'And So They Ordered Me to Kill a person'

Our 31st edition focuses on an issue that has received little systematic scientific attention in the child combatant research literature – namely, the psychological processes underlying how children and youth deal with the grim reality of having both experienced and perpetrated extreme violence. How do children make sense of such experiences in the light of their moral concepts? What impact does perpetrating extreme violence have on their moral development, and how might it affect their well-being?  Within this body of literature, two theoretical frameworks have tended to predominant – those of moral disengagement, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Wainryb suggests neither is sufficient as an explanatory framework. 

In reflecting on these issues, the author draws on the narrative accounts of 30 male and 23 female former child combatants in Colombia. Aged 13-17 years, they had been recruited into various Colombian armed groups at an average age of 11 years. Wainryb illustrates that the ways in which these children and youth recount their involvement in perpetrating extreme violence does not suggest they had adopted a rationale based on the moral worth of their cause or the demonization of their victims. Neither did they abdicate responsibility for their actions – both strategies seen as pertinent by the moral disengagement theory. The explanatory power of the PTSD framework is limited, she argues, in so far as it does not concern itself with how moral distress arising from perpetrating extreme violence may contribute to the traumatic stress responses developed by former child combatants.

Cecilia Wainryb suggests an alternative framework, namely a developmental theory that incorporates a social constructionist perspective; one that recognises that children and youth actively construct their moral identity. That is, they reflect on their actions when they engage in activities that harm or hurt others.  They consider their goals, their actions and the effects these have on those around them. As children, they are helped to develop these reflective skills through interactions with the adults in their community who articulate local understandings of morality; with increasing maturity, this constructionist process broadens to include the views of others such as their peers. 

The rich data from the Colombian ex-combatants illustrates the complex ways in which children and youth deal with moral guilt and responsibility as they reflect on their past actions. Some can do this in a way that offers the hope of moving forward; others in ways that leave them trapped in the past. Wainryb argues that any interventions to alleviate the distress displayed by these young people needs to utilise their ability to reflect on their own and others’ actions, and their own understandings of their experiences. Joining them in a reflective process in which they construct and reconstruct their stories in the light of their actual experiences, offers a potential source of both healing and future development. The author acknowledges that further research will be needed to support the effectiveness of such interventions.

The strength of this moral development framework is that it recognises and illuminates the complexities of the impact of being both a recipient and a perpetrator of extreme violence in armed conflict situations – and suggests a way forward that utilises the developmental strengths of the children and youth involved. How such a developmental framework fits within a wider social ecological model, in which healing and well-being also comes from family and community forgiveness and acceptance, alongside participation in educational and economic contexts is not discussed.

We would like to express our gratitude to Karger, the publishers of the journal Human Development, for their kind permission to post this article on our website for one calendar year from the date of posting. 

Dr Linda Dowdney
Editor, Psychosocial content for Child Soldiers International

June 2015

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