfare as a social phenomenon?
  4. For more information about the use of children as soldiers

(1)  About the increasing use of women and children as soldiers

Excerpt from “Muslim Female Fighters: An Emerging Trend“, Farhana Ali, Terrorism Monitor, 3 November 2005:

“Muslim women are increasingly joining the global jihad, some motivated by religious conviction to change the plight of Muslims under occupation, and recruited by al-Qaeda and local terrorist groups strained by increased arrests and deaths of male operatives. Attacks by female fighters, also known as the mujahidaat, are arguably more deadly than those conducted by male jihadists, attributed in part to the perception that women are unlikely to commit such acts of horror, and when they do, the shock or “CNN factor” of their attacks draws far greater media attention than male bombers. Increasing awareness with instant media attention can motivate other women to commit similar attacks.”

Farhana Ali is an Associate International Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation. She has done extensive research on jihadist networks and religious extremism.

Women combatants appear in many of today’s conflicts around the world. Recent examples include Middle East suicide bombers, soldiers and officers in western armies, and fighters in the Eritrean War for independence from Ethiopia. With few historical precedents, except in near-mythological tales, the appearance of women in combat represents a real revolution in military affairs.


Why now? For example, why the appearance of suicide bombers in conservative Arab societies? After all, the 1400 years since Mohammad have seen almost continuous combat in many forms. And in the Middle East we have the first recorded suicide attack, in the second century B.C.

“Now Eleazar, called Avaran, saw that one of the {elephants} was equipped with royal armor. It was taller than all the others, and he supposed that the king was on it. So he gave his life to save his people and to win for himself an everlasting name. He courageously ran into the midst of the phalanx to reach it; he killed men right and left, and they parted before him on both sides. He got under the elephant, stabbed it from beneath, and killed it; but it fell to the ground upon him and he died.”
— The First Book of the Maccabees, 1.6.43

Farhana Ali gives a conventional answer.

“Suicide becomes the preferred tactic when Muslim women perceive they have no other alternative to affect change to their local environment; coupled with a heightened sense of anger, disillusionment, and despair, some women choose suicide as a way to communicate and channel their frustration. This is particularly true for those who believe there are no other social, economic, or political opportunities available to them.”

However widely accepted, this shows an awesome misreading of history. History consists of countless times and places in which women experienced anger, disillusionment, despair, and frustration in every conceivable magnitude and combination. Often in situations by comparison of which today’s societies are a cakewalk.

As an alternative, perhaps feminism has penetrated these societies. Is war just another example of woman moving into another male dominated occupation? For clues as to the real cause we can look to another trend in modern warfare: increasing use of children as soldiers.

For military commanders in some of the poorest countries of the world, no strategy would be complete without children. They are more agile, impressionable and expendable than adult soldiers. They can stand watch at dangerous checkpoints, scout for mines and infiltrate enemy lines. Their natural empathy can be beaten out of them.

We would like to think that such attitudes are rare, isolated. The reality is different. Every day, all around the world, children are abducted and recruited into armed forces. An estimated 300,000 children are actively participating in 36 ongoing (or recently ended) conflicts in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas and the former Soviet Union. In Sierra Leone some 80% of all rebel soldiers are aged seven to 14. During the Liberian civil war from 1989 to 1997, seven-year-olds took part in combat. In the hostilities in Cambodia that nominally ended in the early 1980s, a fifth of wounded soldiers were between the ages of 10 and 14.

Children of the Gun“, N. G. Boothby and C. M. Knudsen, Scientific American, June 2000

Again we see the Middle East as a leader in this trend, with reports of widespread use of children as shields and combatants by the Palestinians, and by both sides in the Iraq-Iran War. (See the end of this article for more information about children-soldiers.)

(2)  Causes of this trend

What drives this democratization of warfare, providing women and children the opportunity to die for their tribe, religion, or nation?

Technology is the obvious candidate. Many powerful weapons require little strength, such as pulling the trigger on an AK-47 or detonating 10 kg of SEMTEX wrapped around your waist. Today even the physically weak can fight. And they do fight, proving that bravery is a universal aspect of the human spirit. Many kinds of societies send women and children to fight and die, another example of the soulless, Darwinian nature of warfare. What works gets used. Even the most fundamental social rules bow to the necessities of war.

Consider this trend from another perspective. Many armies have traditionally relied on “stand-off” weapons, such as cavalry armed with the composite bow, to combat heavy infantry. Now armies can in some circumstances rely almost entirely on mines, mortars, and missiles – with no need to even face their enemy. We see this in Iraq, where about 2/3 of our deaths result from insurgents’ IEDs. We see the same trend in our own forces, as the day nears when remotely piloted vehicles sweep manned aircraft from the sky.

What need for the traditional warrior virtues in this form of combat? Bravery, discipline, and loyalty have no role. Armies themselves become unnecessary in any conventional sense. Perhaps armies become strange in form, mixing fighters who face their foe and those who do not — a more radical divide than anything in today’s military.

These trends affect all soldiers in another way. Warfare is an intimate relationship between enemies. What glory for our elaborately equipped soldiers when they kill “armies” containing women and children? Or for a “pilot” sitting in a comfortable chair, commanding a RPV to drop 500-pound bombs on a densely populated neighborhood hundreds of miles distant? This puts a new spin on Thomas Barnett’s sunny tales about a future in which American Expeditionary forces sail off to civilize dark corners of the world. To do so means wars of a kind alien to our culture and experience. Are we willing to kill women and children soldiers who are defending their cultures, however misguided we believe them to be?

This is our times’ Revolution in Military Affairs, perhaps the most significant in many millennia.

(3)  What might this mean for warfare as a social phenomenon?

Often the entrance of significant numbers of women into a profession both lowers its social standing and sparks an exodus of men. Examples are teaching in the United States and medicine in the Soviet Union. The increased role of women in both conventional and unconventional armies might do this for warfare. The increased role of children in guerrilla warfare might do so even more powerfully, especially in tribal societies where the role of Warrior has deep connections with concepts of manhood and glory. Perhaps men will no longer see war as a high status occupation, but just another nasty but occasionally necessary task. Like fixing sewers.

We will have moved from the Clausewitz’s ordered theater of war to a new world where war becomes a more primal thing — still terrible, but with little room for glory or honor. Perhaps then it will become less common. Perhaps that is an acceptable trade-off, if one wants to live in societies that send women and children to fight and die — or sends soldiers to kill armies of women and children — for politically convenient goals.

For myself, it seems better to stay at home whenever possible, waging defensive warfare as needed.

(4)  For more information on the use of children as soldiers

(a)  See the FM Reference Page Women and gender issues.

(b)  A bibliography from the site of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies (PAWSS).

  1. Reports by nation of those using children as soldiers:  at the website of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers
  2. Child Soldiers: The Role of Children in Armed Conflict, Ilene Cohn and Guy Goodwin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994)
  3. Easy Prey: Child Soldiers in Liberia (New York: HRW, 1994)
  4. Sudan: The Lost Boys: Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied Boys in Southern Sudan (New York: HRW, 1994)
  5. Children of Sudan: Slaves, Street Children, and Child Soldiers (New York: HRW, 1995)
  6. Human Rights Watch (HRW), Children in Combat (New York: HRW, 1997)
  7. The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda (New York: HRW, 1997)
  8. “Child Soldiers”, Michael Wessells, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. 53, no. 6, (November/December 1997), pp. 32-39
  9. “Children, Armed Conflict, and Peace,” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 35, no. 5 (1998), pp. 635-46
  10. In the Firing Line: War and Children’s Rights, Amnesty International, (London: AI, 1999)
  11. “Children of the Gun”, Neil C. Boothby and Christine M. Knudsen, Scientific American, June 2000, pp. 60-65.
  12. “How We Can Prevent Child Soldiering,” Peace Review, vol. 12, no. 3 (2000), pp. 407-13.



8 thoughts on “The Real Revolution in Military Affairs (it’s not what you think)”

  1. As a recent precedent we have the obvious example of female soldiers fighting for the Soviet Union during WW2 and in turn becoming very competant snipers in some cases, which leads me to my second point.

    By no means would I compare these suicide bombers and children as ‘officers’ or even ‘NCOs’ within these groups. They actual ‘commanders’ are hidden away, mobile and more experts at propaganda then military leadership. The woman and children above are weapons, propaganda tools & effectively cannon fodder. The leadership is making use of the assets they have at hand.

    Look at Iraq and the use of two female women with down syndrome. While also the male leadership behind these acts behind this have long given up on any sense of ‘tribal honour’, the globalisation of terrorism and the general alignment with global fundamentalist groups further blurs the lines. While the child soldiers we have seen over the decades in Africa are unique from the Middle East, there tribal allegiance and acts of violence are still dominated by males.

    Warriors? Warriors (male OR female) usually expect to “make the other guy die for his country”, a woman/child with semtex around them is little more then a mobile IED.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I believe you are over-simplying this article and the phenomena it describes.
    The use of children and women as warrriors is not unknown in history, as you note. However in almost all cases is it quite minor and small-scale, as in the USSR during WWII. The role of women as fighters since WWII — in Eritrea war for independence, for example — have few if any historical precedents, and go far beyond use as suicide bombers The role of children as fighters in Africia, ditto.

  2. What glory for our elaborately equipped soldiers when they kill “armies” containing women and children?

    Killing women and children is part of modern warfare. WW2 bomber pilots should know. And Germany did field it’s young boys with Panzerfausts by 1945.

    Are we not just seeing the illusion of “civilized” warfare of the 18-19th century Western armies removed? As Clausewitz pointed out only our own moral values put limits on our use of violence and the degree to which members of society are involved. But don’t expect our enemies to share the same moral values. And finally moral values change over time for better or worse.

    As for women participating. Well, the Tamil Tigers have a long standing tradition for the use of female suicide bombers in their Black Tigers special ops force. Suicide attacks are a normal part of their tactics. Whether on land, air or sea.

    But I don’t see suicide bombers as other than a inconvenience. Even Iraq is not overflowing with suicide attacks. There need to be a great deal of personal motivation & indoctrination to become a human bomb.

    And is the use of EIDs not just a reflection of the effectiveness of conventional US forces? It is simply to dangerous and expensive to confront a US unit in direct combat. Better just to take pot shots at them using snipers and EIDs.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Interesting that both Rune and Keith focus on women as suicide bombers, as these probably have the least impact on (to borrow the title of Martin van Creveld’s next book) the “culture of war.”

    Modern weapons allow women and children to become warriors. Take guns and face our soldiers. And increasingly for women to take guns and become our soldiers.

    It is a commonplace to say, as W. Patrick Lang (Colonel, US Army, retired) did on 15 May “it seems clear that there is not some sort of evolutionary development in the nature of war. There never was such a thing. War is war.” Use of women and children as soldiers on a large scale routine use (not a last stand, as in 1945 Berlin) is a new development.
    Like so much about modern warfare, so far we have made little effort to understand the implications of this. Like with 4GW after Vietnam, our response is to ignore and it hope it goes away.

  3. Fabius

    I find the use of children to be a sign of an organization/country under pressure (not the same as losing). Again take the Tamil Tigers, they too kidnap children from Tamil villages as new recruits. The important point being they DON’T use their own children but other peoples’ children. Where do we find a militia/nations which enrolls 12-15 years olds among their supporters if there are willing adults to be used instead?

    Secondly are children as good soldiers as adults? One can expect the same of a woman as a man when it comes the planning and executing of operations. Children may use the weapons but can they plan?

    You lost me on the part of women in combat. Why is there a difference vis-a-vis men? If you’re an adult and can fight/will fight, you’re a participant.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not know what you mean by “willing adults”, since state and non-state groups often use force to recruit soldiers (e.g., the draft). Iran reportedly used their own children in the Iran-Iraq war; had they tapped out theirn entire adult population? And entities fighting wars are often “under pressure.”

    I do not understand your last point. Do you believe that everyone thinks like you? Or can you not imagine the psychological impact of fighting women on, for example, warriors motivated by machoismo and glory?

  4. Females as combattants:
    Soviet Union WW2, Spanish Civil war 30’s, happened also in more primitive societies like Vikings as last resort. That was’t small-scale, Fabius. We talk about more women participating in war in 30s and 40s than today, more than American soldiers saw war in the past 15 years.

    Children as combattants:
    14 y.o. playing music in the midst of battle was normal in 16th to 18th century, and 13 y.o. were normal on warships of the same time. Many “uncivilized” tribes in Americans, Africa and certainly also elsewhere had the step to maturity not at 18, but at 14 = marriage + warrior status at that age.
    This was also not small scale. Several per cent of the sailors were children, some per cent of the armies as well. A much larger scale than today, that’s for sure.

    “Today even the physically weak can fight.”
    That has been true since the invention of the bow an even more so since the invention of the musket. A good soldier equipment of today is heavier than ever since late 16th century and has been at this peak since WW2.
    Fabius Maximus replies: (1) Those were small scale by the only relevant measure: the size of those nations. The numbers were tiny, the role of women greatly overstated in many accounts. See Martin van Creveld’s “Men, Women, and War” for a more quantitative analysis.

    (2) Note the quote I provided from the Scientific American article: ” In Sierra Leone some 80 percent of all rebel soldiers are aged seven to 14. During the Liberian civil war from 1989 to 1997, seven-year-olds took part in combat. In the hostilities in Cambodia that nominally ended in the early 1980s, a fifth of wounded soldiers were between the ages of 10 and 14.” These are children, not the early teen young men you discuss. These are children by the standards of their own society — that is the difference.

    (3) You must be kidding. Have you even used a bow like those in the 15th century? Carried the combat pack — clothes, weapons, gear — of a WWII infantryman? An M-1 helmet weighs 2 1/4 ibs, the M1 rifle weighs 9 1/2 lbs (w/o ammo). A modern AKM weighs aprox 7+ lbs.

  5. A WW2 Russian rifle weighed 4.25kg, an AKM weights one kg less – which is quickly compensated by the need for more cartridges and heavy magazines plus pouches if you want to use it well. The nominal weight difference is not a convincing argument.

    A 14 y.o. can carry an AKM at about 3.2 kg plus one kg ammunition. Fine. But that tells absolutely nothing about modern infantry equipment weights. You could have equipped a child with an effective carbine and ammunition of comparable weight since about 160 years. Finally many child soldiers use old weapons like FAL or G3 according to photos. Those weapons are in the same weight class as a Garand or any service rifle since 1870.

    Bowmen of 15th century were relatively lightly equipped in comparison to melee troops who had halberds and much heavier armor. Bows were always favoring weak/small persons – not because these would be better, but less worse with it than with other weapons.

    14 y.o. were children by the standards of European societies in the 18th century as well, but many of them served in the forces as auxiliary personnel and had to fight if able if the enemy came close.

    The use of involuntary child soldiers tells a lot about the organizations that use them, but not about trends in warfare tech. Some African militias don’t protect a faction, instead they live like 30-years-war parties off the land. They lack a loyal recruiting base, so they recruit like the Janissars, less the lengthy training. That’s why we see so many children as combatants in Africa – they could do that with older style weapons as well. They have nothing to defend, so they can always fight on the offensive, concentrating with superior numbers for village raids – against a defenseless indigenous population which has lost its warrior culture more than 100 years ago. Children can be forced to fight in a militia, adults cannot.

    If anything has promoted this child soldier thing, then it was a lack of opposition by other forces and a lack of village community self-defence capability.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Without getting bogged down in the details as to why women and children (pre-teens) are appearing on the battlefield (I will leave that to experts), the fact is that they are there. The significant questions concern how this changes the conduct, the culture, or war. This is the point of this post.

  6. “What drives this democratization of warfare, providing women and children the opportunity to die for their tribe, religion, or nation? Technology is the obvious candidate. Many powerful weapons require little strength, such as pulling the trigger on an AK-47 or detonating 10 kg of SEMTEX wrapped around your waist. Today even the physically weak can fight.”

    Well, apparently I misunderstood the point of the post. Usually, I first understand the cause and then look for the result. The causes are very specific, and this limits how much and where the phenomenon can change warfare.
    Fabius Maximus replies: That is a sound methodology. After all, there are many ways to grapple with these issues. This article looks through the telescope from the other end.

  7. The right-wing expert on military affairs, Ralph Peters has an article in the 6 February 2006 issue of Weekly Standard: “The Counterrevolution in Military Affairs.”
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for the reference! Right-wing or not, I consider Peters is one of the today’s most interesting writers on military affairs. His work ranges from creative and insightful to horrible if not deranged. This article, for example, looks good two years later. Excerpt:

    “From Iraq’s Sunni Triangle to China’s military high command, the counterrevolution in military affairs is well underway. We are seduced by what we can do; our enemies focus on what they must do. We have fallen so deeply in love with the means we have devised for waging conceptual wars that we are blind to their marginal relevance in actual wars. Terrorists, for one lethal example, do not fear “network-centric warfare” because they have already mastered it for a tiny fraction of one cent on the dollar, achieving greater relative effects with the Internet, cell phones, and cheap airline tickets than all of our military technologies have delivered. Our prime weapon in our struggles with terrorists, insurgents, and warriors of every patchwork sort remains the soldier or Marine; yet, confronted with reality’s bloody evidence, we simply pretend that other, future, hypothetical wars will justify the systems we adore–purchased at the expense of the assets we need.

    “Stubbornly, we continue to fantasize that a wondrous enemy will appear who will fight us on our own terms, as a masked knight might have materialized at a stately tournament in a novel by Sir Walter Scott. Yet, not even China — the threat beloved of major defense contractors and their advocates–would play by our rules if folly ignited war. Against terrorists, we have found technology alone incompetent to master men of soaring will — our own flesh and blood provide the only effective counter.

    “… There is, in short, not a single enemy in existence or on the horizon willing to play the victim to the military we continue to build. Faced with men of iron belief wielding bombs built in sheds and basements, our revolution in military affairs appears more an indulgence than an investment. In the end, our enemies will not outfight us.”

  8. Yeah, his writing can be extreme at times, but I guess everyone’s entitled to their point of view. (Guess that’s why he’s probably proud of being American,at least you can openly express your views,regardless even if your voice gets drowned out by the news networks). Yep,I enjoy his writing as well. Hope to see more of his INSIGHTFUL works in the near future.

    Well,at least we can all be rest assured that a patriot such as he’ll be the least likely to be part of any fifth column that would threaten the safety of his beloved country.

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