A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah is a difficult book to read. It’s an easy read in as much as the story is captivating and the language is fluid. With fairly large print and only 200 pages, it won’t take long to finish. But the book will leave the reader with a need to re-explore assumptions and learned understandings about human nature.
These memoirs of a boy soldier in the Sierra Leone War, 1991-2002, vividly recount the horrors of a war that left 50,000 dead and shocked the world by its degree of human degradation. Because thousands became victims of amputation, the war gave the world the question “Short sleeve or long sleeve?” as a new metaphor of human depravity.
When I finished the book and closed the cover, the phrase “a long way gone” impressed itself on me. How could this level of cruelty happen ? Why here? What was it about this time and place ? Who were these leaders who ordered villages to be massacred and limbs to be amputated ?
Then I opened King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa !!!!! In this book, Adam Hochschild recounts another story of human depravity that showed a similar cruelty, but one even more frightening, at least to me. What seriously freaked me out about the greed and terror in the Congo was how the actions were masked by a narrative of beneficence. (That will be the subject of another blog.) If we talk about “the horror” to describe the killing and maiming in Sierra Leone, we should, like Joseph Conrad in his book The Heart of Darkness , say “the horror, the horror” to describe what happened in the Congo. Hochschild’s book helped me remember that cruelty is not unique to any time or place, that what happened in Sierra Leone wasn’t different in essence from what happened in the Congo a century earlier. Hochschild writes his book in part to battle against the “amnesia” of the human mind that enables our depravity.
Though the world would like to put such events behind, do we really want to forget what happened in Sierra Leone or the Congo or in other places where the meaner, horrific side of humanity has shown itself ? As Sierra Leone progressively moves past this horrible event in their history , the use of children as soldiers continues as part of our 21st century reality. By offering a graphic first hand look at what is happening to children who are used as soldiers, Ishmael Beah’s book will move you and give you a better understanding of this important issue of our day.