They depend on us to defend them, but we're forcing them to defend us. Sometimes they have an actual talent to help them get through the war, which unfortunately may be the reason they were drafted to begin with, but often it's just tough luck. While the notion of innocent childhood is a relatively modern adoption (thank the Victorians and their contemporaries), even the ancients still felt fairly queasy about the idea - and with good reason: warfare screws with kids heads, and they're rarely good for much else afterwards. Since the use of child soldiers forces the enemy to gun down children in self defense, it's a very strong contender for the most morally reprehensible war crime in existence. On a somewhat lighter side, there are also many stories, in fiction and real life, concerning boys (and girls) who lied about their ages in order to serve their countries.
This trope is great for an angsty backstory while at the same time excusing Improbable Age with prior experience. A staple of the shows which focus on violence but broadcast to kids, notably the more serious Mecha Shows. It's a good way to subvert Children Are Innocent, particularly if a kid creepily sees it as a game, but sometimes the loss of innocence is played for as much drama as can be.
In fiction, this also has the convenience of explaining why Persons Of Mass Destruction are obeying their weaker bosses and not actually running things, or at least not demanding wages and better job conditions. It doesn't occur to them; and even if they do rebel, they don't know how to do it properly.
This trope blends imperceptibly with New Meat. Since even legal adults can be teenagers, old soldiers in particular may regard them as no more than children. This trope is Truth in Television; many armies in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa have underaged troops. Furthermore, even Western countries such as Germany, Russia, and the United States have overlooked recruitment ages in major conflicts such as World War II. This was likely to happen before the late 20th century, because births were not as well documented and the recruiters took them at their word if they looked about the right age. Though it's frowned on by Western culture, there is a certain brutal logic to conscripting youth - everyone is under threat, so everyone fights. Sometimes the children are better off on the front lines than enduring what would happen to them if the enemy takes their village. As a more pragmatic and ethical solution, many countries that feature soldiers in the 16-19 age range often utilize them in noncombat or support roles, and/or continue to train them until they're older, resulting in far better psychological health, effectiveness of personnel, and morale overall.
Child soldiers can be divided in two types: Those who actually fight and kill humans, and those who don't (either because they fight a nonhuman entity (Strike Witches, Uchuu No Stellvia) or avoid lethal means (Lyrical Nanoha)) The former usually carry a heavy trauma, while the latter tend to avoid it.
Some Super Soldiers probably started out early enough to be counted as this. The Tykebomb (of all varieties) is what happens when this trope backfires.
Compare Little Miss Badass, Creepy Child, Cute Bruiser, Enfante Terrible, Kid Samurai, New Meat, Young Gun, Recruit Teenagers with Attitude. The Shell-Shocked Senior may actually be a high-school senior.
Contrast Falling into the Cockpit, which usually implies no former military experience. See Plucky Middie for the naval version. See also Raised by Orcs for cultures that use their enemies' children this way.
If only children get to be soldiers, then you have a Competence Zone on your hands. If it's because they're the only ones left, then you have a Teenage Wasteland on your hands.
Very much a Truth in Television. This trope is almost always Always Male.
Precociously Talented Type:
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Anime & Manga
In Valvrave the Liberator we get two kinds of this. On the heroes side are the pilots of the titular mecha, who are all high schoolers who had no combat experience before they began fighting to defend their home and their lives. They range in age from 15 to 17. On the bad guys side, the nation of Dorssia has a base called the Karlstein Institute, where it trains soldiers at an early age. The Deuteragonist is a graduate who, at 17, has already established his reputation as a bad ass soldier. His fellow graduates are about that age, but the youngest one is Q-Vier, a total Blood Knight who treats killing and war as a game.
Sousuke Sagara from Full Metal Panic!!. By the start of the series, Sousuke's 16 years old and has been fighting for his whole life, having been raised as a mujaheddin in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. This is apparently Truth in Television, which is why many child soldiers are from the Middle East in anime. Gundam 00 also uses this and Black Lagoon made a reference to it.
Sagara had actually been a soldier before that. He was actually sent to kill a guerilla leader at age 8 after being trained as an assassin by the KGB, but failed and joined the arabic leader's troops. He was brought to Russia by Kallinin, who legally adopted him when he and toddler-Sagara were the only survivors of a plane crash, and introduced him to military life. Kallinin later deserting the KGB also to join sides with Sousuke, further training him in the art of war at still tender ages.
In the novels, it's mentioned that Gauron himself was one of these: he was fighting for the Khmer Rouge by at least age 12, and probably earlier.
Sousuke's former comrade, Zaied is also an example, and unlike Sousuke, is played horribly straight, having grown up into an Empty ShellSociopathic Soldier, who seems to lack all social contact, drive and ambition. It makes him a dangerous antagonist and Evil Counterpart to Sousuke.
Divergence Eve has Kotoko-01, though since she's an android it may or may not count.
The pilots in Gundam Wing were all 15 at the start of the series, but the most extreme case is Trowa, who (according to Episode Zero) was picked up by mercenaries after spending the first few years of his life completely alone, and thus has been a soldier since before he was able to talk. The show's protagonist Heero has many similarities to Sousuke Sagara (mentioned above) such that many consider Sousuke to be an Expy.
Setsuna F. Seiei (pictured fourth from left) in Gundam 00 was brainwashed by and fought for religious extremists in the Middle East some years younger than ten. Being sixteen in the series proper, he's still older than most Gundam teen leads: Usso Eving in Victory Gundam is the youngest Gundam pilot at 13.
And for Usso, it speaks of how children are forced to fight. While all teenagers in real life would want to pilot a giant robot and crush all the adults. Imagine if it was a tank, and you don't even got your driving license... real scary thought.
Indeed, a Zanscare pilot that Usso downs shoots himself when he sees how old Usso is, because he can't bear to live in a world where children so young are made into soldiers.
In Gundam SEED and Gundam SEED Destiny the same thing applies with most of the main cast, heroic and antagonistic being in their teens. Although in this case, most of the child soldiers actually volunteered to fight for their countries; many of them soon realized that they bit off far more than they could chew, though.
The Extendeds as well. They even had to go through torture and abuse in their training as children, in order to be molded into soldiers that surpass the Coordinators.
Most blatant example: Gundam ZZ's Elpeo Puru. A ten year old Newtype girl trained for combat in a prototype war machine, mentally conditioned to focus on the pilot of the Gundam (this backfired: she focused on him all right, but her obsession became affection and she only wanted to be his little sister). Then it's revealed that they cloned her at least a dozen times and treated the resultant girls as equipment rather than people, nothing more than pilots who were to obey their commander and fight whomever he ordered.
This story without a doubt fits this trope, as Naruto, as of the gradually building climax-arc of the series, is the savior and prophet everyone is relying on to save the day. Naruto himself grew into the role of Messianic Archetype not by destiny or conscious choice, but because of the various events and realities of his live, and the choices he made eventually culminating in a person and reputation that effectively becomes messianic. In a sense, the Upbringing Makes the Hero combines with several wise mentors passing on their full or partially messianic philosophies onto Naruto, who sees the reality of the world around him and puts two and two together.
Some characters start even younger, as Kakashi graduated at the age of 5, became a Chunin at 6, and by 13, was a Jonin who would have died on several occasions if not for his teammate Rin's medical ninjutsu.
Seen in horrific detail in Hashirama's time. See "Just Plain Tragic" entry.
Also the Chunin Exams. The surface idea is that it promotes friendship and peace between the nations, and allows future clients to see the fighting strength of each village. However, it is revealed that the Exams are essentially a replacement for full-out battle between the nations, with the Genin of the villages as the soldiers, showcasing their village’s political strength.
Most of the Konoha 12 are under 17 when they enter the third ninja war. The generation before them was equally unfortunate: they were around 13 when they were thrown into war. And not all of them made it out, either.
Eureka Seven: Eureka, for her prodigious skill in piloting the Nirvash, becomes its pilot, and Renton, who decides to co-pilot it to protect Eureka. Naturally, reality hits him hard when he figures out that by piloting, he's become a soldier with extreme skill in killing. The series makes a major plot point of this, exploring what really happens when children pilotHumongous Mecha.
The armed forces of the Space-Time Administration Bureau from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha doesn't seem to have a minimum age requirement. Nanoha, Fate, and Hayate become active members at the age of nine and proceed to sky-rocket through its ranks. Unlike most examples, the child soldiers of the series all join out of their own volition. (However, there's unfortunate implications that this is a Boxed Crook arrangement, as these tend to be the opponents of previous seasons; and anyone not working for the TSAB is still in prison or at least confined to a frontier world.) In crossover fanfic it's not unusual for others to find this disconcerting.
Played more darkly in Runessa Magnus' backstory in StrikerS Sound Stage X. She fought in wars on her homeworld of Orussia, but was rescued by an NGO after being severely wounded at the age of 9.
The TSAB looks more like a police/firefighter force. The characters' job is to arrest bad guys, avoiding lethal force as much as possible, and to rescue people from disasters. Definitely a dangerous job, but far less scarring than a "job" where you have to kill or be killed. But even that is darker in SSX, where we're reminded that working in Disaster Relief means that when you fail, you see people die.
Mana Tatsumiya in Mahou Sensei Negima! is 14/15 years old, but has been fighting in various trouble spots around the world since her childhood. Her old Pactio card actually shows her, around 10 years old, with Desert Eagles Akimbo.
There's also Nagi, Negi's legendary hero of a father. The big war in the Magic World started when he was only around 13, and in the Magic World, if you're strong enough, you could fight in wars even if you're just 12 or 13. Nagi being...well, invincible, he ended the war on his own. At age 15.
The cadets of the esteemed Ariadne Battle Maiden Knight Squad, which Yue Ayase managed to become a part of.
In fact, the entire class (including the teacher!) that wasn't left behind counts, save the ghost Sayo. Setsuna has been a bodyguard or training in Shinmeiryuu techniques since childhood.
In Strike Witches, all but two of the 501st Joint Fighter Wing's Witches are children, the youngest being only 12 (the two oldest are, appropriately enough, the commander and her second in command). Justified somewhat in that most magic users are teenage girls anyway, and the fact their magic gets weaker the older they get. So by 20 they are decommissioned from service.
The main cast of Sky Girls are in their teens, the youngest only 15 years old. This is justified by 90% of the male population between 20 and 30 being dead in due to a war against an alien enemy.
Mostly averted (both ways) in Gundam SEED Astray's Kazahana Aja. Although she is an official member of the Serpent Tail mercenary group at the tender age of six, she's only the team's civilian liason, and thus is generally a non-combatant (Plus, her mother is part of the group, too). Her report at the end of X Astray is a bit of a Tear Jerker, however.
Played straight and subverted by Zettai Karen Children, where the psychic children are used more or less as soldiers, but the organization doing so still treats them like children and tries very hard to provide for a healthy upbringing for them.
Gunbuster has a bunch of high-school kids charged with piloting the Humongous Mecha which will defend the Earth. In fact, the early parts play out more like a sports movie as competitors vie to get "on the team".
The Shinigami in Bleach permit recruits to join up while still biologically children so long as they can meet the entrance requirements. Of course, Shinigami are all Really 700 Years Old, but Ise Nanao, Ichimaru Gin, Hitsugaya Toshiro, and Kusajishi Yachiru were VERY young by Soul Society standards and still often acted childish or immature. Yachiru is still a child in the current timeline, as is Toushirou—and he's the 10th squad captain.
Yu Ominae from the anime/manga series Spriggan, was "recruited" (read: kidnapped) into a secret U.S. government black ops unit called COSMOS sometime after his archaeologist parents were killed in Iran. Considering he's no older than 16-17 by present day in the series (he's a high school student), this means he was likely taken around the age of 10.
COSMOS (Children of Soldier Machine Organic System) was filled out with children kidnapped by the CIA from around the world. They are brainwashed, have their names replaced by a number and given extensive special forces training. To give some perspective as to the results of this training, Yu, after freeing himself from COSMOS' brainwashing, is considered to be one of the deadliest special agents alive in the world of Spriggan. Most of their missions involve classic black ops missions like assassination, artifact retrieval and covert infiltration.
In the manga Jormungand, the character Jonah is a child soldier and is a prolific fighter, who has been hired by a arms dealer. Even though he's on par with the other highly trained fighters, he's also mentally fragile and hates weapons and his reliance on them. Needless to say, his personality disturbs the other adult mercenaries.
At the beginning of 9 Banme no Masashi the titular character is 16 and one of the top elite soldier in her secret paramilitary organization.
In Dragon Ball Z, Son Gohan is forced to fight his uncle at age 4, thwart an alien invasion at age 5, fight a war against a galactic overlord a couple months later, endure copious Training from Hell, and then fight an insanely powerful monster (who proceeds to beat him to a pulp and kill his father) when, even taking into consideration Year Inside, Hour Outside training, he was but 11. Yes, he does show some signs of PTSD when he grows up.
You can't forget Vegeta who was enslaved at age 5 to the same Galactic Overlord who killed his father, destroyed his race, and blew up his planet.
The days-old infant Kakarrot was sent to Earth with the expectation that his first full moon transformation into a Great Ape would be enough to exterminate the weakling inhabitants of this backwater mud ball. This was standard procedure for Saiyans, so they're basically an entire race of Child Soldiers.
Downplayed in Date A Live. Due to the fact that the talent to use theRealizer is very rare, the Anti Spirit Team(AST) has to take child recruits. All the ones seen so far in combat are orphans and generally very good. Their mission is to exterminate theSpirits, but that turns out to mean "bug them till they leave on their own". Downplayed that everyone heads to shelters when an incomming spirit is detected, the AST can 't really hurt the Spirits, and the spirits themselves don't try all that hard to fight back. So all that really happens is property damage most of the time. When they do get a spirit angry enough it tends to go poorly for them.
Class 3-E in Ansatsu Kyoushitsu partially subverted this trope in two ways. First, they are training as assassins, not traditional soldiers. Second, their trainers/teachers actually goes out their way to ensure the children can have a normal life (well, as normal as the situation they are in can allow).
And let's not forget, the eponymous BOY wonder, Robin and his successors. (Especially in Frank Miller's All-Star Batman & Robin.)
And, in a sense, Batman himself. He dedicated his life from childhood to fight a war on crime... he hasn't been a kid since he was eight years old. The distinction being, of course, that he did this willingly and also didn't actually fight crime until adulthood.
Xavin the Super Skrull in training from Runaways thinks of herself like this, but based on the flashbacks to his training on her homeworld it seems like he has never really seen combat and only undergone Super Skrull basic training.
In the Runaways/Young AvengersCivil War arc, Xavin tells a Mad Scientist that when he/she was five, he/she was forced to first watch his father slaughter a "screaming family" and then was made to spend three days with the bodies as a punishment for crying during it.
Hit Girl from Kick-Ass is a strange case, because not only is she aware of her status as this, but she's far more capable than the 16 year old title character. After her father gets killed, Kick-Ass helps her track down her mother, and she goes back to a normal life like nothing bad ever happened.
The first issue of Kickass 2 shows Hit-Girl continuing to train Kick-Ass, keeping a small army's worth of firepower hidden in her bedroom, and being thoroughly bored with civilian life. So her normal life is probably going to just be a temporary blip.
In the movie, her mother is really dead, so she returns to a normal life - probably devoid of bullies, but that's a detail - with just Dave as a guardian.
X-23 from the X-Men was artificially created to be a perfect killing machine, this meant learning to kill from birth on and being send on messy assassinations by the age of 12.
Metaphorically Marrow was also a child soldier. Being forced to kill fellow Morlocks in order to survive and being indoctrinated to hate normal humans for no apparent reason.
And even moreso with Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man, who is even younger.
A particularly ridiculous version is the Star Trek fanfiction series about Marissa Picard, in which a twelve-year-old is given command of the Enterprise saucer section, and does so well with it that she is permanently promoted to Ensign (not acting, like Wesley Crusher at 16). She starts up a "Kids' Crew" organization that is a shadow government for starships, in which children, none of whom seem to be over 12, can take over the running of a ship if its senior crew are incapacitated. Their ranks are acting, but so long as they're still 'activated' they can tell any properly commissioned officer what to do. Few of the adults over whose heads they jump seem to mind, and those that do quite reasonably resent it are depicted as idiots.
By way of comparison, in TNG, there was a "cadet crew" made up of some of the teens and older pre-teens, but their activities were realistically limited. The only time they actually did anything "for real" was during an exceptionally severe shipwide emergency where everyone available was needed. Even then, they were limited to doing what they'd actually learned.
In Exoria, Hylian Joint Intelligence is revealed to have hijacked the Spencer Welfare Program, an initiative designed to raise and educate orphaned children so they can serve the government when then grow up. Joint Intelligence keeps tabs on the program to search for candidates for the intelligence agency, and provide them underage military training covertly. Agent Link became an exceedingly young agent of Joint Intelligence this way. On one hand, Link doesn't seem to be too badly off with this upbringing, but Princess Zelda clearly disapproves, and, given the story's narrative slant, it's too early to tell how this will come back to bite Link in the ass.
In The Mad Scientist Wars, Commander Primary Xerox, head of The Men in Black-style organization M is somewhere between the two types. Up until the age of ten he was trained along with other children to be an assassin, and sent to kill Mad Scientists. On one hand, he has amazing reflexes and a great deal of weapon training, but on the other hand The guilt of his only mostly repressed memories has haunted his adult life, and he's never really recovered from the emotional stress. And he has the body of a Jaded Vet to go along with his mentality.
"What am I supposed to do now?" Henry whispered. His body let go of itself and Henry fell right next to the immense rookie Digimon.
"I know what they want me to do…they want me to just jump to the front line and take my friends to battle, as if we were soldiers willing to die for our country. Besides, they think it's so easy…that in the end, Daemon will be defeated, just like D-Reaper and the Nightmare."
The sound of Henry's fist crashing against the floor covered Jeri's gasp.
"Of course! If the kids do it, it's because it's easy, right?"
Again, this is a major premise of Naruto, so it naturally comes up in the Naruto/Justice League Crossover "Connecting the Dots". The principled Justice League is horrified to discover there is a whole dimension of child assassins, even though Flash points out that the League employs plenty of teenagers.
Digimon Clone Wars introduces the Red Ribbon Army (not to be mistaken with the one form Dragon Ball), a terror organization lead by Davis, who consists entirely out of the cloned children of the other Digidestineds. Taken up to eleven by the fact, that some of those children are not even two years old. The sad thing is, the author actually thinks Davis is a good guy, despite that and expects us, to root for him.
The Cutie Mark Crusaders officially become ones in chapter 16 of Ace Combat: The Equestrian War. To their credit, they actually want to fight the griffins and they helped in defending Ponyville ealier.
Darklanders that serve as Ungoliant's soldiers are inclined to be teenagers and young adults. Individuals older than twenty-six are relatively uncommon.
In Boys Do Tankary, several of the characters have actual military experiene despite not being older than the Girls und Panzer cast. Nyra is 12, her crew consists of several teenage girls. On the more extreme side, Vincent was six when he entered the army, and he and Gage were seven when they got leadership of their own platoons. While the war is portrayed fairly disturbingly, the implications it would have on the kids are not fully explored, although Vincent and Gage are driven to drink by a series of events that resulted in Nyra's death or so they thought at the time.
It was the plot of Toys. What else was Leland going to do with the kids?
Implied a bit in Transformers. Between mannerisms and personality, Bumblebee seems to be in the Cybertronian analogue of his mid-teens, and the Twins give the distinct impression of being the equivalent of twelve. They are probably older than most human civilizations, but they're young for their species.
The Clone Troopers of Star Wars are considered combat ready at age ten. Their accelerated aging means they appear twenty, and they've been trained since birth.
You also have the Jedi. Who are sent out into the field at fourteen or younger, and look fourteen or younger, to chop people's arms off with unstoppable laser swords.
The movie Blood Diamond depicts child soldiers in a real-life conflict.
The leader of the drug dealers from Tropic Thunder is twelve years old.
Actually, in his case, he's not just a Child Soldier, but a Child Boss.
The film adaptation of Voyage Of The Dawn Treader starts out with a teenage Edmund lying about his age to try and enlist to fight in World War II. Unfortunately, the recruiting officer can tell he's underage and turns him down. Apparently, Edmund's tried multiple times and is becoming increasingly frustrated.
The Italian-produced World War II film Hornets' Nest involves a group of Italian children taking up arms against the Nazis after their parents are massacred by the SS. A little on the unrealistic side, with untrained kids mowing down countless Nazis left and right, it can't quite seem to decide if it wants to show war as an adventure or as a grim reality with tragic psychological tolls that come with children becoming killers, and its efforts to have it both ways leave it feeling a bit disjointed.
The Jem'hadar are a race engineered to fight for the Dominion, and to grow to adult size very rapidly. One seasoned veteran spoke with pride of how he'd attained the ripe old age of eight. Being 20 means you're an Honored Elder.
King Matt and friends from Janush Korczak's "King Matt the First" where the pre-teen king also institutes a children's parliament. It ends in a complete, brutally realistic ruin for his country.
The titular witches in the short story "Witches War" by Matheson. Young girls with magical powers being used as weapons in a WW setting. And it's very disturbing.
Narnia: Peter and Edmund in the first two books (and Susan in the films); Jill and Eustace in The Last Battle.
The War Against the Chtorr. With most of the world population killed off by alien plagues, anyone old enough to fight the alien invaders is conscripted into the military.
In Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds, one of the two major human factions in the setting, the Polity, used genetically engineered, nanotechnology enhanced child-soldiers against the other major faction, the United States of Near Earth, in a war some time before the beginning of the novel. They later show up in the course of the novel, as part of a rogue Polity group which is attempting to destroy the book's MacGuffin. They are described as being particularly hard to fight because of human instincts and their own extreme skill and small size.
Massively subverted in John Scalzi's Old Man's War series - While normally only Earth's elderly are recruited into the Colonial Defence Forces (their bodies get replaced), Special Forces soldiers are created from the DNA of recruits who die before they can be transferred to a new body. As a result they are fully mature adults who are emotionally and socially retarded, which helps them perform their jobs. In The Ghost Brigades one SF soldier notes that a dead child they encounter on a wildcat colony is twice as old as two of them put together, leading him to conclude that "it's a fucked up universe".
In Robert A. Heinlein's Space Cadet the Commander of the Academy talks briefly of taking these young men and changing them forever. Even those who eventually drop out will find civilian life foreign to them. Robert A. Heinlein graduated from the US Naval Academy at Annapolis at the age of 22. He may know what he's talking about.
In the Seafort Saga the radiation associated with FTL travel means you must join the Navy as a child so your body acclimatises to it as you grow up otherwise you risk cancer. The protagonist finds himself commanding a ship starting at the age of 17 for several years. Later he is Commander of the Naval Academy and must send the academy cadets on suicide missions to defend Earth.
In the short story by Harry Harrison, War With The Robots, the command staff are all teenagers as anyone older lacks the reflexes and flexibility of mind needed to fight the war. They retire after four or five years.
Most of Redwall's main heroes are the rodentine equivalent of about twelve to fifteen years old.
The Honor Harrington novels have an inversion of sorts, where due to the effects of Prolong (a lifespan-increasing treatment), freshly graduated soldiers will often still look like preteens young teenagers - but are actually in their thirties or forties. This produces some dissonance when they meet societies that haven't had access to the treatment.
The Tomorrow Series is about a group of teens (exact age not specified, though they're still in school) who inadvertently become guerilla soldiers when their country (Australia) is invaded while they're out camping.
The whole Harry Potter series is about kids getting caught up in their elders' war and recruited/forced to fight in it in various capacities. This is an instance of "Precociously Talented Type" and "Just Plain Tragic Type" combined.
Ditto for the Percy Jackson series. Neither side thinks twice about recruiting and training to fight demigods as young as ten years old. Percy himself fights his first battles at age twelve, Annabeth is only seven.
David Westheimer's alternate history novel about a 1945 invasion of Japan features a Japanese schoolteacher leading his his malnourished class against American tanks. Tragically, it's impled that the teacher is so fanatical that he ignores his charges' youthful status; at one point the night before the attack, he hears children sobbing and debates whether or not to order his 'troops' to look for them. When they do rush the American tanks with inadequate satchel charges, the US tankers are briefly surprised, thinking they are being attacked by midgets, then open fire and kill them all.
Rana Sanga's son Rajiv in the Belisarius Series was being groomed to be a quite formidable Warrior Prince while still a teenager. However his father certainly intended that he be allowed to grow up before seeing actual combat and he only participates in war in the series because of an attempt to murder his family while his father is away on campaign.
A subversion is found in the Philip K. Dick novel The Counter-Clock World where aging reversed decades ago, and there's a commando squad of elderly soldiers who are now the size of small children and infants.
In A Brother's Price, the Whistler family's grandmothers were all soldiers-turned-thieves-turned-spies, and they passed a great deal on to their descendents. When a shot rings out near the house while their mothers and older and middle sisters are out, leaving no one older than twelve save for a brother, they get themselves inside, younger siblings and boy first, older ones "doing a slower rear guard, scanning over their shoulders for lost siblings or strangers." The twelve-year-old girl goes with her soldier training to give orders, and little girls work in teams to load rifles and guard the windows. However, they never actually have to see action - a captain advises her princesss to keep back, she doesn't want to have to execute an eight-year-old for shooting her - and said princess is later horrified at the thought of the little girls riding out with her after some smugglers. They want to come, but their elder sisters won't let them.
In Stone King, youths as young as twelve are conscripted into the Japan Self-Defense Force's Titan Corps.
As part of the BattleTech Expanded Universe, seveal novels mention child mechwarriors: Several 15-16 year olds in the second Grey Death mercenary's novel are piloting mechs; Later Draconis Combine hero Shin Yodama is mentioned as carrying demolition charges through culverts at the age of 14.
The citizens of the planet Cadia in Warhammer 40,000 are trained from birth for combat, mainly because their planet is parked riameght outside a Negative Space Wedgie that leads straight to hell, and frequently spews forth the Legions of Hell. The birth rate and recruitment rate is the same thing. Their soldiers enter combat as part of the youth army, the "Whiteshields," at age 13. They only get promoted to the full army by earning a medal. And they are badass. A common saying is that any Cadian who can't field-strip his own lasgun by the age of ten was born on the wrong planet.
Similarly, Catachans. Their homeworld is basically "if Australia was a jungle" in terms of Everything Trying to Kill You, and three quarters of the children don't even make it to adulthood. Those who do? The Catachan Devils are armies made entirely of Ramboes if they'd been cast in Predator.
Space Marines, due to the requirements of their implants, are inducted into the chapter at around the onset of puberty, and the entry requirements make sure they must be well-versed in the act of war before they're even considered. Their transformation into full-fledged Space Marines isn't complete by the time they're seeing battle as part of the chapter's Scout Company.
As in so many other things, Space Wolves are the exception. They take in valorous young men on the brink of death, usually in their twenties (leading the population of their planet Fenris to see their order as a Warrior Heaven in itself, but that is neither here nor there). Although we're never given figures on the success rate, the wisdom of this is uncertain; when Leman Russ was found by the Emperor, his associates all volunteered to become Space Marines, and over half died from implant rejection. On the other hand, few of them were young in any way, and several were downright elderly.
A number of races in Warhammer Fantasy do this as well. Dark Elves begin training the moment they are strong enough to pick up a sword or spear. All Bretonian knights start off as a Knight Errant. Once the young knights have proven their worth in the field of battle, they are knighted and receive a small plot of land to rule.
In the d20 Modern Sourcebook D20 Apocalypse, kids as young as 12 can be adventurers (explorers, scavengers, and other people who constantly brave the post apocalypse world). While they are not soldiers, given how hostile the post apocalypse world is, they might as well be. And the minimum age for law enforcement (vigilante, town militia...) is 15. Justified by the post apocalyptic setting, where people have to learn fast or die at the hand of raiders/mutated monsters/other.
Also, Mihiro Ardygun in Super Robot Wars W, who co-pilots the Valhawk with her older brother (himself 16) at the age of 10. During the Time Skip, while her brother was missing, she took over piloting duties full-time. Though not a soldier officially, she does fight on behalf of a government organization that does include several soldiers, including the aforementioned child soldiers from Gundam Wing and Full Metal Panic!.
In Halo, the Master Chief and his fellow Spartans started their grueling military training at age six, and have been kicking Covenant rear since they were fourteen. Their skills and reputation are such that the Covenant calls them "demons."
Halo: Ghosts of Onyx goes even further, with the SPARTAN-III program, which turned children into suicide super soldiers who went off to fight and die at around the age of twelve.
What's a young girl in a pretty white dress doing as one of the top three generals in Chrono Cross? At least you can say the other kids making up the party weren't inducted into the army, what with growing up in the streets as a thief, swinging an oar, fishing, or being abandoned in the woods at 3 with only an axe and the highest strength score in the game to survive.
Some of the backstory for the Crusader games indicates the Silencer Corps (of whom the main character was a member) prospects are identified through mandatory testing on adolescents. It's also hinted that it's no so much physical prowess they're looking for as it is psychological suitability...
In Sabres Of Infinity the Tierran army's minimum enlistment age for officers is 14, making the protagonist one if they so choose.
In Valkyria Chronicles, Gallia has a policy of Universal Conscription, so military training is a part of general education and citizens as young as fifteen may be called up to serve. Moreover, the militia is known to have soldiers as young as twelve, although the girl in question enlisted voluntarily and required special permission to do so.
Even worse, the little girl is a shocktrooper, the most durable and most damaging troop type in the game.
Fallout 3, while not exactly soldiers the children who live in little lamplight are all well armed little nutjobs. You can even sell them guns, ammo, and drugs. And thermonuclear devices.
In Final Fantasy VII, no one in the game seems to consider the idea of a fourteen year old Cloud Strife joining the Shinra Army unusual (Zack Fair also joined in a similarly young age). And then there's people like Sephiroth, Shelke, and Cissne who started their fighting careers as mere children, although not through any choice of their own.
The SeeD in Final Fantasy VIII functions as a highly regarded military academy type institution and many students enter voluntarily. Students typically aren't taught in combat until their teens, and don't see actual combat outside of the training room until their graduation. Upon graduation, the SEED sometimes also work side jobs in policing duties and receive a regular salary.
However see the below category to see the flip side of this.
Fire Emblem has a few child characters, mostly thieves, Mages in training (and a few full fledged mages) and exiled royalty, but Rolf and Mist are put on the battlefield as an archer and a healer, respectively, despite being very young.
She was also a Tyke Bomb, seperated from her brother K. Heidern really enjoys recruiting young girls for some reason.
Grunt from Mass Effect 2 is a tank born krogan who is and acts like a child... by krogan standards. His major issue is that he is not only clanless but his "father" was hated by many krogan. In his case he's technically only a few days/weeks old in Mass Effect 2, but has the body of a krogan in late adolescence and had memories and knowledge downloaded into his brain.
Quarians in the Mass Effect universe are frequently involved in combat before and during their Pilgrimage (their rite of passage into adulthood).
Thane mentions training as an assassin since the age of six, with his first kill taking place when he was twelve
Ayame from Tenchu counts, as she's only 14 during the events of Tenchu 2
Spirits are raised from birth to be soldiers in Eien no Aselia. Birth doesn't appear to start at infancy for them, however.
The Metal Gear franchise has Frank Jaeger a.k.a. Null a.k.a. Gray Fox a.k.a. the Cyborg Ninja. Although his exact age is unknown, he fought in the Mozambican War of Independence around the age of 7 or so. Armed only with a knife, he got his name by his method of killing: he deceived the enemy with "the frankness of a young boy" and moved in for the close kill. He was known as the 'Frank Hunter,' which became 'Frank Jaeger' because he could speak a little German. During the events of Portable Ops, his chronologically first appearance, Frank was still only a teenager when subjected to sensory deprivation treatment in order to make him the emotionless 'Perfect Soldier,' Null.
And we have Raiden who became a child soldier in the Liberian Civil War thanks to Solidus, recieving the nicknames of "White Devil" and "Jack the Ripper". Having a combat rifle at age six, he became captain of a unit of child soldiers ("the Small Boy Unit") at age ten. Similarly, Solidus himself was also heavily implied to be in his teens when he participated in the war.
Metal Gear Solid, the novelization, the Official Missions Handbook, and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker also heavily imply that Solid and Liquid Snake were raised within the military from a very young age, at least since two years of age, in fact.
In the original Freedom Force, both Liberty Lad and Sea Urchin are Child Soldiers themselves. There's a scene in which Man O' War feels uneasy about "putting the wee ones on the front line".
Zig-Zagged in Tales of the Abyss. We have Tear who was trained by Legretta and was given military-grade training from a young age. It shows, but she has a sensitive side too. (And an urge to act like a young girl like thinking it'd be so fun to be hugged by Anise's giant plush animal.) We also have Sync who is only fourteen years old, is a candidate for That One Boss, and falls into the dramatic side given his backstory. One of Sync's comrades, Arietta, also falls into the Alas, Poor Villain types, since she can't be any older than 16 yet was trusted by the Daathic Government to act as a bodyguard for Sync. Her successor, Anise, is only thirteen, is blackmailed into being The Mole because of her parents being hugely in debt, and clearly had to grow up fast a bit. Oh, and the other god general who's underage by our standards? Asch the Bloody who is 17...and had clearly been in the Daathic Army for years beforehand. Luke also marches into battle when he's only 17 as well, but consider that He's actually much much younger than that!
League of Legends has no real restrictions on membership beyond the ability to kick enormous amounts of ass, so you can have children fighting amongst adult archangels, insane wizard Yordles, and people who've been in the military for years.
Annie, who is 6 years old and fights clutching her teddy bear in one hand... and occasionally turning it into an flaming giant to destroy her enemies
Nunu, a boy whose strong magical abilities are enhanced physically by riding into battle on the back of a Yeti.
Lux, older than the rest, but still a magically gifted child forcibly conscripted at 13 years old.
Kog'Maw, who's still an infant, but because he's an infant Eldritch Abomination who destroys everything in his path, no one minds.
While she's grown up now, Riven's backstory indicates that she was a fanatical child soldier for Noxus.
Niko Bellic, the main protagonist in Grand Theft Auto IV was about 16 or 17 years old when he and fourteen other child soldiers from his home village fought in the Bosnian war.
The title character in Terinu was raised by Space Pirate Mavra Chan to be an assassin, starting at the tender age of nine. His best friend Matt was sold by his own father to Chan to serve as a cook's mate on the same ship at the age of eleven. It's a sufficiently Crapsack World that in Matt's case this was distinct improvement over his previous situation.
Karcharoth of Cry Havoc was conscripted at the age of six, and has been fighting in one army or another for fifteen years. Understandably he has a rather distorted view of life. He was recruited due to his minor, but growing, psychic powers.
Sirene from the forum RPOpen Blue is a highly militarised country that drafts children as young as 12 for a four-year service, with the exception of children qualified for technical schooling instead. Not even royals are exempt.
Zero Takaichi of Tasakeru joined with the Militia and became a samurai at age 13, as is the custom for males of his species.
The youngest Protectors of the Plot Continuum are about thirteen years old when they start in the field. The youngest agent ever, Ella Darcy, was ten when she joined, but she wasn't a field agent.
Occasionally implied in the Transformers metaseries with the younger-minded characters. Done outright in Transformers Animated with Sari especially after she turns out to be a Robot Girl and is pushed into the front lines in season 3.
The episode "Human Error" (where the main 'bots are shown in analogous human bodies) shows that Bumblebee is the Cybertronian equivalent of roughly her age.
Omega Supreme might also count, given that he was specifically created to be a superweapon and purposefully made mentally 'slow' so that he wouldn't question orders. Not a child, but close to a child's mind.
The Transformers in Animated have an explicit childhood stage. He was a child soldier with mild mental retardation, and the actions of his creators made it clear that they knew what this would do to him, and how wrong their actions were.
Transformers Prime's version of Bumblebee may also be considered this. The prequel novels state outright that he was among the final generation of Cybertronians to be born, and while fighting on the front lines is not given any explicit significance for him, the episode "Masters and Students" hints that he's not officially recognized as warrior-class due to being too young, though a later episode would have him admit he was holding off until they fixed Cybertron.
Jedi Padawans such as Ahsoka Tano of Star Wars: The Clone Wars could very much be considered this. Ahsoka is only fourteen or fifteen and yet leads troops into battle and gets into the thick of the fighting herself. Their talent with the force and training from childhood makes even the Padawans very deadly warriors.
When Kamino comes under attack, the clone cadets take up arms to defend their home. Thanks to their accelerated growth, they're about as half as young as they look.
Episode 8 of Sym-Bionic Titan had The Academy on Galaluna, a military training facility which starts training future soldiers as children. To be fair, however, it is partially Truth In Television: most of them are teenagers, and military schools do exist for such ages. However, they also showed a row of children who looked even shorter, and, presumably, younger than Lance and Arthur — who were already small and really young-looking to begin with.
In the original Thundercats, the thunderkittens are apparently about twelve, or their species' equivalent, but they go into combat just as much as the adults. Lion-O is a borderline case, since he begins the series physically adult, but mentally a child.
This gets lampshaded in Young Justice, where the team is the black ops for the Justice League, where the oldest of them is 16 and the youngest is 13. An exasperated Mr. Twister brings this up after he curb stomps them when Robin protests that they aren't children.
"Objectively, you are. Have you no adult supervision? I find your presence here quite disturbing."
Later discussed in the episode "Agendas". With the League discovering that Captain Marvel is only ten, they begin debating whether to boot him out of the Justice League. Batman says he knew all along, and it has no impact.
Wonder Woman: I shouldn't be surprised, since you indoctrinated Robin into crime-fighting at the ripe old age of nine.
Batman: Robin needed to help bring the man who murdered his family to justice.
Similar to above, the Teen Titans. In the comics most of them eventually grow up quickly enough to avert this for most people, but the main gang in the cartoons doesn't. They almost die on several occasions, have no adult supervision, and the youngest is between the ages of fourteen and sixteen.
W.I.T.C.H. themselves, with Will celebrating her thirteenth birthday in an early episode and Hay Lin being the youngest at twelve (presumably). It probably helps they get Elemental Powers as well as an Older Alter Ego when they transform. Will's boyfriend Matt begins to train as a a warrior in season two, though this is his choice and Will is not happy about it. Some of Caleb's troops in season one look even younger than him, but they're still effective in ambushes and combat.
Dutch's younger brother Dar in Motorcity, who works for Kane Co. He looks up to and respects Abraham Kane. He pretty goes through the same experience Mike did in "Vendetta".
Calvin Graham, one of the many underage enlistees who served in World War II and became a bit of a celebrity figure in his time (And underage enlistees were often made to run extra miles and lug extra loads in the Training from Hell.) Unfortunately, due to the US government policy he was not able to get veteran benfefits. Despite that, his ship, the South Dakota, was one of the most feared ships in the Pacific Front.
Galusha Pennypacker of Pennsylvania was a sixteen-year-old sergeant in 1861, a seventeen-year-old major months later — and twenty when promoted to Brigadier General in 1865 (he was instrumental in the capture of Fort Fisher and was also awarded the Medal of Honor). He was still too young to vote at the time.
Several conquering kings (or wannabe conquerors/kings) were merely boys when they led their armies into war. Examples include Alexanderthe Great of Macedonia, Charles XII of Sweden, Edward, the Black Prince, of England, and many others.
Just Plain Tragic Type
Anime & Manga
In order to combat the Nova, the world of Freezing has to use people with the ability to use special implants that allow them to be faster, stronger and heal faster then any human. All of these people are teenaged girls and boys, with the boys, called Limiters, taking a supporting combat roll for the woman, called Pandoras, in battle. The battles with Nova all end in countless graphic and horrible deaths and almost all Pandoras and Limiters carry mental scars of some degree. The constant use of their powers also breaks down their bodies and all Pandoras able to live through their battles die at a very young age.
The various groups employing Contractors in Darker Than Black don't really care much about issues like "age." As such, kids who manifest powers tend to be grabbed up immediately, Unpersoned, and trained as assassins or other special agents. Additionally, Hei was a Badass Normal one; he fought in Heaven's War to protect his Contractor little sister, and one flashback makes it clear he wasn't more than about 16 when he first got involved.
Guts from Berserk was trained as a mercenary by his adoptive father when he was just a little boy and had to participate in his share of horrific violence as a result. One of the most horrible things to happen to him back then was being sold by the adoptive father as a sex slave to a pederast soldier for three silver coins.
Bokurano has a group of 12-13-year olds (the first episode states they've just finished grade school) protecting the whole world from being destroyed. Even if they were completely well-adjusted to begin with (and they'renot — this is a Mohiro Kitoh work) the circumstances of the 'game' they've found themselves in makes their tenure as 'defenders of earth' more tragic than most other examples on this page combined.
Chise from Saikano. In high school (or was it Junior High?) but being forced to be in the military and going as far as turning into a machine with a Berserk Button that is automatically triggered by battle.
Kirika and Chloe from Noir, and to a lesser extent Mireille, actually belong to both types. Kirika was an active assassin from the time she was five.
Setsuna F. Seiei (mentioned above) also falls into this category. He was forced to watch his fellow child soldiers die and killed his parents at the bidding of his group's leader. Years later, he still dreams about dodging bullets and wishes he could go back in time and save his younger self.
During the Warring Clan's Era of Naruto, the life expectancy of shinobi was 30 years, primarily due to the high death rate of their children. Children as young as seven or even younger were deemed shinobi and sent into battle. There they were often ganged up on by adults and ruthlessly slaughtered even if they were crying in fear. Oh...and things like Adult Fear didn't exist during that time since the killing of children in battle had become a norm.
Although they aren't forced to enter, the minimum age requirement for the army in Attack on Titan is twelve. Why? Because it has an appallingly high mortality rate and basic training takes three years.
Taken even further with Reiner, Bertolt, and Annie, who are revealed to be child terrorists sent to exterminate humanity by a yet-unknown force. The younger two were eleven when they committed their first act of mass murder. The oldest of the three, all of twelve at the time, is shown to have suffered such guilt over his actions that he's gone insane.
The main characters are all age fifteen and are soldiers.
Suisei no Gargantia stars Ledo, who has been in his Space Colony military fighting squid-like monsters for basically his entire life. Naturally, his society is Social Darwinist to the point where fighting is his life; they lost the very concepts of family members such as brothers and sisters, as well as of thanks and "coexistence". And on top of that, those too weak or sick to fight these monsters are summarily euthanized.This is the only way of life the guy has ever known.
This is nothing compared to Gen Urobuchi (the co-writer of the above series)'s seminal work, Puella Magi Madoka Magica. You may have thought before that being a Magical Girl wasn't as glamorous as the costumes make it look; this Cosmic Horror Story brutally reminds us that Sailor Moon and Nanoha were just adolescents tasked with putting their lives at risk to fight weird monsters and save the world, even though adolescents aren't always known for their decision-making abilities which becomes the very tragic crux of this show.
Mariane Satrapi's Persepolis featured a portrayal of the real life Iranian unit of children, who were walked into the minefields to detonate them ahead of the troops.
The Vertigo reboot of Unknown Soldier is set in Acholiland, the base of operations of the Lord's Resistance Army, one of the most infamous Real Life users of child soldiers. Therefore, they're all over the place.
When the X-Men were up against Storm's uncle, a ruthless African dictator, he had a whole unit of child soldiers, trained to be extremely sadistic. Storm had no choice but to kill a squad before they could to the same to her.
While not as explicit, Cyclops is an example of a child soldier grown-up. Traumatized as a child (kidnapped father, orphaned with his brother), trained in military tactics from age 14, and sent on paramilitary actions until he was a full adult. Recent X-Men author Kieron Gillen even cited this trope as his central motivation for the character.
Batwing, "the Batman of Africa," has a back story where he was forced into service as a child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His parents also died of AIDS, completing a truly African backstory.
As Evangelion fics, Aeon Natum Engel and Aeon Entelechy Evangelion both fall under this. Since they are based in the Cthulhu Tech setting and written by Earth Scorpion, it gets lampshaded a lot and criticized by the proper military of NEG. Played differently with Asuka, who is irritated that many things that she thinks will improve her piloting are restricted from her because of her age (like cybernization).
Dumbledore's Army. At least half of the members die horribly, and a good amount are crippled or killed in the sequel. However, the fic tends to glorify the hardened child soldiers in comparison to Harry, who hasn't embraced the military mindset.
What's more, it gets taken to utterly ludicrous levels. Somehow, they manage to form a complete mock-military structure despite being from a culture with no armed forces, develop a martyrdom mindset that in real life requires indoctrination from toddlerhood, and in general make an absolute mockery out of the subject. And the injuries they suffer are only terrible because the author's forgotten the Harry Potter universe has extremely powerful magical healing.
The Firefly fanfic Forward has a reveal later on that some of the Academy's test subjects are pre-teens. It is implied that one of them managed to kill several security guards when a training exercise went out of control.
Blood Diamond shows the kidnapping and indoctrination of the son of one of the main characters. Includes the real-life practice of giving kids amphetamines to kill any feeling of fear or guilt — and killing their relatives so they can't go back. Also features children killing children with AK-47s.
Specifically, there is a scene where the soldiers suit up to defend Helm's Deep and we see a number of people being armed are very young boys needed to up their soldier count. Mercifully, we're never shown the kids doing any actually combat besides throwing stones at the besiegers from the wall.
Which is not to say that they aren't implied to having fought, we just don't see them die either. Judging by the heavy casualties suffered by the defenders, it is safe to say that most of these children will have been cut down by the Uruk-Hai.
At least some of the boys can later be seen in the background of the post-victory banquet scene.
Downfall features a girl of about 12 'manning' an 88mm gun at the Battle of Berlin. When everything appears hopeless, her not-much-older comrade shoots her at her own request, then kills himself.
Pure Ones in Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole. First off, they take owlets from their nests and train them to fight the Guardians of Ga'Hoole, who are damn near unstoppable. As if the "Pickers" being moonblinked wasn't bad enough, throughout the climatic fight many of them were most likely killed. To top it off, the whole thing is disturbingly similar to the Hitler Youth. And Nyra's name is Aryan with an "a" missing. Think about that for a moment.
Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron features a Russian boy soldier who is captured by the German characters.
He was later released by the protagonist, to promptly be shot by a passing Russian soldier. Cue Protagonist BSOD.
In the 1959 German movie Die Brücke (The Bridge), a group of seven Hitler Youth tragically try to defend their hometown from American tank troops. All but one get killed.
Even more tragic, the bridge had no strategic importance, their teacher had them send there in order to keep them away from actual fighting. Additional the bridge was meant to be destroyed anyway to block the Americans entering and taking the town. The bridge gets saved in the end - allowing the American troops to enter the town. More tragic, the story was based on an actual event, upon the personal report of a surviving veteran who in his own youth experienced a similar situation in World War II.
In USSR there were MANY films about children fighting in the underground resistance during WW 2, many of them ending being either killed or executed by Germans (Young Eagle, Zoja, Fifeenth Spring etc). Sadly this is Truth in Television.
Heavily subverted in the film Till the first blood where a war game in summer camp begins to resemble an actual war more and more.
Another Russian film series The Uncatchable Avengers features four teenagers (3 boys and 1 girl) fighting in the Russian Civil War(1918-1924).
City of God prominently features children fighting in drug wars the projects of Rio de Janiero. Children are shown killing each other, dealing and using drugs, and in one shocking scene, a child is forced to execute one of his friends by the villain.
In Doctor Zhivago, during the Russian Civil War, the Red Army unit in which Zhivago is serving as a medical officer comes under fire from a (presumably White) machine-gun nest in the distance. The Reds shoot all their attackers dead, then approach the nest and find that, while they are wearing some sort of uniform, they are only boys, except for one old man. One Red looks closer at a uniform and says, astonished, "St. Michael's Military School?!" To the dead old man: "You rotten bastard!"
Lord of War: West African dictator André Baptiste has a military unit composed entirely of child soldiers which he calls the "Kalashnikov Kids" and his "Boy Brigade".
In Master and Commander (see also the example from Aubrey-Maturin novels in the Literature section, below), a 12-year-old midshipman loses an arm to enemy fire in the opening scene of the film. Captain Aubrey is very solicitous of him thereafter, giving him a book with an engraving of the one-armed, one-eyed Admiral Nelson, and leaving him in command of the HMS Surprise when the other officers board a French vessel; and the boy remains so game an officer that a case could be made for including this under the "Precociously Talented Type". But, still! This is Truth in Television. In fact, most officers of the Royal Navy in that period probably started out as midshipmen in their teens or younger.
The whole Harry Potter series is about kids getting caught up in their elders' war and recruited/forced to fight in it in various capacities. This is an instance of "Precociously Talented Type" and "Just Plain Tragic Type" combined.
In Taps, cadets at a Military School find out that the useless adults are planning to close the school and sell the land to condo developers. With the school's commander in the hospital, they decide that they will not allow this to happen and barricade themselves within its walls with weapons from the well-stocked armory. This leads to the inevitable standoff with the national guard.
In The Horse Soldiers John Ford plays this for tears and laughs.
The 1993 German film Stalingrad has Kolya, a Russian child who is captured by the platoon after attempting to attack them with a grenade.
Aubrey-Maturin is not the only example — middies in Napoleonic naval fiction are commonly in action. Richard Bolitho destroys a pirate ship at sixteen, while Horatio Hornblower captured a French privateer at seventeen. Lord Ramage took to sea at thirteen. The minimum age in the Royal Navy was twelve for midshipmen, and eighteen for lieutenants. These restrictions were commonly relaxed, especially for members of prominent families. Mitigating this, midshipmen were frequently carried on the ship's books a few years before they were actually carried on the ship. If a boy's father had been in the navy, some sources say that the minimum age was NINE. As the Midshipmen, there were also the ships boys, many of who were born on board ships (possible origin for the term "son of a gun", being born between the guns) and would be used in action as soon as they were able to start running powder and shot from the magazine to the guns. "Topmen" too would usually be closer to boys.
Horatio Hornblower: While some of the Child Soldiers in this book series are the heroic Plucky Middie types, some of them die tragically. Similar fate awaits the ships' powder monkeys.
Cotillion and Shadowthrone's army of orphans in Malazan Book of the Fallen. In a show of Black Humour, the children were rescued from crucifixion and "given" to the two, which was not appreciated due to their preference for acting from the sidelines.
Les Misérables features minor character Gavroche, a street-child who participates in the student uprising, collecting ammunition from the bodies of fallen enemy soldiers and survives being shot once to throw his bag of bullets over to his friends before falling to another shot.
The later Harry Potter books see several underage wizards/witches seeing real combat due to various circumstances, namely the rising stakes. The most tragic example is Colin Creevey, who is killed in the book 7 finale (he would have been sixteen or possibly even seventeen at this point, but his small stature would have certainly made him seem younger).
In Temeraire, which is as historically accurate as any series featuring dragons can be, shows young midshipmen and other military personnel among Britain's armed forces. Laurence himself ran away from home to join the Navy at twelve, and when he becomes an aviator, several of his crew are around ten, eleven, or twelve. While aviators don't actually go up at ages earlier than that and aren't part of the crew meant to fight until years later, cadets start training at seven so they're acclimated to the dragons by the time they're ready for duty. This is more presented as childhood being shorter in those days, as well as the British being pressed hard by Napoleon, than anything else. The author also does not shy away from some of these Child Soldiers being killed, either in battle or through accidents that will occur on military vessels.
Teenage witch Sylvia of Arc from Nick Perumov's "Swords' Guardian" series. Was "considered a veteran at the age of ten." She fills both variants (i.e. is both Precociously Talented AND Tragic) of this trope, though, as she is IMMENSELY talented and could take most adult opponents with ease... until she started to run into demigods, that is.
Even Alisa Selezneva, "Girl to whom nothing will happen" from books of Kir Bulychev, was drafted as a soldier once at age 12.
She (actually the author) also gives an explanation WHY this is common: "If a grown up soldier revolts, he can be hard to deal with. He may very well turn the weapons you give him at you. Kids usually can be controlled by means as simple as threatening to deny them sweets."
Karin Lowachee milks this trope for all the tragedy its worth. The main character from Warchild is a child solider, borderline spy and assassin, even. He's not a very happy or well-adjusted young man. But then he's contrasted with his friend Evan, who in addition to being captured and raised by pirates, is alluded to being a child whore in addition to solider. The "good guys," if you can call them that use teenagers as cannon fodder.
The second book in The Dalemark Quartet by Diana Wynne Jones, Drowned Ammet, introduces Mitt, a boy whose family is forced off its farm and into the city slums because they can't pay the earl's rising taxes. Then Mitt's father joins a society of revolutionaries and dies, which prompts Mitt to join the society himself, and then he gets the brilliant idea to blow up the earl.....
In Animorphs, a group of barely teenagers (they were 13 when they started) get drafted into fighting a secret alien invasion by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cue the loss of any personal life, killing and nearly getting killed a dozen times a week, being forced to sacrifice loved ones for the greater good and recurring nightmares that last for the rest of their lives.
Chris Abani's Song For Night takes place in West Africa (presumably Nigeria, given the writer's home country) during a senseless war that forcibly recruits children. Amongst the tragedies, these kids are usually orphans, they get their vocal cords slit to keep them from making noise, they're coerced to rape innocent people by their sadistic leader, and witness their comrades get blown up by proximity mines, which they're trained to defuse. Unsurprisingly, many of them don't last past their teens. The worst part? The aforementioned statements are Truth in Television, since the story's based off the author's real life experiences.
In Suicide Kings from the Wild Cards series Dr. Nshombo uses child Aces as soldiers. Since they have superpowers this would normally put them in the precocious category, except for how he gets them. He takes normal children in large numbers and exposes them to the wild card virus. This kills most of the people exposed to it. About nine percent suffer extreme but survivable mutations. And about one percent gain superpowers without being mutated, known as Aces. Aces or those with useful mutations are conscripted. The rest, including those who turn out to be "deuces" are shot.
Robert Muchamore's unpublished book, "Home" (available online here ), which features children in a guerilla army; however, they are there purely by accident, and the leader is a pretty decent guy, though no bones are made about his kills and the psychological effects on them.
There's a short story which details the journey of a group of children on the Children's Crusade. As history tells, it does not end well, which makes their optimism that God will favor their cause once they reach Jerusalem to be rather a Tear Jerker. Fortunately, the narrator had been a werewolf since birth (he joined the Crusade in the hopes of God freeing him from his curse) and the night they're delivered to Egypt as slaves happens to be just the same night as the full moon...
Willie, husband of the narrator of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, joined the Confederate army in the American Civil War at the age of 13. It messed him up - just how horribly is revealed gradually over the course of the book.
Hans and Gretchen Richter in 1632 were kidnapped from their peaceful family in the Thirty Years' War, Hans to be a soldier and Gretchen to be a Sex Slave. They are forced to do their captors bidding lest their younger siblings be killed as useless mouths. The amazing thing is that they were able to remain human at all and had any capability of recivilizing themselves when they were freed.
A young Vlad Tepes in Count and Countess is held hostage by the Ottoman Empire and forced into the Janissaries.
In Warrior Cats, one of the laws in the warrior code is that kits must be six moons old (the feline equivalent of about age 10) to begin training, and they don't see battle until they're more experienced. This rule stemmed from too many kits being trained at too young an age; it took their mothers refusing to fight in a battle to make the Clan leaders see sense. This law has been broken once during the books: Brokenstar trained ShadowClan kits to fight when they were barely weaned from their mothers, and as a result many of the Clan's kits died in battle.
Arya Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire. In A Game of Thrones, she is just a spirited tomboy, meant as a foil to her ladylike sister Sansa. As of A Dance with Dragons, war has killed off most of her family, and hardened her character: hoping to become lethal enough to kill who she views as the men responsible for her close ones' death, she becomes an assassin-in-training for the feared Faceless Men. The fact that she doesn't seem to feel any remorse or guilt while killing just adds to her creepiness.
The autobiography A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah is a very chilling, tragic account written by a boy who was removed from the government army of Sierra Leone by a group from UNICEF.
Live Action TV
24: Redemption: Sees Jack Bauer rescuing the pupils of school from becoming Child Soldiers and also features them.
In episode 4, intelligence for Operation Market Garden stated that the German soldiers in the Netherlands were mostly "children and old men". This turned out to be inaccurate and contributed to the failure of the operation.
Pvt. Jackson, who died by his own grenade in episode 8, was noted to have lied about his age when he joined the army at 16.
In episode 5, Winters is haunted by the memory of shooting a German soldier who looked no older than 18.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy leads the potential slayers into what is essentially a hopeless war in season seven, with many or most of them being under 18. For that matter, though it was more of a lone warrior gig prior to season seven any slayer would probably qualify, since 15-16 seems to be the usual age to be called, and 16 to 17 the usual age to be killed.
Doctor Who: Sontarans, sort of; as a cloned race of Proud Warrior Race Guys, they skip past anything we would recognize as childhood, both physically and mentally. The episode "A Good Man Goes to War" alludes to this:
Strax: It's all right. I've had a good life. I'm nearly twelve.
Farscape: Peacekeeper training starts young. Some recruits are the result of an "assigned birthing to fill the ranks" and others are conscripted from Sebacean colonies. Those born into service never get to know their parents as it is against the rules for parents to make any contact with their children.
Firefly: If the School For Scheming's plan had worked, River Tam would have become one of these. She was sent to an Alliance-controlled Academy, aged fourteen, for what she and her family thought was a more challenging curriculum than normal high schools. Instead, she got the Training from Hell, and it's implied that she isn't the only one to get it, just one of the only ones to actually live through the process, and there very likely were other kids screwed just as much as she did (only the series couldn't get deep enough for being cancelled). By the time she's rescued from the facility by her brother Simon, she's only seventeen years old.
Hornblower: In this miniseries adaptation of the books, this trope doesn't appear very prominently, but there are some children aboard ships, both British and their enemies. Series two featured some powder monkeys. In "Loalty" (series three), there's a memorable gory scene when young Midshipman Jack Hammond freaked out because he got splattered with blood of one little powder boy who got blown up to smithereens with a cannon ball. There are also many characters who fall into the naval type, and those Plucky Middies got explored more and viewers got to know them better. Alas, they made us root for them, only to let them suffer later and then let them die tragically.
JAG: The series finale had one of the officers dealing with a marine who is actually only 16 years who lied about his age signing up. To resolve the situation, the lawyer talks the Marine Corps into making the kid an honorary Marine before he is sent home to his mother with a promise that they would be delighted to recruit him legally when the time is right.
The Wire: A looser example, but during season 4, Michael (who was only 13 or 14 at time) was forced to become this for Marlo's drug crew. It was the only way for him to escape his worsening circumstances at home. While Michael could handle taking his finances from his junkie mother, the return of his step-father made him feel threatened (and for good reason, if he was really molested by him). By requesting the help of the local gangsters, it gave Michael their protection and housing to get him and his step-brother away from home. The Wire implies that many young inner-city kids (including Bodie and Wallace) got their start in the drug game through similar circumstances. Even Calvin lampshades this in season 4 when he stated that by 18, kids are too deep into the drug game to be reformed, let alone act civilized to authorities.
Falling Skies: Since most of the country's military was wiped out in the aliens' initial invasion, most of the fighting now has to be done by the remaining civilians, including young children.
The song Little Weapon by Lupe Fiasco is about child soldiers, but also video games.
Nightwish's "Planet Hell" is about the hellish lives child soldiers live.
Turns up several times in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, particularly in the supporting materials. The defence of Hive Hellsreach during the Second Battle for Armageddon is one of the more poignant examples.
Evacuees will be restricted to those below the age of seven (plus one parent/guardian) and those above the age of ninety. Regrettably, there are not enough places for everyone, so each person eligible for evacuation will be assigned a number. [...] If you are not eligible for evacuation you will be immediately assigned to a hive defence unit - details of where to report will follow this announcement.
The RPG Grey Ranks depicts child soldiers (aged 15-17) during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
The Wole Soyinka play Travel Club and Boy Soldier is about a military coup in an unspecified third-world nation, and the "Commandant" who's leading the whole thing is, well, the titular boy soldier. He's a teenager when the takeover happens, but he's been in the army for years by that point.
Les Misérables features Gavroche, who tags along with the student revolutionaries (who are themselves implied in several songs to be at most in their early 20s) and manages to take 2 bullets while collecting ammunition for the students before he is fatally shot in the head.
Suikoden II is the ur-example of this trope in Eastern RPGs. The story begins with two friends who, during military training in a youth brigade, are attacked by their own country's forces dressed up as a neighboring nation's units, just to justify going to war with that nation. Many child soliders such as Pohl are even killed (in his case, run through by Luca Blight). Your childhood friend Nanami even tries on more than one occasion to get the protagonist to abandon the war, saying that they're just kids and they have no place in a war. Agreeing to run away with her leads into one of the most emotional scenes in the game, which is no small feat.
In the Metal Gear series, this is the Back Story of aforementioned Frank Jaeger and Raiden. It turned the former into a badass and the latter into a psychological wreck. To be fair, Frank's a psychological wreck, too.
The Beauty & Beast Corps that Snake fights in Metal Gear Solid 4 are all child soldiers who were horribly traumatized in their childhood. For example, Laughing Octopus was forced to laugh while she killed people, despite the fact that she found it horrifying, and so she cackles like a hyena all through her boss battle. At the end, she confesses, "I'm not really laughing..."
Big Boss's final plan was to rescue war orphans and train them as soldiers, then feed them onto the battlefield to perpetuate an endless cycle of warfare. Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain will show how he did this.
Drakengard features a few missions where the enemy soldiers are child conscripts. Naturally, Caim, being the murderous nutcase that he is, viciously slaughters them all, much to the dismay of his more level-headed comrades.
In the game is a mission where most of the foes are the normal faceless adults you've been used to fighting throughout the game, except for a small squad of child conscripts. You can ignore them easily enough, but if you want one of the unlockable weapons during this mission, you have to hunt them down. And since getting all the endings in Drakengard requires every single weapon, you're forced to do this.
Iji and her brother Dan are pressed into fighting an alien invasion because everyone else is dead. Some of the logbooks imply that the Tasen draft soldiers as soon as they're old enough to hold a rifle, somewhat justified as the Komato have hunted them to the brink of extinction.
Iji is actually 20 years old, so she doesn't count. The diary writing alien soldier and her girlfriend are definite examples, though.
Final Fantasy VIII is a deconstruction of this trope. The protagonists are all members of an elite fighting force trained from the age of 5, and all but one are orphans. The Applied Phlebotinum they use to enhance their power also has the side effect of eroding their memories. It's hardly surprising, then, that their heads are royally fucked up. It also makes another point: early in the game, the protagonists are assigned to an assassination mission that goes tits up entirely due to the protagonists making inept decisions based on their emotions. Their attempt was certainly commendable, but it's made glaringly clear that the reason for their failure was due to their inexperience and youth.
Suikoden V has Nether Gate; among their many, many atrocities is how they raise children to become career assassins. The player meets several members; some managed to escape its influence and have spent years recovering. Others... haven't.
In Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway it is implied that Frankie is under 18. He dies.
Some people did (and still do!) lie about their age in order to join the military.
Fire Emblem games usually play this for drama. The younger members often have some tragic backstory that forces them into war. A few examples: Amelia, Ross, and Franz from Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones all have a Missing Mom. The latter two suffering from varying degrees of Disappeared Dad. Amelia's mom was kidnapped by bandits, whatever that may lead toThough, if you support Amelia with Duessel, we learn that her mom got better. Ross's mom got sick and died, and his father, who had left them to join the army, retired to raise his son. Franz's mother got sick and died as well, his father, a knight, died fighting bandits. We also have Colm and Neimi. Neimi was raised by her grandfather, and when he died, Colm was the only other person she had. Naturally, those two are the fastest support in the game, usually able to get to A level by the 8th chapter.
F.E.A.R. has psychic commmando Paxton Fettel, as well as the player character, the Point Man. Though grown by the events of the game, both were trained from birth. Fettel in particular killed people when he was only ten, though not in combat, and it wasn't entirely his fault...
The psychological and emotional ramifications are explored in third game. Essentially, they're both scared children running from something far more powerful than them and either becoming obsessed with that (or similar) power or lashing out mindlessly in fear.
The Point Man was entered into stasis at around 16, and taken out and trained when he was physically in his late 20s. It's hinted (but never made clear) that he might still be a child mentally.
Fallout: New Vegas: You can talk to a Retired NCR Ranger with a broken leg in Novac. If you ask him why his leg is broken, he'll say that it was because the Legion sent children as suicide bombers against him and his squad, knowing they'd hesitate to shoot.
Subtly implied to be the case if Shepard has the Colonist Background in Mass Effect. We are never given the details precisely of how they survived the Batarian raid on Mindoir on their 16th birthday, which wiped out their entire family. Judging from other first-hand descriptions, the raid is implied to have been a bloodbath, meaning that it's very likely that Shepard had to pick up a weapon and do a lot of growing up that day.
Turians are said to have a life cycle similar to humans' but are also known to conscript every able-bodied young person into the military at only fifteen years of age. The psychological ramifications of subjecting teenage boys to military life and warfare en masse are left unexplored (but maybe that explains Garrus and Saren).
Ruby's World uses this as the base of the conflict; the villains regularly use third world children as material for their cybernetic super-soldiers, and several of the young heroes have this blood-stained technology in their bodies.
In El Goonish Shive, after a monster attacked Susan in Paris, two Immortals empowered her and Nanase, and instructed how to kill it. Later, in the Hammerchlorians storyline, it was revealed that these Immortals could have very easily gone to an experienced local magic-user instead. Susan... didn't take it well.
In Madgie, what did you? XIX, the children aren't given much of a choice in whether or not they want to but it is put that they have to fight. That, and their guardians, the ones that lead them, have would't put them up to it if they didn't have to.
Avatar: The Last Airbender: Aang—the only character who knows what it is to live in a time of peace (other than Bumi, who is at this point over a 100 years old)—is the last survivor of a genocide. Then you have Jet, Sokka (who is put in charge of the defence of a village and an invasion), Zuko (the poster child for emotionally/physically scarred Child Soldiers), Katara (her childhood ended at nine)... One of the main villains is a fourteen year old girlwho ends up having a Villainous Breakdown. It's even lampshaded a few times.
Katara: I haven't done this since I was a kid!
Aang: You are a kid!
Zuko: You're just a child!
Aang: Well, you're just a teenager.
Back to the Future had a story where Doc Brown's go to the American Civil War and find themselves recruited as Union Army drummer boys. As he is being trained by another boy, Jimmy, he is told that they are positioned in the front lines in the line of fire:
Jules But we're just kids!
Jimmy [Bleakly] War makes you go up fast.
A disturbing number of conflicts in Real Life have drawn children into them. Worse, it still happens, especially with the more renegade military forces of the world. Even by historical standards children who should have been considered far too young for service have throughout history been forced into real combat situations.
The NGO War Child estimates that there are 250,000 child soldiers in the world today.
The CIA world factbook's "Manpower fit for military service" starts at age 16. International Law requires that conscription can't start until age 18note This isn't a case of Values Dissonance, but rather an accurate estimation by the CIA: in a civil war or other conflict, international law isn't carefully adhered to. The CIA is estimating the amount of capable fighters that would be available in a war of desperation, not how many fighters would legally be available.
Resistance movements often feature child soldiers, given that the adults fit for military service have for the most part been killed, captured, or otherwise neutralized by the invading army. During the Armenian Genocide the Armenian Boy Scoutsas an organization saw signficant combat action (although they were officially utilized in support roles such as hospital staff). Polish scouts and other children fought in all three major battles of Warsaw during WWII.
At least a third of the Union Army in the American Civil War (as many as a million troops) were seventeen or younger. Boys as young as thirteen fought in combat (especially under the Confederacy), as opposed to drummer boys who were technically noncombatants.
The Virginia Military Institute corps of cadets, some no older than fourteen, fought at the Battle of New Market in 1864. Of 264 present, ten were killed and 42 wounded.
In the days of black powder and line infantry, drummer boys, many only 11 years old, some younger, stood in the front rank, armed only with their musical instruments as the men around them fought.
The 'musics' who survived the battle also doubled as stretcher-bearers, carrying the wounded to the filthy and disease-ridden field hospitals, where amputation and cauterizationwithout anesthesia were often the only treatment available to the wounded. Although not normally a combat role, it was most certainly a traumatic one.
In those same days there were also powder monkeys, boys of the same age who transported gun powder on ships.
The Germans recruited young boys as "Flak-Helfer" during the second World War, assistant AA crews, who didn´t see much combat and if they did it consisted of shooting at specs in the sky. They alternated between going to school and helping with AA guns until they were 18, at which point they could join the ranks. Being properly trained in etiquette, ranks and all the other boring stuff, they usually made for very fine soldiers during training, had high morale and little reason to object to orders.
And then there was the Volkssturm...every male who could hold a rifle was drafted. Regardless of age.
The last photos of Adolf Hitler show him awarding Iron Crosses to child soldiers in the ruins of Berlin.
The Italian Ragazzi del '99 ("boys of 1899") that fought in World War I: after the devastating defeat at Caporetto, the Italian army restored its numerical superiority by drafting the boys born in 1899, that at the time (1917-1918) were seventeen years old. This is openly acknowledged as a desperation move, and these child soldiers are still honoured by having streets, squares, parks and (allegedly) the 99 Flake ice cream named after them.
The Ragazzi del '99 and the other Italian soldiers first drafted during World War I are an example of the Italian commander-in-chief Luigi Cadorna trying to correct the inadequate equipment of the Italian Army with a combination of superior numbers and training: the boys were drafted months before their eighteenth birthday, but spent the time between the draft and their eighteenth birthday training in the new trench warfare, reaching the front with superior skills than the new drafts of the Austro-Hungarian Army. After Caporetto, however, every soldier had to be sent to the frontline, resulting in the almost three hundred thousands already trained to be sent to the front in haste while the rest of them was drafted.