War fascinates me–maybe by studying it elsewhere, I hope to keep it away from here. Yet, there’s more to it: war with its upheaval, its extremes of fear, heroism, death, destruction, hope and camaraderie shows the human condition at its most extreme. Several days ago the citizens of Dresden celebrated the anniversary of the fire-bombing of Dresden by American forces. My experience of the Germans today, limited as it is, suggests that they accept with deep regret their nation’s culpability in beginning World War II and perpetrating the Holocaust, the world’s deadliest, most prolonged institutionalization of violence. Yet the firebombing of the beautiful city of Dresden, committed after it was clear the Allies had won the war, stands out for its wanton destruction. I can mourn the loss of an ancient city and light a candle in my mind to what its citizens suffered and over the years have been able to rebuild.
Recently I’ve been listening to A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah (2007), who as a boy of thirteen was forced into combat in Sierra Leon’s civil war. At the start of the memoir, he is twelve years old, a fan of American rap music, an enthusiastic soccer play, a good scholar at a distant school, who just happens to be visiting his parents in their village when rebels attack, sending the inhabitants fleeing in all directions. For days he wandered alone in the forest; for weeks and months he and other boys banded together, sometimes being held hostage briefly by villagers until their innocence became obvious, then fed, and forced to move on. The band of seven boys swam in strange rivers, ate fruit they’d never seen before, ran for miles, for days away from the sounds of fighting. Circling back to the edge of his parents’ village, the boys were detained overnight by a kindly banana farmer. In the morning as they headed toward what he expected to be a joyful reunion with his parents and brother, the war engulfed his village and once again he and his companions fled.
Eventually they were corralled and brought into a government-held village. Given work in the kitchen, still Ishmael suffered excrutiating migraines and could not sleep. He already had seen too many dead bodies, too many people shot, too many burned villages, and he sensed that the war would soon claim him as well. That it did: the government soldiers enlisted the boys, and began training them. In a hut with two younger boys, age 7 and 11, Ishmael finds that his migraine headaches are gone, yet he still cannot sleep, and often he shakes uncontrollably. After days of training–the younger boys can’t even carry their AKA rifles–the boy soldiers are sent into battle, outfitted with new shorts and American brand running shoes.
In the first battle, one of his companions from the days of wandering is shot and dies beside him, as does one of the little boys. Here again the clarity, calm and beauty of the writing transfixes the horror of the subject. The sentences could not be more simple: Beah shows us his little companion’s feet shaking, his hand holding his side, which when removed allows blood to pour out, the brightness of his gaze slowly turn dull as his eyes sink into his head, and finally, as Ishmael and another boy lift the wounded boy’s arms onto their shoulders to carry him away, his quiet passing.
Surely recounting such experiences is one of the most difficult efforts for a writer. Making clarity of confusion, finding calm for reflection amid the days of flight and chaos of battle, and finally in both precise description and striking metaphors guiding us above the conflict to watch the sun eat the day and give birth to the moon and stars–all these elements give painful joy to this tragic story.
I have many more chapters to go, but from other reading, I have some sense of the extent of this war, in which soldiers constantly switched sides, in which the rich diamond mines enticed many into the conflict, in which thousands of civilians were brutally raped and murdered or horribly wounded–arms, or hands, or legs cut off–and various attempts from the outside, including a UN-sponsored force of Angolean and Nambian soldiers eventually failed to bring the fighting to a stop or help a government hold its own against corruption. Only when the British send in forces in 2000 and remained in the country until 2005, did the fighting cease and a functioning government begin again. From the beginning of Ismael Beah’s book, I know that he eventually made his way to the U.S. where he entered college. But I still have yet to hear how he is removed from this awful role, helped to repent and mourn for what he has suffered and been forced to perpetrate, and finally attain the calm eloquence which gives his account its lasting power.