Why Gabi Braun is Attack on Titan’s most realistic depiction of a child soldier. (2024)

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Apr 18, 2021

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Why Gabi Braun is Attack on Titan’s most realistic depiction of a child soldier. (2)

A relatively realistic portrayal of a child soldier in fiction is noteworthy, since the use of children as militants is statistically more widespread now than ever before. However, I have noticed that many Western fans (who appear to comprise the majority of the Reddit AoT fandom), or those without much knowledge on the subject, underestimate what a childhood of brainwashing and violence actually does to most kids and consequently seem to think Gabi’s initial behaviour is unrealistically fanatical and bloodthirsty. It reminds me of how a European journalist witnessed the human-wave assaults of tens of thousands of teenage Iranian martyrs during the Iran-Iraq war and “could hardly believe what he was seeing, as first one boy, and then another, detonated a mine and was hurled into the air by the explosion.” [1]

Why Gabi Braun is Attack on Titan’s most realistic depiction of a child soldier. (3)

Ironically, if there is anything unrealistic about the Marley arc, it is not the stubbornness with which Gabi sticks to her beliefs but the fact that her fanaticism is presented as an exception instead of the norm among the Warriors. In the words of Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier: “We [child soldiers] believed what they told us, as we didn’t have any choice […] I didn’t know anything of the outside world.” It is no coincidence that the the Khmer Rouge’s military conscription of Cambodian children primarily targeted 10–12 year-olds, “who after indoctrination were to be the most brutal cadres of the regime at the ages of 12–15.” [2]

If Marley was real, most of the Warrior candidates would be as ruthless or zealous as Gabi, especially after witnessing something as traumatising as what the Survey Corps did in Liberio. Consider how Ishmael Beah, who fought as a child soldier during Sierra Leone’s civil war, described his experience executing rebels whom he believed collectively responsible for the loss of his loved ones [3]:

There were five prisoners and many eager participants. So the corporal chose a few of us. He picked Kanei, three other boys, and me for the killing exhibition. The five men were lined up in front of us on the training ground with their hands tied. […] I didn’t feel a thing for him, didn’t think that much about what I was doing. I just waited for the corporal’s order. The prisoner was simply another rebel who was responsible for the death of my family, as I had come to truly believe. […] The boys and the other soldiers who were the audience clapped as if I had just fulfilled one of life’s greatest achievements.

Why Gabi Braun is Attack on Titan’s most realistic depiction of a child soldier. (4)
Why Gabi Braun is Attack on Titan’s most realistic depiction of a child soldier. (5)

From her very first introduction, the quality that sets Gabi apart the most from her peers is her proud resolve when it comes to the Warrior program. Due to the lack of a healthy childhood, indoctrinated kids in militarised societies often take such pride in the group they serve that it trumps any discomfort they may feel underneath. T. W. Woronov once saw an example of this in a Chinese classroom for the Little Red Pioneers, the CCP’s youth organization. Here is how the children described attending a Pioneer ceremony despite feeling dehydrated:

“I wanted to cry,” said one child, “but I tried not to.”
“Well,” another admitted, “I did cry. I was really hot and thirsty.”
“So,” Teacher Li asked, “did any of you regret going?”
“NO!” was the resounding response. They clamored to tell me: “Entering the Pioneers is an honor! Once we took the pledge to enter the Pioneers I forgot about hot and thirsty I was!”

Other children “were particularly honored by the opportunity, because […] Chairman Mao had ‘kicked the butts’ of the Japanese devils (ta da le Riben guizi) during the anti-Japanese war; to demonstrate, several children jumped out of their seats and gleefully showed me moves copied from Hong Kong kungfu movies.” [4]

Why Gabi Braun is Attack on Titan’s most realistic depiction of a child soldier. (6)

We see the way Gabi’s sense of pride overrides her more instinctual emotions when talking to her family. At dinner, Gabi mentions how she was nearly riddled with bullets by enemy soldiers at Fort Slava and expresses deep gratitude towards Galliard, her senior Warrior comrade, for saving her life during the battle, yet she ultimately frames this near-death experience as nothing more than an honorable duty for her nation (something her elders notably and sadly encourage).

Speaking of Fort Slava, one common complaint about Gabi’s actions is that she is overly delusional for crying about her home getting attacked after helping Marley conquer other nations. Even disregarding the fact that all humans are illogical hypocrites to some degree or another, this type of reaction from a child soldier who grew up in an unhealthy environment is particularly expectable. Consider the case of China Keitetsi, a Ugandan activist and former child soldier [5]:

The lessons that she learns at home are inherently antisocial. Her only role models are characters like her sister Margie, who shows her nothing more than the possibility of escape. Consequently, her empathy and ability to think critically are deficient. To use one example among many in the memoir, in one scene she steals money from her grandmother and, in the very next scene, discovers that her own bag has been taken. Without irony she “asked myself why all this trouble had to happen to me: what have I done to the world?” (79).

The above description is disturbing in how applicable it is to Gabi. The lessons she learns at home are lessons in self-hatred and ultra-nationalism, the only role model she has is her cousin Reiner, ‘who shows her nothing more than the possibility of escape’ (that is, becoming a Warrior to improve the situation for Eldians in the interment zone), and as a result of this type of childhood environment, she often appears hypocritical.

Why Gabi Braun is Attack on Titan’s most realistic depiction of a child soldier. (7)
Why Gabi Braun is Attack on Titan’s most realistic depiction of a child soldier. (8)

However, her seeming hypocrisy following the raid on Liberio does not make her burning desire to go after not only the Scouts but any random Eldian from Paradis less realistic. Let’s take a look at how a Tutsi kadogo (‘small one’/child soldier) who had already killed people on behalf of the rebels during the brutal civil war in Rwanda, reacted to the deaths of those close to him after de-mobilization [6]:

Gilbert B. was a kadogo in the FPR. He left primary school in 1993, and joined Kagame’s army before the age of 14. As a child soldier, he killed at least 3 people. Eventually he was demobilized in 1994. After he returned home to Gitarama, he came to know that his parents had been killed, and their house had been destroyed. In a rage, he killed a Hutu boy, who also was recruited by FPR, Gilbert’s fourth victim.

Indeed, the idea that child soldiers only act on their emotions and beliefs while on the battlefield and not outside of it is a far-fetched one, which also leads to another popular misconception later down the line: that Gabi’s aggression when she first arrives in Paradis (‘the island of devils’) is unrealistic and over-the-top compared to Falco’s open-mindedness.

Why Gabi Braun is Attack on Titan’s most realistic depiction of a child soldier. (9)

If only that were the case! It would be a lot easier to integrate former child soldiers back into society.

In reality, most indoctrinated child soldiers continue to behave violently and identify with the group they fought for even after being taken out of the war zone. Here is what a study involving the observation of child soldiers in Mozambique had to say about those who had stayed less than six months in a camp for the anti-communist Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) versus those who had stayed longer [7]:

[…] the length of time spent in base camps — more than the extent of personal involvement in violence — dictated a child’s subsequent moral response. In general, children who had stayed less than six months appeared to emerge with their basic trust in traditional values intact. Even though some had committed acts of violence, they continued to define themselves as victims rather than as members of Renamo. After liberation, most of these young people did initially display aggressive behavior and distrust of adults. But these actions and attitudes subsided quickly, and their early recovery efforts were marked more by post-traumatic stress disorder and remorse than by antisocial behavior.

On the other hand, children who had spent one year or longer in Renamo camps appeared to have crossed some kind of threshold. Their own self-concept had become solidly entwined with their captors. The conditions were so adverse and Renamo’s indoctrination so persistent that these young people had come to view themselves as members of the group.

If children who only spend a year or two in a military camp generally cross ‘some kind of threshold,’ then children who spent their entire lives suffering in an internment zone and fighting wars for an empire would definitely be leagues beyond that threshold and require extreme intervention (such as compassion and forgiveness shown from an enemy family) to find their way. The intertwining of one’s identity with his/her oppressors is, of course, perfectly embodied by Gabi.

Why Gabi Braun is Attack on Titan’s most realistic depiction of a child soldier. (10)
Why Gabi Braun is Attack on Titan’s most realistic depiction of a child soldier. (11)

The fact that Gabi does not immediately change her mind on Paradisians after meeting some nice ones and takes time to reconsider her entire worldview might be frustrating for the audience or make them feel like her development is ‘too slow’, but it is actually a relatively realistic and arguably necessary portrayal of a child soldier’s psychology during the de-radicalization process.

Thus, we end the first part of the final season with the Gabster accepting that everything she has believed in up until this point is a lie but being unsure about what to replace those beliefs with — and that’s a lot more progress than people seem to realise.

Why Gabi Braun is Attack on Titan’s most realistic depiction of a child soldier. (12)

[1] Smith, Terrence. “Iran: Five Years of Fanaticism.” New York Times. 12 February, 1984.

[2] Klemensits, Péter and Czirják, Rachel. “Child Soldiers in Genocidal Regimes: The Cases of the Khmer Rouge and the Hutu Power.” Research in African Literatures, AARMS Vol. 15, №3 (2016), 215–22.

[3] Beah, Ishmael. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. 124–125.

[4] Woronov, T. W. “Performing the Nation: China’s Children as Little Red Pioneers.” Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 80, №3 (Summer, 2007), pp. 647–672.

[5] Mastey, David. “The Adulterated Children of Child Soldier Narratives.” Research in African Literatures, Vol. 48, №4, Ken Saro-Wiwa as Public Intellectual (Winter 2017), 39–55.

[6] Klemensits, Péter and Czirják, Rachel. “Child Soldiers in Genocidal Regimes: The Cases of the Khmer Rouge and the Hutu Power.” Research in African Literatures, AARMS Vol. 15, №3 (2016), 215–22.

[7] Boothby, Neil G. And Knudsen, Christine M. “Children of the Gun.” Scientific American, Vol. 282, №6 (June 2000), 60–65.

Why Gabi Braun is Attack on Titan’s most realistic depiction of a child soldier. (2024)
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