Coming of Age in Child Soldier Literature
Song for Night (Akashic Books, 2007)
A Long Way Gone (FSG, 2007)
Johnny Mad Dog (Picador, 2006)
Beasts of No Nation (HarperCollins, 2005)
War Child (St. Martin’s, 2009)
Allah Is Not Obliged (Anchor Books, 2007)
Sozaboy (Longman, 1995)
In the brief preface to A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (FSG, 2007), author Ishmael Beah relays the queries of his American high school friends as they try to solicit information about his past:
“Why did you leave Sierra Leone?”
“Because there is a war.”
“Did you witness some of the fighting?”
“Everyone in the country did.”
“You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?”
“Yes, all the time.”
In the end, Beah’s teenage inquisitors don’t simply betray a gruesome fascination with violence attributed to too much time spent watching slasher films or playing gory video games. They also express, albeit crudely, a sense of appreciation for someone who has encountered the extremities of human experience and whose character has been subjected to extraordinary trials.
Accordingly, to read works of child soldier literature is, for someone uninitiated first-hand in atrocity, to be humbled. For such a reader (one like me) inexorably endows moral authority to those authors prematurely enlisted to fight in hostilities, or who dared broach a fictional representation of the same.
While endowing these works with moral authority isn’t unwarranted, such a reaction can coincide with a passive engagement that is problematic. A sense of detached sentimentality could enable readers to merely wipe away sliding tears or close agape mouths and then use one of several stock adjectives (harrowing, haunting, heartbreaking, heart-rending, horrific, raw, stark, tragic, visceral) to describe the work before moving on to something else.
If the point of literature is to transform and not simply to sadden or shock, then the small body of child soldier literature asks more of its readers. What does child soldier literature ask?
“What you hear is not my voice,” is the first line of Chris Abani’s Song for Night (Akashic Books, 2006), a lyrical novella written from the point of view of My Luck, a 15-year-old soldier in an unspecified African country. There’s a literal explanation for My Luck’s voicelessness—the commander of his platoon had severed his and his young cohorts’ vocal chords so they “wouldn’t scare each other with [their] death screams.” However, the metaphorical resonance of My Luck’s lack of voice is the author’s acknowledgement of being incapable of speaking for him.
This is not to discount Abani’s fluid and poetic rendering of My Luck’s ghost-like wanderings through war-ravaged villages in search of the soldiers from whom he was separated after a landmine blast. Still, from the start, Abani admits to the radical undertaking of channeling the voice of a child, who, particularly in his corner of the world, is seen and not heard—who has become unspeakable.
Song for Night endeavors the impossible, eliciting a keenly perceptive character in My Luck, whose elegiac voice is a tender guide to his grim drifting through battle-scarred territory. “It’s a strange place to be at 15, bereft of hope and very nearly of your humanity…that is where I am nonetheless.” My Luck’s deep resignation permeates the novella. Though bleak, the mindset allows him to meander through his tale without distractive anxiety (i.e., hope) about the future, making the experience of reading Song for Night like looking out at treacherous deep sea waters through a porthole on a submarine.
From such an outlook, informed by the deceptive insulation of a meditative mind, a shark is just as notable for its sleek, angular beauty as it is for its capacity to disembowel. Landmines are “like little jumping jacks.” Lightning is a “sword” that “slices through the plumpness of the hot sky.” The intestines of a boy, who “stagger[s] up and collect[s]” them “in an untidy heap,” are “cradled like a baby in his arms.”
Ahmadou Kourouma takes a more confrontational approach to the matter of voice in Allah Is Not Obliged (Anchor Books, 2007). Kourouma’s child soldier, Birahima, foul-mouthed and unapologetically brash, is a self-proclaimed “Black Nigger African Native”—so self-named for his dual lack of education and command of French, as well as for his penchant for Malinké swear words (fafaro! gnamokodé! wahalé!).
Without the requisite schooling to speak fluently across tongues, Birahima refers to four different dictionaries so that: 1) his story can be read by anyone who can speak French; 2) he can translate French words for “Africans” who don’t understand French; and 3) he can explain “African” and pidgin words to the French “from France.”
The translational is the only courtesy Birahima extends in narrating his transition from a poor street kid in the Ivory Coast to a child soldier inducted to fight in Liberian and Sierra Leonean civil wars. He often ends segments of his story abruptly (“I’m fed up with talking, so I’m going to stop”) and with yet more obscenities (“You can all fuck off!”).
At the outset, Birahima warns readers, “Don’t go thinking that I’m some cute kid, ‘cos I’m not.” And, so, Kourouma very quickly, and repeatedly, disabuses the reader of any sentimental notions when it comes to his protagonist, whose story is not only personal but also political.
Due to Birahima’s taunting defensiveness, we aren’t made privy to his psychological interior. We are, however, within the novel’s short span, given a sweeping lesson in the postcolonial political history of Liberia and Sierra Leone, where “big important warlords have…divided up all the money, all the land, all the people…and the whole world lets them…kill innocent men and women and children.”
With its deadpan take on the trickle-down effect of power- and money-lust, Allah Is Not Obliged features the most politically conscious protagonist of the literature surveyed. Meanwhile, Mad Dog of the eponymous novel evinces not consciousness, but political indoctrination. The 16-year-old militia fighter is one of two main characters in Emmanuel Dongala’s Johnny Mad Dog (Picador, 2006), which narrates events of a fictional civil war in the Congo from the perspectives of both civilian—Laokolé, a teenage girl in perpetual flight from armed forces in various states of disorganization—and soldier, or, more precisely, bloodthirsty armed looter.
Mad Dog’s account of the war he’s waging is overtly unreliable, as depicted in a brutal rape scene in which he interprets as intense pleasure the blank expression of his victim, who, “as cold as a fish,” was looking at him “without emotion, eyes wide as if she were in another world.”
Like Birahima, Mad Dog is not some cute kid; unlike Birahima, he is not at all cynical about the war in which he’s engulfed. Mad Dog pledges unselfconscious allegiance to the ultimate political leader of his rag tag militia, a man who he understands to be heading the Movement for the Democratic Liberation of the People, and who, per recent election results, should have rightfully assumed control of the government instead of the other guy, who led the Movement for the Total Liberation of the People. And, of course, as a member of the Dogo-Mayi tribe, Mad Dog must avenge the usurpation of power by the MFTLP, whose ranks are overrepresented by the Dogo-Mayi people.
War, though, is not just a matter of principle, it also has its perks—allowing Mad Dog to line his pockets, become an adult and “have all the women” he wants along the way. So, though Mad Dog seems to know why he’s fighting, Dongala’s editorial intrusions under cover of his voice betray his greed and the absurdity of his motives.
Agu of Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation (HarperCollins, 2005) is more preoccupied with his bodily, rather than sociopolitical, welfare. As for Agu’s voice, he speaks in English loosely based on pidgin—the grammatically incorrect present tense (“So I am joining. Just like that. I am soldier.”). Agu is also the most childlike of the fictional child soldiers, which suggests that Iweala took very seriously the presumed limitations of the perspective he was exploring.
Immediate and unadulterated, Agu’s voice conveys a preoccupation with survival:
I am feeling hungry and I am not feeling hungry. I am wanting to vomit and I am not wanting to vomit, but I am thinking, let me not be vomiting because I am not even eating very much food so if I am vomiting there is nothing staying inside my stomach to be giving me energy.
Agu’s speech is directly reminiscent of Mene’s in Sozaboy (Longman, 1995)—Ken Saro-Wiwa’s “novel in rotten English.” Mene’s first line portends: “Although, everybody in Dukana was happy at first.” Hardly a child, though described as a “young boy,” Mene is distracted in happy times with learning to drive a lorry and finding a wife. But, “after some time, everything begin to spoil small by small and they were saying that trouble have started.” Trouble is shorthand for war. And they is shorthand for a cacophony of authoritative voices that Mene hears mostly from the radio, which, as trouble intensifies, “begin dey hala … [b]ig big grammar” and “[l]ong long words.”
Mene’s own voice, though lacking the diction that he (at first) finds so impressive (“Fine fine English. Big big words. Grammar.”), possesses a core honesty that unmasks the duplicity of local authorities and military forces he comes to serve. His simple speech is particularly adept at stripping from powers-that-be the dignity that is supposed to accessorize their status. The chief of Dukana, for one, goes about “smiling that idiot foolish smile which he will be smiling whenever he sees soza or police or power.” And the formidable major at a boot camp where Mene is hazed “no be important again” when the Chief Commander General—“a very tough man” who “was shouting plenty”—comes onto the scene and starts ordering everyone around. “Power pass power,” as Mene puts it.
Mene—or Sozaboy, as he is later branded—is often “very confuse,” not only by big grammar but, principally, about why he’s fighting. There is a lot of talk about “the enemy,” who, in Saro-Wiwa’s brilliant critique, is an abstraction—faceless, nameless, yet everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Even the war is portrayed through Sozaboy’s eyes as a natural disaster into which humans are swept, as if it were a tornado that had touched down and ravaged everything in its haphazard path.
While Agu’s voice, unlike Mene’s, isn’t employed to satirical effect, it readily communicates his disorientation, as memories of more peaceful times pervade his precarious present. For Agu, everything “is inside out like my shirt I’m wearing.” He goes on: “[s]ometimes I am seeing thing in front of me when we are walking or drilling or killing, and sometimes I am seeing thing that I am knowing is coming from before the war, but I am seeing it like they are coming right now.”
A running theme in child soldier literature is the battle between linear and perceived time, the latter of which is subject to considerable distortion by incessant thoughts, memories and dreams. The relativity of time is apparent in Beah’s A Long Way Gone, an autobiographical account whose reception has come to prioritize questions of veracity over voice. Controversy was sparked when The Australian ran a series of articles disputing Beah’s timeline of events. Among other
things, the reporters alleged that the span of time between Beah’s initial flight from rebel forces and ultimate extrication from the government’s army must have been about one year, not upwards of three as Beah depicted.
Ensuing reportage on these claims have questioned the author’s avowed photographic memory, which Beah attributes to a special medicine prepared by his grandfather, who “wrote an Arabic prayer on a slate and washed the writing and the water into a bottle that [Beah] drank when studying for exams.” But a superior knack for recall doesn’t necessarily bring about a precise tally of time; memory and time-keeping can be incompatible faculties.
There is, of course, the impracticality of recording the passage of time in the midst of war, as Beah admits in A Long Way Gone: “I knew that day and night came and went because of the presence of the moon and the sun, but I had no idea whether it was a Sunday or a Friday.” Even after his rescue and rehabilitation, he remarks of his metaphysical struggle with “real” time, which is indifferent to the availability of a calendar. “These days I live in three worlds,” he says, “my dreams, and the experiences of my new life, which trigger memories from the past.”
In any event, the crucial question that arises from this controversy is, given the worldwide focus Beah has brought to the dire situation of child soldiers, whether any of these charges matter at all. As a representative of UNICEF responded when approached by The Australian, “even one day as a child soldier is one day too many.”
This is not to say that moral authority shields child soldier literature from critical examination. But, given the ultimate purpose of these works—to arouse empathy with a segment of the world’s population in urgent need of intervention and compassion—the invaluable content of child soldier literature often trumps the dictates of its form.
So War Child (St. Martin’s, 2009), if the least “literary” of the works reviewed, is still an engaging autobiographical document of how Sudanese hip hop artist Emmanuel Jal, like Beah, transmuted his turbulent past into a mission to help prevent other children from marching in his wake. Jal was conscripted into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army when he was nine years old. Having fled his village in the face of attacks by jallabas—what he calls Arab soldiers fighting for Sudan’s government—Jal was lured into service while stranded at a refugee camp at the border of Ethiopia.
The word “lure” is appropriate because the trappings of child soldierhood can be enticing. Jal describes how, at a meeting held by the SPLA, he and his young friend couldn’t stop staring at the “small soldiers.” They were in awe at how they “were so clean with smart boots,” how they “stared fiercely ahead as they stood with their guns.”
Kourouma’s Birahima and Dongala’s Mad Dog are similarly impressed. Unlike counterparts in other works, who are naturally conflicted about their conscription, Birahima, for one, enthusiastically offers himself up for the opportunity when ambushed by a cordon. He does so because they have “every-fucking-thing”—AK-47s and American dollars and “shoes and stripes and radios and helmets and even cars that they call four-by-fours.”
And Mad Dog manages to elicit some sympathy when he reveals his primary reason for joining the militia—to align himself with the intelligentsia. Among the officials who visit then-Johnny’s district looking for young men to take up the MFDLP cause is a university professor. The would-be solider’s ears are “pricked” at this information. A teenage boy with the equivalent of a fourth grade education, he doesn’t “hesitate to put [his] faith in the intellectual,” as, with “so much knowledge in their heads, people like that couldn’t possibly lie.” In due course, Mad Dog’s fetish for intellectuals manifests in a fetish for books, which he loots and hoards along with all the other swag.
The allure of becoming a child soldier, however, is not only material; it’s also psychological. Severed from family, community and traditional paths to adulthood, orphaned boys eager to become men are readily seduced by the figure of the “small soldier.” With his military accoutrements and hard demeanor, the child soldier is a stop-gap measure for achieving manhood.
The highlight of the brief time Jal spent in a village he’d fled to is gaar—a ceremony in which knife strokes are cut bone deep into the foreheads of fourteen year old boys. “Gaar meant so many things—you were ready for war, able to tell younger boys like me what to do, and forbidden from going into a kitchen again or crying.” After Jal is conscripted into the SPLA, which banned gaar to prevent any tribal dissention, the mark of his own rite of passage is the day he’s entrusted with an AK-47. In a scene set for a graduation, Jal and his fellow recruits step up one by one to a platform raised atop training grounds, and each retrieve a gun from their commander, who, at the ceremony’s end, tells them: “Always remember: the gun is your mother and father now.”
Guns, as they fill the protective role of dead or missing parents, are endowed with totemic import. Beah recalls the corporal who handed him his very own AK-47 : “When it was my turn, he looked at me intensely, as if he was trying to tell me that he was giving me something worth cherishing.” The corporal advises Beah that the gun is a “source of power” that will protect and provide for him. One of Jal’s commanding troops tells him that his gun and bullets are invaluable: “[i]f you are walking across a desert, throw your food away but keep your gun and bullets. If you are crossing a river, let the water pull you down, but keep your gun and bullets.”
Transference, of course, not only occurs with artillery but also with fellow combatants. Abani’s My Luck, far from relieved to have been separated from his platoon, roams night and day in search of them like a long lost relative. And Beah makes a distant fatherly figure out of one of his commanders, Lieutenant Jabati, a quiet but stern man who he often spies reading Julius Caesar. Beah is furious when the lieutenant dismisses him and some other boys from service and hands them off to a crew of UNICEF workers: “Why had the lieutenant decided to give us up to these civilians? We thought that we were part of the war until the end. The squad had been our family.”
As conscription supplants healthy initiation into adulthood, and family is cobbled together from the transient members and articles of war, young soldiers come to realize that, while they are no longer children, they are certainly not yet men. Iweala’s Agu snaps out of a vivid reverie of an initiation ceremony in his village and takes in his bleak surroundings: “I am opening my eye and seeing that I am still in the war, and I am thinking, if war is not coming, then I would be man by now.” And My Luck gathers: “I have never been a boy…and I will never be a man—not this way. I am some kind of chimera who knows only the dreadful intimacy of killing.”
This liminal existence, being neither child nor adult, complicates the question of accountability. To what extent can child soldiers be held responsible for their actions? The good child, we are told, has been instilled with the ability to follow instructions of elders. So is a child to blame if he is ordered to kill, maim and, as often depicted in Johnny Mad Dog, rape? The default answer to this question is no, as the kind nurse who takes a liking to Beah at a rehabilitation center keeps reassuring him, “none of what happened is your fault.”
Nonetheless, some works of child soldier fiction portray psyches tormented by guilt. If he is among “the great innocents” of war, My Luck wonders, then “who taught [him] to enjoy killing, a singular joy that is perhaps rivaled only by an orgasm?” Agu is indoctrinated into the mysterious pleasure of killing by his commandant who tells him it’s like falling in love (“You cannot be thinking about it. You are just having to do it…”). He fends off the question of his guilt with the mantra, “I am not bad boy.”
Birahima, meanwhile, mockingly shrugs off the issue by referring to himself as a “fearless, blameless kid.” Besides, as the title, Allah Is Not Obliged, suggests, his quandary over accountability is externalized. He looks chiefly to Allah, who, on the one hand is “not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth” and, on the other, “never leaves empty a mouth he has created.” In light of this paradox, Birahima falls back on grigris, which, according to his glossary, are protective amulets made of “paper inscribed with magical incantation kept in a small leather purse.” In the novel, soldiers and “warlords” drape themselves in grigris, which fail only due to the wearer’s personal deficiency.
The nonfiction accounts reveal that killing has a numbing effect, which forestalls questions of culpability. Beah’s fighting was fueled by “brown brown,” a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder he took when he wasn’t at the front lines or watching a war movie. After several doses, “all [he] felt was numbness to everything and so much energy that [he] couldn’t sleep for weeks.” He didn’t have the capacity, during his enlistment, for philosophical introspection: “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.”
Jal’s appetite for battle was fed by hate and revenge. He describes his lack of feeling after he and his cohort killed three jallabas: “No pain, no disappointment, no regret, no guilt. All I know is that I want to kill again and again.” To equip Jal and other young soldiers for battle, the SPLA provoked their hurt and rage at having their families destroyed at the hands of the enemy. The SPLA also forbade their child soldiers from becoming friends, telling them “love, friendship, pity…all these will weaken you in war.”
Beah and Jal, then, relate how war required them to diminish, not examine, much less expand, their humanity; they tell how their states of mind, whether drug-induced or hate-filled, kept them at a cool remove from their actions, like players of a violent video game.
There are, among the works reviewed, glimpses of what true adulthood might seem like. Mad Dog comes across it from time to time in his victims, including a man whose house he storms into and tries to intimidate at gunpoint. The man, in response, merely looks at Mad Dog “without a word,” then returns his gaze “to the thick volume in his hands.” Mad Dog is paralyzed: “I couldn’t see an ounce of fear or a glimmer of panic in the eyes of this man. On the contrary, I saw complete serenity, as if he were living in some other world. It wasn’t normal.”
In Sozaboy, a zen koan is posed by a “thick man” who was always writing or listening to the radio whenever Mene passed by his house, during happy times. At a rare appearance in church, the thick man tells the sitting congregation that they are “the salt in the soup”—as, they all knew, soup wouldn’t be soup without salt in it. Then, he asks, can there be salt with no salt inside it? Or, really, what use is any “man wey be no man”?
The congregation is further challenged: “Why run away if another man, whether he holds gun or not, comes to your house? Why run away? Why smile idiot foolish smile to porson who have come to tief and give you moless? What are you fearing people of Dukana?”
In the end, Sozaboy is a meditation on one incontrovertible characteristic of the ideal adult, which is courage—particularly in the face of a government that wants to “byforce” you. Saro-Wiwa’s own life is a testament to this principle. He was executed in 1995 by the Nigerian government due to his ongoing activism on behalf of the Ogoni people, who were protesting the degradation of their land by oil-extracting companies like Royal Dutch Shell.
It’s tempting to compare fictional to non-fictional accounts to see what the fiction accurately discerns or overlooks. The most striking contrast between the genres is how the autobiographies encompass an awareness of the trans-Atlantic diaspora that is absent from most of the novels.
I say most of the novels because Mad Dog, with his Tupac Shakur t-shirt, shows some awareness that extends beyond the borders of his war-torn country. Among the civilians he is unable to terrorize is a breakdancing guy who “writhed and twisted” with a boombox he refused to fork over. “[H]is head would disappear entirely between his shoulders, then suddenly pop out on a neck longer than a heron’s,” and “the next instant he was lying huddled on the ground; then he would leap up like a jack-in-the-box.”
The international reach of hip hop infuses A Long Way Gone and War Child. In two surreal episodes, Beah’s love of hip hop saves his life. Before being conscripted into the Sierra Leonean government’s army, Beah and five other boys are captured and corralled before a village chief, who plays a Naughty by Nature tape that falls out of Beah’s pocket. To negotiate their release, Beah must mime the lyrics to OPP as he does the running man in the sand.
Music is all around Jal after he’s extracted from the SPLA and relocated with a guardian to Kenya—the “soft lilt of Bob Marley,” the “heavy beats of Tupac and Ice Cube.” But it’s Puff Daddy (now Diddy) who inspires him the most, with a rap song about faith and Jesus that leads Jal to record his own Christian rap music. Jal goes on to perform at the Africa Calling segment of the 2005 Live 8 benefit concerts and has become an internationally known rap artist.
The sense of diaspora, of a connection that transcends national and continental boundaries, is heartening, and, ultimately, the cause for my humility—which is not to say that child soldier literature is asking me to be humble. What I’m being asked, I believe, is to listen—to listen and hear from each voice a distinct story that will blur the static, oft-reproduced image of a small African boy toting a large gun. Child soldiers are no strangers to any continent (think WWI, WWII, the American Civil War, the Balkans, ad infinitum), and these stories set on the African continent breathe humanity into our global “problem.” They also bring forth, for a reader like me, the always-latent dilemma that was posed by Ken Wiwa, the late Saro-Wiwa’s son: “All of us have a choice, to make our children safe in the world or to make the world safe for our children.”