Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
Crichton Books/Farrar Straus and Giroux, 240 pages, $22
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.
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,
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
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.