There is quite a lot written about child soldiers in rebel wars in particular on the African continent. As Ryan clearly points out, and writes against, the bulk takes a victim perspective of child soldiers. A few studies, including my own on Liberia, have started on neutral grounds and have been able to show that a simple victim perspective has more to do with faulty research methods than realities on the ground. A nice thing with Ryan’s study is that the rebel army which she has studied, SPLA, won the war and eventually transformed into government of South Sudan. Child soldiers within this rebel army have thus lesser motives of downplaying their agency, as is often the case of other rebel armies in African warzones. This has rendered a whole range of alternative answers to reasons for joining the rebel army at a young age, beyond forceful conscription, and also motives for purporting soldier life.
By using child soldiers own voices she is opening up alternative (i.e. real) realities to the premeditated, taken-for-granted, ideas that she has found amongst local and international NGOs interviewed. The juxtaposition of child soldier’s testimonies and NGO knowledge is very efficient and pinpoints a huge problem within the current knowledge regime of humanitarian practice during and in the aftermath of wars. Ryan forcefully argues that in order to have more successful interventions NGOs and other aid agencies need a better understanding of children in warzones including knowledge that is unique for each conflict zone. Albeit “child participation” is often claimed as a central tenet to NGOs working with children in conflict Ryan makes it pretty clear that in reality it is chiefly empty words. For people in the humanitarian aid business this book is thus both an important critique to take onboard and a fleshing out of the realities which they ought to relate to.
For an academic audience I am a bit more hesitant to recommend it. Ryan does have a theoretic introduction where she discusses some of the literature available in the field. She is presenting other researcher’s viewpoints, but unfortunately leaves the reader without a clear idea of what she is making of the literature. She could have been much braver as she possesses a unique material.
Clearly Ryan does present the voices of the former child soldiers of the SPLA. This is done in lengthy quotes making the book either very tedious, or very quick, to read as one can easily skim and skip many of the too long, often poorly edited passages of interviews. Some accounts are completely incomprehensible and it is a mystery why the copy editor let them pass. A key problem is that the stacking of child soldier testimonies does not make the book more comprehensive – in this case I would suggest that less would have been more. Quotes do very much point in the same direction, but despite this they stand too much for themselves. These testimonies are not contextualized enough and although I do not contest the conclusions of the book I cannot see that if a horde of former child soldiers states that they became adults sometime around 11-15 it is the proof. A discourse analysis, which may question the “testimonies”, relating to a fleshed out sociocultural reading of both the process of becoming an adult and fighting a war would have been extremely valuable.
Relying heavily on a formal questionnaire with questions related to the reasons for joining the SPLA a whole spectrum of issues concerning life within the rebel army is absent: how were the relations between commanders and rank and file? What did the process going from non-trained recruit to soldier look like? How long did it take? How was everyday survival shaped? How was issues of violence, abuse and death seen and dealt with? How about love and sexual relations? These and many more issues are the nuts and bolts of war as mechanism and the key to whether a war machine is successful or not. Certainly it is also at heart for a recruitment mechanism of children becoming soldiers and in the long run remaining such.
Despite this critique I would like to end on a positive note. All too often African wars are brushed away as being non-political as they do not fit neatly in western political maps. Unlike such simplistic viewpoint Ryan’s reading of child soldiers in South Sudan does not just look at rebel military action from an outright political perspective but even takes the analysis a step further by raising an awareness of Sudanese child soldiers being guided, not just mislead or manipulated, by political motives and subsequently taking contextually rational decisions. This perspective is fresh and commendable.