A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of A Child Soldier [Buy Now]

By Ishmael Beah

Sarah Crichton Books- Farrar Straus and Giroux

240 pages, $22

One doesn’t need a degree in postcolonial theory to understand the problematic cliché behind most books and films about Africa these days — take last year’s Blood Diamond, for example: African characters bleed, white folks have existential crises. The setting could be Sierra Leone in 1994 or Tatooine in 229547, what’s the difference? So it’s a welcome relief to read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, a memoir of the same conflict Blood Diamond director Edward Zwick so thoughtlessly ransacked written by someone who experienced it firsthand.

Unless you’ve endured a civil war, it’s probably impossible to understand what Ishmael Beah went through. From the age of 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 solider.

Beah recounts his experience in prose that’s deceptively simple. Reading of killing and fleeing looted villages, rapes, and murders right 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 bound 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 OPP fails to impress him, he’s spared execution.

Strange then that these adventures are sometimes more frightening than 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 day’s 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 UN 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 a 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.