How Wars are Fought: With Children

In too many conflicts today children are the
soldiers of choice.

In too many conflicts today children are the soldiers of choice. In a touching first-person account of his experience as a child soldier, Ishmael Beah provides a remarkable, gut-wrenching account of terror, death and redemption in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.

It’s impossible to understand how adults can shanghai children and press them to inflict terror and death, but it’s depressingly common today. Ishmael Beah was an innocent twelve-year-old who often mesmerized his village in Sierra Leone with evening soliloquies from Shakespeare until war came. Fleeing the war with a small group of friends, Ishmael was able to avoid conscription by hiding in the forests and scavenging food. But the boys learned soon enough that the mere sight of a group of young men was enough to put them at risk with villagers because young conscripts in the insurgency and the national army were known for carrying out the most extreme brutality, and eventually they were conscripted into the army.

Separated from their families, the boys were cast like driftwood on turbulent waters, existing in the hell that gripped Sierra Leone for ten years. The war brutalized the nation, leaving thousands of people separated from loved ones, whole villages slaughtered and untold numbers left maimed by physical abuse and torture.

It’s also hard for those of us who haven’t lived through such terror to understand how the facade of civil behavior can descend to the depths of incivility and inhumanity. How can innocent children be turned into feared killers?

Perhaps the greatest insight Beah offers us is how this descent occurs, and once established, how terror can be used to corrupt young minds and hold entire populations in fear. Mix poverty, economic injustice and dehumanizing prejudice and the ingredients for social disintegration are sown.

Beah’s account of his own brutalization is disturbing, yet deeply human. He moved from repulsion at violence to addiction to it, unable to conceive that he could exist without the ability to terrorize and kill. Violence became as addictive as the stimulants, marijuana and cocaine his military superiors made available to their conscripts to steel them for battle.

Beah was rescued by a United Nations repatriation project for child combatants. It was a stormy relationship, no less difficult than his descent into violence. The steadfast UN counselors, however, eventually helped Beah locate an uncle and progressively re-enter a more normal life.

Despite the violence, this is a story of humanity, gentle in outlook. It’s well-written by a bright young man who is now an advocate for human rights and a spokesperson for children at risk. Now 26, he graduated from Oberlin College and lives in New York. His story is important, and his voice is compelling.

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