Ever dream of being a war hero? American culture loves to celebrate wars and battles. Movies like Rambo and 300 make fighting look almost fun. Video games like Call of Duty let us literally play war. Heck, we even have paintball games where we can pretend to shoot other people in mock battles.
But it's rare to meet people, especially young people, who have actually lived through war. Sure, adults who've served in the military have done it—thanks, guys—but your average, every day American tween doesn't have too much first hand experience with combat. And that's a very, very good thing.
Ishmael Beah's 2007 memoir, A Long Way Gone, tells the story of a boy who's not so lucky. The book records his real-life experiences as a 12-year-old caught up in a bloody civil war in his home country of Sierra Leone. When his village is attacked by rebel fighters, Ishmael loses his home and family. He's forced to wander around looking for food, hiding in the woods and trying to avoid getting gunned down by soldiers. That's not like any paintball game we've ever played in.
Eventually, Ishmael is recruited, like many boys his age and even younger, to join the army of Sierra Leone and fight in the conflict. Actually, he's not so much recruited as threatened with death if he won't serve. It's not a difficult choice. Thanks to guns, drugs, and brainwashing by his commanding officers, Ishmael is transformed into a lean, mean, ruthless killing machine by the time he turns 15.
Yep, that's 15.
Ishmael's brutally honest about the killing and mutilation he did in the conflict. When he's rescued from the frontlines by UNICEF, he's left to reflect on his experience. He doesn't have much time to worry about the politics on either side of the civil war; he's just trying to come to terms with the murderous things he's seen and done as a soldier. His whole childhood has been stolen from him, and he's angry and traumatized.
But Ishmael doesn't let his grief and anger overtake him. Gradually, he comes to terms with his experiences and moves on to help other people, too. One of his first steps is writing this book to give others a little window into the terrible realities of war. It's definitely the non-glamorous, non-video-game version of war, beautifully written and very personal.
We should note that some journalists have questioned the accuracy of Ishmael's account of being a child soldier. They claim that rebels attacked Mattru Jong in 1995, not 1993. That means Ishmael only served as a soldier for a few months, not two years. For his part, Ishmael maintains that his story is, sadly, totally and completely true. But even if there are details that don't conform exactly to what happened, is that such a big deal? If an author doesn't tell the absolute truth, does that make his ideas any less True? Does it make the story less important? Shmoop doesn't think so.
And we're not the only ones who think Ishmael's story is important. Ishmael was nominated for a Quill Award and his memoir has been translated in over forty languages. Time Magazine called the book "a truly uplifting memoir." The Washington Post said "Everyone should read this book."
Who are we to argue with The Washington Post? Let's do it.
Child soldier. What does that even mean?
Here's what it means: Today, tens of thousands of children, some as young as 7 years old, are actively serving in armed conflicts throughout the world. Boys are generally used as fighters, while girls are often forced into sexual slavery. International law doesn't allow children under the age of 18 to participate in fighting, and anyone who recruits kids under 15 is committing a war crime. Yet armies still do this. Every. Single. Day.
By writing about his experiences as a boy soldier, Ishmael Beah is bringing attention to a problem that's both global and ongoing. The use of child soldiers in Sierra Leone didn't end when Ishmael left the frontlines in 1996. By some accounts, almost half the rebel forces were children between the ages of seven and fourteen. 20% of government forces were children as well. We've gotta wonder—what happens to these kids after the fighting stops?
What happens is that these child soldiers are traumatized and brutalized by their experience, just like Ishmael, who has a lot of trouble adjusting to civilian life. His trust is gone, he has nightmares, he's constantly afraid for his life, and he's consumed with guilt and regret. It's an experience we can't even imagine: 7 year-olds with AK-47s; preteens competing to see who's best at slitting the throats of prisoners; kids who should be sitting in school instead prowling the countryside, their brains fried by drugs, shooting anything that moves.
Does it matter that Ishmael may have gotten some of his dates wrong? We'll let you be the judge of that one. Meanwhile, next time you play "Call of Duty," be grateful that you're just sitting at your computer. For Ishmael Beah, war wasn't just a game.
Ishmael Beah's website, complete with links to his new book, also about war in Sierra Leone. Yeah, the topic just doesn't get old.
The Ishmael Beah Foundation
This organization offers help to former child soldiers who are trying to reintegrate back into society.
Home Sweet Sierra Leone
An unofficial website for Sierra Leone, which shows all kinds of cool pictures of the country and its history.
Blood Diamond (2006)
Okay, this movie isn't about Ishmael's Beah's experiences, but it's set during the civil war in Sierra Leone. It features a father who's desperately looking for his son, who's been forced to serve as a child soldier.
Call Me Ishmael
A New York Times article written by Ishmael Beah, featuring passages you'll recognize from him book.
Fact or Fiction?
After A Long Way Gone was released, a few Australian journalists investigated Ishmael Beah's claims about his life as a child soldier. They published a bunch of articles claiming that his memoir was exaggerated, and that he only served three months as a soldier. Ishmael stands by his story, but you can read a summary of the whole controversy in this article.
As Time Goes By
A timeline of the events in A Long Way Gone laid out in clickable video format.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Audio of Ishmael's appearance on NPR's "Fresh Air" after his book was published.
Two stories written and read by Ishmael Beah about his life in Sierra Leone and starting over again in New York City. The paintball one is pretty darn funny.
He's a Survivor
Our author in the flesh.
Mother & Son
Ishmael Beah with his adoptive mom, Laura Simms.
Fun with Maps
A guide to all the places Ishmael travelled to in A Long Way Gone.
Armed & Dangerous
A boy fighting for the army of Sierra Leone, just like Ishmael did.
A picture of some child soldiers fighting for the RUF in Sierra Leone.
Freetown, Sierra Leone
A photo of the big city where Ishmael finally goes to live with his Uncle Tommy.