Training children for war

This coming week I have my first spring lectures for the leadership institute at the university. I’ve been asked to talk about “feminism in America, its ideas and development, and its impact on society”… in an hour and a half, including time for translation (since my Arabic teacher looked at me blankly when I asked how to translate some of the words I would need!), and what I imagine will be quite lively discussion. Much of my time over the past week was spent trying to cram two centuries of ideas, movements, people, definitions, laws, and lingering concerns into a brief overview; I’ll let you know how it goes.

Today I want to pick up on one point from last week’s post: the inculcation of children into the world of war. In Israel and Palestine, children might see war memorials on the streets, and they can easily visit recent battlegrounds. They know, most likely from personal experience, that one part of the population is walled off from the other. Barbed wire, tall walls, police barriers, armed soldiers, metal detectors, and random checks of identity cards are so common that they fade into the background. Death on behalf of the nation—either Israeli or Palestinian—is glorified. Where we live affects our values, and our understanding of the world; the presence of war and the memory of war in society here influences how children will approach violence, ‘the enemy,’ their own role in the conflict, and peace.

Teaching children war goes beyond the general influence of the environment, on both sides. In Israeli schools, children write letters to soldiers. ‘Mobile draft offices’ visit students—and use social media to build excitement for the mandatory military service. High schoolers can participate in Gadna, an organization that gives kids training in weaponry, maneuvers, and military values before they are drafted. In Gaza, teenage boys can go through similar training sponsored by Hamas. Of course there are organizations, programs, and schools that teach peace-making and unity, but their work is outweighed by the pervasive presence of war in society.

The effects of the culture of war on Israeli and Palestinian children are obvious. School, health care, and family life are disrupted. A majority of children in Palestine and around half of children in Israel experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Young children and teenagers on both sides are participants in the violence of conflict—Palestinian children throw stones and die as suicide bombers; Israeli children (especially in settlements) attack Palestinians and loot and destroy businesses. At Christmas, toy guns were a popular gift for kids in my neighborhood, and they used them to stage battles in the street. Edward Kaufman claims Israeli school children “are among the most violent in the world,” with high rates of bullying and children carrying weapons to school—a direct result, he says, of the government’s violence against Palestinians.1 Children here are taught that war is the status quo, and the militarized culture affects their psychological development, play, education, and choices about the use of violence.

In this, modern Israel and Palestine are not much different from the ancient Mediterranean. Children in ancient Israel, Egypt, Syria, Greece, and Rome would have seen armed soldiers in the streets, along with war memorials and monuments. Kids in Greece and Rome would have heard funeral speeches glorifying the war dead. In Rome, soldiers would hang their enemies’ armor and weapons on their houses as a physical sign of victory—signs that their kids would grow up with. Spartan children were famously trained for war from youth, and various stories tell of war commanders dragging their kids to the front lines; some fathers even made their sons swear oaths to continue their battle against the enemy.

None of us, I think, is unaware that our aim in training children is to convert them into valiant men; and that men who have proved of exceptional courage in war were well brought up in childhood needs no stressing (Hyperides, Funeral Oration 82).

A number of texts record the participation of children in warfare: serving as slaves in the Persian and Roman armies (and possibly in the Israelite army—cf. 1 Sam 14:1, e.g.); joining the defense of besieged cities; making weapons and building fortifications; watching their fathers fight; and of course suffering in defeat. David famously defeated Goliath when he was young—and Goliath had been trained for war from youth (1 Sam 17:33). As in Israel and Palestine today, children’s knowledge of war affected their play: Roman kids recreated famous battles, for instance, and fought each other with wooden swords (the ancient equivalent of plastic guns). War was a normal part of life in the ancient world, and as in modern Israel and Palestine, the presence of war in society would have militarized children.

Perhaps this is why the coming of the ‘Prince of Peace’ requires an act of God in Isaiah 9; shifting from a culture of war to a culture of peace demands a revolution of apocalyptic proportions, and if so then, how much more so now. Notably, in Isaiah 11:6-9 children are integral to the vision of peace. “Train up a child in the way he [or, I will add, she] should go” (Prov 22:6 KJV)—what would it look like to raise children to be peace-makers instead of inculcating them into a culture of war?


1Edward Kaufman, “Human Rights Dimensions in Peace-Making: Is It Good for the Jews?” in The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Parallel Discourses (ed. Elizabeth G. Matthews; Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), 171-94 (page 179).

2Minor Attic Orators. Trans. J. O. Burtt. 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.