I love books about war. In particular, books about how war changes human psychology and group dynamics, how it is evolutionarily inevitable or a consequence of certain accidents in history that led us to develop as a species to where we are now.
Last night, I read A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah [public library]. This is not one of those detached overarching examinations of war as a concept and historical/sociological mechanism. It’s a narrative about one person’s experience of civil war in Sierra Leone as a child and a teen.
Given that people tend to repress, forget, or edit over traumatic memories, I wonder how many of the stories in the book are actually true ones that happened to him, vs. stories that he picked up from fellow child soldiers, aid workers, the media, etc. I wonder how reliable the narrator is, and whether there are things he left out because they were too painful, or because he feared judgment. The narration is very matter of fact and detached–I wonder if that is because he isn’t able to emotionally write about how it affected him, or whether the feelings the memories evoke are just not translatable without going through the experience yourself.
Anyways, onto the interesting quotes.
War (and perhaps all traumatic experiences) leaves an indelible mark on the landscape of your inner mind. “These days I live in three worlds: my dreams, and the experiences of my new life, which trigger memories from the past.”
This is dangerous because without psychological guidance (or an innate tendency towards post-traumatic growth), the mind is unequipped to process everything that has happened to it and turn brutal violence into a coherent narrative for a meaningful life.
The civil war was particularly hard psychologically because of the uncertainty of violence–where would the rebels, the army, strike next? Was any place truly safe? “One of the unsettling things about my journey, mentally, physically, and emotionally, was that I wasn’t sure when or where it was going to end. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I felt that I was starting over and over again. I was always on the move, always going somewhere. While we walked, I sometimes lagged behind, thinking about these things. To survive each passing day was my goal in life. …It was much easier to be sad than to go back and forth between emotions, and this gave me the determination I needed to keep moving. I was never disappointed, since I always expected the worst to happen.”
The uncertainty of death and the constant brushes against death is extremely psychologically taxing, especially to a child whose support system is ripped away from him: “Every time people come at us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death. Even though I am still alive, I feel like each time I accept death, part of me dies. Very soon I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you. It will be quieter than I am.” (The speaker dies of some unexplained natural cause soon afterwards.)
And when the narrator finds himself alone in hiding, the loneliness and time to think is almost worse than the actual times of running away from attack: “The most difficult part of being in the forest was the loneliness. It became unbearable each day. One thing about being lonesome is that you think too much, especially when there isn’t much else you can do. I didn’t like this and I tried to stop myself from thinking, but nothing seemed to work. I decided to just ignore every thought that came to my head, because it brought too much sadness. Apart from eating and drinking water and once every other day taking a bath, I spent most of my time fighting myself mentally in order to avoid thinking about what I had seen or wondering where my life was going, where my family and friends were.”
After the narrator is recruited to join the army at the age of 12, the army leaders brainwash their soldiers by dehumanizing the rebels, using drug addictions to deaden emotions or get people wired to fight, and using war movie propaganda to set a standard for aspirational behavior.
“Over and over in our training he would say that 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.”
“They have lost everything that makes them human. They do not deserve to live. That is why we must kill every single one of them. Think of it as destroying a great evil. It is the highest service you can perform for your country.”
“‘Our job is a serious one and we have the most capable soldiers, who will do anything to defend this country. We are not like the rebels, those riffraffs who kill people for no reason. We kill them for the good and betterment of this country. …’ The lieutenant went on and on with his speech, which was a combination of instilling in the civilians that what we were doing was right and boosting the morale of his men, including us, the boys. I stood there holding my gun and felt special because I was part of something that took me seriously and I was not running from anyone anymore.”
“We were always either at the front lines, watching a war movie, or doing drugs. There was no time to be alone or to think. When we conversed with each other, we only talked about the war movies and how impressed we were with the way either the lieutenant, the corporal, or one of us had killed someone. It was as if nothing else existed outside our reality.”
“My squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector, and my rule was to kill or be killed. The extent of my thoughts didn’t go much beyond that. We had been fighting for over two years, and killing had become a daily activity. I felt no pity for anyone. My childhood had gone by without my knowing, and it seemed as if my heart had frozen.”
In some ways, though, being a child soldier was better than just running away without a tribe to belong to, feeling powerless, living a life without meaning, and always uncertain whether you were going to die the next day or not. Joining the army was empowering because people were given a coherent narrative for the violence around them, they were given meaning and a narrative to live by, and they were given the resources to be proactive rather than merely reactive (running away). “I had my gun now, and as the corporal always said, ‘This gun is your source of power in these times. It will protect you and provide you all you need, if you know how to use it well.’”