Study Guide

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier Manipulation

By Ishmael Beah

Manipulation

"I am sorry to show you these gruesome bodies, especially with your children present. But then again, all of us here have seen death or even shaken hands with it." He turned to the bodies and continued softly: "This man and this child decided to leave this morning even though I had told them it was dangerous. The man insisted that he didn't want to be a part of our war, so I gave him his wish and let him go. Look at what happened. The rebels shot them in the clearing. My men brought them back, and I decided to show you, so that you can fully understand the situation we are in." (12.29)

Hmmm… Lieutenant Jabati sure doesn't sound sorry. He's given the people a choice—fight or be sent away from the village. Now he's shown them the consequences of making the "wrong" choice. He's using terror as a tactic to control them. Well, if that doesn't sway them, nothing will.

"They have lost everything that makes them human. They do not deserve to live. That is why we must kill every single one of them. Think of it as destroying a great evil. It is the highest service you can perform for your country." The lieutenant pulled out his pistol and fired two shots into the air. People began shouting, "We must kill them all. We must make sure they never walk this earth again." All of us hated the rebels, and we were more than determined to stop them from capturing the village. Everyone's face had begun to sadden and grow tense. (12.30)

Propaganda speeches are Lieutenant Jabati's favorite way to manipulate his boy soldiers. This is a classic technique—dehumanize the enemy. If they're just rampaging monsters then killing them isn't something you need to feel bad about, right? In fact, it's a virtue.

We were taken to a nearby banana farm, where we practiced stabbing the banana trees with bayonets. "Visualize the banana tree as the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you," the corporal screamed. "Is that how you stab someone who had killed your family?" he asked. "This is how I would do it." He took out his bayonet and started shouting and stabbing the banana tree. "I first stab him in the stomach, then the neck, then his heart, and I will cut it out, show it to him, and then pluck his eyes out. Remember, he probably killed your parents worse. Continue." He wiped his knife with banana leaves. When he said this, we all got angry and drove our knives in and out of the banana trees until they fell to the ground. "Good," he said, nodding and pondering something that made him smile longer than usual. Over and over in our training he would say that same sentence: Visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you. (12.41)

Lieutenant Jabati is a sick genius. He knows these boys are devastated by the loss of their parents, so he uses their helplessness and rage and channels it towards destroying the enemy. He's turning kids into killers.

I was sweating, and they threw water on my face and gave me a few more of the white capsules. I stayed up all night and couldn't sleep for a week. We went out two more times that week and I had no problem shooting my gun. (13.16)

Ishmael's first introduction to drugs makes him stay awake and fight. That's probably why the army finds it in their best interest to keep their soldiers high all the time. Boys who can't think straight can't question what they're doing.

I took turns at the guarding posts around the village, smoking marijuana and sniffing brown brown, cocaine mixed with gunpowder, which was always spread out on the table, and of course taking more of the white capsules, as I had become addicted to them. They gave me a lot of energy. The first time I took all these drugs at the same time, I began to perspire so much that I took off all my clothes. My body shook, my sight became blurred, and I lost my hearing for several minutes. I walked around the village aimlessly, as I felt restless because I simultaneously felt a tremendous rush of energy and numbness. But after several doses of these drugs, all I felt was numbness to everything and so much energy that I couldn't sleep for weeks. We watched movies at night. War movies, Rambo: First Blood, Rambo II, Commando, and so on, with the aid of a generator or sometimes a car battery. We all wanted to be like Rambo; we couldn't wait to implement his techniques. (14.1)

The lieutenant knows exactly how to control these boys so they'll do what he wants. Drugs and war movies numb them to the violence they're about to commit. No one can feel anything, let alone feel bad about what they're doing.

We walked for long hours and stopped only to eat sardines and corned beef with gari, sniff cocaine, brown brown, and take some white capsules. The combination of these drugs gave us a lot of energy and made us fierce. The idea of death didn't cross my mind at all and killing had become as easy as drinking water. My mind had not only snapped during the first killing, it had also stopped making remorseful records, or so it seemed. (14.3)

The first time he kills a man is like an initiation for Ishmael. After that, he doesn't even realize what he's doing. He's not even afraid to die. He barely thinks that's an option. The drugs are giving him a feeling of invincibility. Now the army controls where he goes and what he thinks.

Whenever I looked at rebels during raids, I got angrier, because they looked like the rebels who played cards in the ruins of the village where I had lost my family. So when the lieutenant gave orders, I shot as many as I could, but I didn't feel better. (14.6)

Clearly, the manipulation to kill is for the army's benefit, not Ishmael's.

"Our job is a serious one and we have the most capable soldiers, who will do anything to defend this country. We are not like the rebels, those riff-raffs who kill people for no reason. We kill them for the good and betterment of this country. So respect all these men"— he pointed to us again—"for offering their services." The lieutenant went on and on with his speech, which was a combination of instilling in the civilians that what we were doing was right and boosting the morale of his men, including us, the boys. I stood there holding my gun and felt special because I was part of something that took me seriously and I was not running from anyone anymore. I had my gun now, and as the corporal always said, "This gun is your source of power in these times. It will protect you and provide you all you need, if you know how to use it well." (14.11)

Another motivational speech from Lieutenant Jabati. He's made these kids feel like part of something special… something special that he totally and utterly controls. He calls them "men." He's always emphasizing how their gun gives them power—sadly, a pretty effective statement for boys who feel helpless and afraid. Without their families, the boys need someone to make them feel important and grownup, even a murderer like Jabati.

A lot of things were done with no reason or explanation. Sometimes we were asked to leave for war in the middle of a movie. We would come back hours later after killing many people and continue the movie as if we had just returned from intermission. We were always either at the front lines, watching a war movie, or doing drugs. There was no time to be alone or to think. When we conversed with each other, we talked only about the war movies and how impressed we were with the way either the lieutenant, the corporal, or one of us had killed someone. It was as if nothing else existed outside our reality. (14.12)

No time to think sounds like a good way to keep soldiers in line. Ishmael also remembers how often they were just asked to follow instructions without any explanation. Why would they ask for reasons? They're just tools to be manipulated and used. Keeping the boys confused and off-balance makes them more easily controlled.

It was infuriating to be told what to do by civilians. Their voices, even when they called us for breakfast, enraged me so much that I would punch the wall, my locker, or anything that I was standing next to. A few days earlier, we could have decided whether they would live or die. Because of these things, we refused to do anything that we were asked to do, except eat. We had bread and tea for breakfast, rice and soup for both lunch and dinner. The assortment of soups consisted of cassava leaves, potato leaves, okra, and so forth. We were unhappy because we needed our guns and drugs. (16.1)

Ishmael's priorities and habits have been totally warped by the army. He still thinks that he has power and doesn't know he was just a pawn in the war machine.