In the early 1980s, Oscar Torres (search) and the other boys in his neighborhood would clamber up to the corrugated tin roofs of their one-room shacks to hide from military officers, who forcibly recruited children as young as 12 years old to fight in El Salvador's civil war. Boys who did not become soldiers often fought for guerrilla forces.
"That was our daily life," recalls Torres, 34, who fled to the United States in 1984. "We didn't think it was anything extraordinary."
Two decades later, screenwriter Torres was initially reluctant when Mexican filmmaker Luis Mandoki (search) encouraged him to co-write a script based on his war-torn childhood for the film "Innocent Voices" (search), which is being released Friday in major U.S. cities.
"He asked me, 'Why me?'" said Mandoki. "But by the end he realized, 'It's not just about me.'"
Before the film's closing credits roll, statistics flash across the screen about child soldiers forced to fight for national militaries and rebel groups. Although more than 190 countries agree that a person legally becomes an adult at the age of 18, the United Nations estimates that 300,000 children under that age are engaged in as many as 30 conflicts around the globe, from Uganda to Colombia, from Sri Lanka to Sierra Leone.
"It's become like a global virus," said P.W. Singer (search), author of the book "Children of War" and national security fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
"The practice of using child soldiers has spread from state to state and from group to group over the last decade."
And as the issue of child soldiers grows more important throughout the world, U.S. soldiers face a dilemma: whether to attack children who may pose a mortal threat to them in the War on Terror.
U.S. forces faced child soldiers early in post-Sept. 11 conflicts. There were 8,000 child soldiers in Afghanistan when American forces invaded in 2002, according to the United Nations. Media outlets reported that Special Forces Sgt. Nathan Chapman (search), the first U.S. serviceman killed in combat in Afghanistan, was fatally shot by a 14-year-old boy.
In Iraq, U.S. soldiers facing attack by armed children are permitted to defend themselves and fellow troops. "Whether it's a man, woman or child firing at you, there is no distinction at that point in time, they are combatants," said Central Command (search) spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, currently stationed in Iraq.
But in many cases, it remains unclear whether a child poses a danger for American troops. Insurgent groups across Iraq use children as young as 12 years old to purchase weapons, work as informants and messengers, and detonate bombs, precisely because coalition forces often disregard children as a threat, according to declassified information provided by Capt. Patricia Brewer, a U.S. military spokeswoman in Iraq.
The declassified military statement also said that insurgents convince children to undertake perilous tasks that adults will not. In one example, the statement said, a disabled youth was kidnapped from a children's hospital during January elections and forced to serve as a suicide bomber at a Baghdad polling site. The boy — his age unknown — died, and the blast injured three civilians.
Singer, who has briefed U.S. military personnel about the issue of child soldiers, said the main insurgent groups in Iraq — post-Baathists and radical Shiites and Sunnis — frequently use promises of martyrdom to manipulate children into service. "For kids who are growing up in a refugee camp … in the worst of urban squalor ... this can be really powerful inducement," said Singer.
In Afghanistan, where Taliban forces are reportedly recruiting children, Singer said child soldiers are "kids who have lost their parents, kids who wouldn't be able to get a square meal anywhere else, kids who join because it's the only way to stay alive."
In that sense, the problem of child recruitment in Afghanistan is similar to regions where warfare, disease and disasters have left children without shelter or family. Singer points to Sri Lanka, where the Tamil Tiger rebels enlist children who survived last December's tsunami, and parts of Africa where children orphaned by AIDS or genocide are vulnerable to recruitment.
Children are considered a cheap way to build a military force because little is spent on training or equipping them, said Ret. Col. Charles Borchini (search), who worked in psychological operations for the U.S. Army and managed a seminar about child soldiers at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (search) before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
But Borchini also attributes the escalation in the numbers of child soldiers to the proliferation of light arms.
"The real weapon of mass destruction is the small weapon, the AK-47," he said. "It's available, cheap, easy to use, it's lightweight, and a young kid can carry it and shoot it without any training."
Armed with light weapons and an undeveloped sense of right or wrong, young child soldiers are especially cruel, according to experts.
"The younger ones are often the most vicious because they don't have the same limits," said Marie de la Soudiere, director of the Children Affected by Armed Conflict program at the International Rescue Committee (search). "In Uganda, whenever I talk to 14- or 15-year-olds, they always shudder when they tell me what the 10-year-olds are doing."
But de la Soudiere says there is a hopeful side to the issue. "It doesn't quite make sense with what we learn in Western psychology ... but children can pick up their lives again," she said.
Singer also suggested that there are ways to better equip U.S. forces who may be unsure if a child is a friend or foe. He said troops could use non-lethal weapons like tear gas, calmative agents or stink bombs, rather than have to deal with the psychological repercussions of mistakenly shooting innocent children.
Because of the informal nature of insurgent and rebel warfare, the number of children engaged in military operations is difficult to quantify. But there currently are 207 juveniles detained in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, according to Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, spokesman for Multi-National Force detainee operations in Iraq, who describes them as "an imperative threat to the security of Iraq."
Singer and de la Soudiere said governments and international organizations need to get tough on the true war criminals behind the problem — the adult leaders who use child soldiers — by throwing them in jail rather than simply trying to embarrass them by naming them publicly.
"We're trying to shame the shameless," said Singer. "What we have to do is move past trying to shame people and actually start enforcing the laws."