An Analysis of Ishmael Beah’s Experience as a Child Soldier
In January of 2007, the New York Times ran an excerpt of Ishmael Beah’s memoir of life as a child soldier in Sierra Leone. The excerpt is a shocking, heart-wrenching account of a boy’s journey from carefree child to cold-blooded killer, and the difficult path to redemption that followed. It shows in chilling detail how war dismantles the spirit and distorts the mind, how it shows no mercy even to the most innocent victims, and how, even after years of rehabilitation, it continues to haunt those who participated in it.
Ishmael Beah was only 10 years old when the civil war in Sierra Leone started, a conflict that would rob him of his most fundamental possessions. His first loss was his family. After fleeing his village on foot when rebels attacked his village, he learned that his parents and two brothers had been killed. The violent loss of family members is a common experience among child soldiers. A Human Rights Watch study of child soldiers in Liberia reports that 77% of children in that country had lost relatives in that country’s civil war; among child soldiers, the percentage is higher, and often the family members are killed in front them (Fleischman and Whitman 13).
This loss of family takes root in the child soldier in two ways. First, it provokes a limitless need for revenge against the killers. Beah recounts the feelings of rage he felt at the sight of the enemy: “Whenever I looked at the rebels during raids, my entire body shook with fury; they were the people who had shot my friends and family” (5). Of course, it is unlikely that the rebels that Beah was facing at that moment were in fact the people who had shot his friends and family, but the recruiters of child soldiers are skilled connecting traumatic events from the past to the concrete enemy of the present, forging a link in the minds of the child soldiers that serves as an unending motive to kill.
The second effect that the loss of family has on child soldiers is that it creates a vacuum that is soon filled by their comrades-in-arms. Since Beah had no family left anymore, his fellow soldiers filled the void: “My squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector and my rule was to kill or be killed” (6). This deep connection to the fighting unit can pose a problem when trying to reintroduce former child soldiers back into society. As Michael Wessells points out, “romantic ideas about going home are meaningless for them, because their home has been wherever the armed group is” (181-182).
After the loss of his family, Beah faced a second loss that threatened his very nature as a human being: the loss of conscience. This transformation happened in the course of a single battle, in which Beah experienced his first moments as a killer. At the beginning of the battle, Beah exhibited all of the signs of a conscientious human being: he was terrified of killing and of being killed, and was concerned for the safety of his friends. This changed in an instant, when his wounded friend’s scream made him feel that “[his] brain had shaken loose from its anchor” (3). As he watched his friend’s eyes fill with blood, something snapped inside of him: “I shot everything that movedâ€¦After that first killing, my mind stopped making remorseful records, or so it seemed” (4-5).
This mental break as a result of a traumatic experience lies at the heart of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that plagues many who experience the horrors of war or other forms of violence. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was first recorded in soldiers after the Civil War, but was not recognized as a common occurrence until after the Vietnam War, when symptoms developed in over 30% of combat veterans (Harvard Men’s Health Watch). After they are removed from combat, former soldiers often experience nightmares, flashbacks, outbursts of anger, and the inability to sleep (Cohen 1).
Beah experienced all of these symptoms when he and some of his comrades were removed from the fighting and taken to a rehabilitation center. Years of exposure to and participation in acts of brutal violence had created what Beah referred to as a “void” inside of him (4). As his memories of war began to surface, he would have hallucinations of blood pouring from the water faucet or the shower, and in the few hours that he was able to sleep, he would dream of his throat being slit by a faceless enemy (9-10). The mere sound of civilian voices “enraged [him] so much that [he] would punch the wall” (8).
PTSD makes recovery from war extremely difficult for those who survive the violence, and can be very difficult to treat. Harvard Men’s Health Watch identifies four practical approaches to helping someone suffering with PTSD: allow the sufferer to talk about the traumatic events, provide companionship even if it is not immediately desired, encourage physical activity and daily routines, and help the sufferer develop feeling of confidence to replace the feelings of helplessness (4). Beah benefited from many of these approaches during his stay at the rehabilitation house. Esther, a nurse in the center, provided him with a trusted confidante to whom he could recount the horrors of his experiences. She also provided him with a daily distraction — writing down and memorizing lyrics from Bob Marley songs. This simple activity “left [him] little time to think about what happened in the war” (14). Slowly but surely, these activities began to heal the symptoms of Beah’s PTSD.
The final important step required for Beah’s healing was the establishment of a sense of family to replace the connection he had felt with his fellow soldiers. Dr. Judith Broder, of the Soldiers Project, says that many soldiers who are removed from fighting want to return: “The big motivation is to be with their band of brothers” (qtd. In “Revolving Door,” 3). For Beah, the first step away from this bond was creating a temporary sibling connection with Esther, a step that was difficult but constituted a huge leap in his healing. Final resolution came when his uncle appeared, offering a fresh start in a loving home (17).
Beah was lucky to have found himself in an environment where the damage done to his mind and spirit was recognized and treated appropriately. Many former soldiers are not so lucky. But despite his good fortune, Beah could never replace the one thing that he had lost for good — his childhood. This is the true and irreconcilable cost of war for child soldiers. No amount of treatment can replace innocence lost, and no amount of time can replace the joyful moments that they should have experienced in their youths. In the end, the best they can do is to tell their tale, as Beah has done, in the hopes that their stories can put an end to this tragic phenomenon.
Fleischman, Janet and Lois Whitman. Easy Prey: Child Soldiers in Liberia. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1994. Print.
Wessells, Michael G. Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006. Print.
Beah, Ishmael. “The Making, and Unmaking, of a Child Soldier.” The New York Times. 14 January 2007. Web. 17 May 2010.
“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Harvard Men’s Health Watch. Oct. 2002: n.p. SIRS Researcher. Web. 17 May 2010.
Cohen, Sharon. “Revolving Door of Multiple Tours Linked to PTSD.” The New York Times. 11 April 2010. Web. 17 May 2010.
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