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Armed Forces

By John Dicker


A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

By Ishmael Beah 

Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar Straus and Giroux, 240 pages, $22


Last year, film critic David Den -by gushed in The New Yorker about Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond. Set in Sierra Leone during its horrific civil war, the film is a romantic drama about an American journalist and a South African diamond smuggler. Despite a great performance by Djimon Hounsou, every African character, including Hounsou’s, is little more than a backdrop of human depravity used to highlight the white protagonists —Jennifer Connelly and Leonardo DiCaprio—as they ascend to new heights of angst.

That might sound reductive or mind-numbingly PC, but one doesn’t need a degree in postcolonial theory to understand what a problematic cliché it all is. African characters bleed; white folks have existential crisis. The setting could be Sierra Leone in 1994 or Tattoine in 2000007—what’s the difference? So while Denby’s critical acumen has gone down in this critic’s estimation, it’s a welcome relief to read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone—a memoir of the same conflict Zwick so thoughtlessly ransacked, and written by someone who experienced it firsthand.

Unless you’ve endured a civil war, it’s probably impossible to understand what Beah went through. From ages 12 to 15, he was a fugitive from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which attacked his village and would later kill his family. At age 13 he was recruited into the army of the Sierra Leone government. He was hardly an anomaly as a child soldier.

Beah recounts his experience in prose that’s deceptively simple. Reading of killing and fleeing looted villages, and rapes and murders in broad daylight, it’s so far beyond the pale of first-world unpleasantness that ingesting it is like logging in to a dead URL—it just won’t load. However, sprinkled between the atrocities are moments that underline the madness of being young, desperate and unprotected.

Witness a short list of what can be considered the “lighter side” of his pre-soldier wanderings:

-Being chased into trees by packs of wild boars.

-Sleeping in trees for safety.

-Being rounded up (and bounded up) with a half-dozen refugee children in a coastal village. There, the chief demands to hear Beah’s hip-hop tape and, while Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P.” fails to impress him, he’s spared execution.

Strange then that these adventures are sometimes more frightening then the war itself; perhaps because being alone in the jungle fleeing feral pigs is easier to envision than a brigade of middle-schoolers shooting up a rural village. As Beah said, he quickly lost compassion for anyone and could shoot a person as easily as one might recycle a can of Coke.

Like most other young conscripts, Beah became addicted to “brown brown,” a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder popular among his comrades. An interesting parallel between Beah’s war experience and that of Anthony Swofford, whose Gulf War memoir Jarhead was also made into a somewhat forgettable film, is the reliance on another sort of narcotic: war movies. In both cases soldiers watched Hollywood war films like porn, to get psyched for a good days killing. Unlike Swofford, who saw combat but didn’t kill anyone, Beah shot people and celebrated with his friends.

A Long Way Gone doesn’t delve into the politics of the civil war, as it’s not a polemic. In Beah’s wartime view, the rebels either destroyed your village or they’re about to. It’s not hard to understand Beah’s decision to fight though as it wasn’t much of a decision. Without a family, much less a finite meal plan, the army is a place where you can, if nothing else, stop running.

From a safer perspective, the enemy is anyone who turns children into killing machines. As he’d later learn, both factions peddled the same logic to their child soldiers: “Over and over in our training he would say the same sentence: Visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you.

It’s an unenviable contradiction: being revved up for killing by channeling your suffering, and then get loaded on numbing agents to forget it.

There is a happy ending: Beah is chosen to be part of a United Nations panel on child soldiers. He travels to New York City and, years later, is adopted by a woman he meets there. He goes on to graduate from Oberlin College, an elite private college in Ohio.

How does he make sense of these two starkly different realities? What does a young man do with childhood memories few adults can handle? Maybe we’ll find out in another book. Beah doesn’t wrap up his life in a neat bow, as well he shouldn’t: It’s far from over.

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