Study Guide

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier Warfare

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There were all kinds of stories told about the war that made it sound as if it was happening in a faraway and different land. It wasn't until refugees started passing through our town that we began to see that it was actually taking place in our country. Families who had walked hundreds of miles told how relatives had been killed and their houses burned. Some people felt sorry for them and offered them places to stay, but most of the refugees refused, because they said the war would eventually reach our town. […] At times I thought that some of the stories the passersby told were exaggerated. The only wars I knew of were those that I had read about in books or seen in movies such as Rambo: First Blood, and the one in neighboring Liberia that I had heard about on the BBC news. My imagination at ten years old didn't have the capacity to grasp what had taken away the happiness of the refugees. (1.1)

It's hard to imagine the realities of war before you've experienced it yourself. We've been lucky in the U.S. because, since the Civil War, we haven't experienced battle on our own soil. For Americans, war really has been far away. When the Twin Towers fell in 2001, many Americans said, "It's something like out of a movie." Europeans who saw it tended to think "It looks like when our city was bombed in WWII."

One of the messengers was a young man. They had carved their initials, RUF (Revolutionary United Front), on his body with a hot bayonet and chopped off all his fingers with the exception of his thumbs. The rebels called this mutilation "one love." Before the war, people raised a thumb to say "One love" to each other, an expression popularized by the love and influence of reggae music. (3.2)

This is just one of the many messed up things Ishmael will see over the next few years. And, yes, this is a real thing. Click here to see a picture of a survivor of this mutilation. Warning: the image is obviously really upsetting.

I wanted to blame someone for this particular predicament, but there was no one to be blamed. We had made a logical decision and it had come to this. It was a typical aspect of being in the war. Things changed rapidly in a matter of seconds and no one had any control over anything. We had yet to learn these things and implement survival tactics, which was what it came down to. That night we were so hungry that we stole people's food while they slept. It was the only way to get through the night. (4.6)

War changes everything; the old rules of life don't apply. The only thing that matters is survival. Ishmael wasn't a thief, but he had to become one.

In the morning the rebels broke into the house and found his parents and three sisters. Saidu had climbed to the attic to bring down the remaining rice for their journey, when the rebels stormed in. Saidu sat in the attic, holding his breath and listening to the wailing of his sisters as the rebels raped them. His father shouted at them to stop, and one of the rebels hit him with the butt of his gun. Saidu's mother cried and apologized to her daughters for having brought them into this world to be victims of such madness. After the rebels had raped the sisters over and over, they bundled the family's property and made the father and mother carry it. They took the three girls with them.

"To this day, I carry the pain that my sisters and parents felt. When I climbed down after the rebels were gone, I couldn't stand and my tears froze in my eyes. I felt like my veins were being harshly pulled out of my body. I still feel like that all the time, as I can't stop thinking about that day. What did my sisters do to anyone?" (10.57-58)

In one of the book's most difficult passages, Ishmael can understand now why Saidu seems so quiet and beaten down by the war. He has lived through some unspeakable things and has been totally traumatized.

When we got to the back of the line, there were four men lying on the ground, their uniforms soaked with blood. One of them lay on his stomach, and his eyes were wide open and still; his insides were spilling onto the ground. I turned away, and my eyes caught the smashed head of another man. Something inside his brain was still pulsating and he was breathing. I felt nauseated. Everything began to spin around me. One of the soldiers was looking at me, chewing something and smiling. He took a drink from his water bottle and threw the remaining water at my face.

"You will get used to it, everybody does eventually," he said. (12.1-2)

The sad part about this is Ishmael will get used to it when he becomes a soldier himself. It's tragic how quickly violence and death become normal when it's all you see.

The lieutenant went on for almost an hour, describing how rebels had cut off the heads of some people's family members and made them watch, burned entire villages along with their inhabitants, forced sons to have intercourse with their mothers, hacked newly born babies in half because they cried too much, cut open pregnant women's stomachs, took the babies out, and killed them… The lieutenant spat on the ground and continued on, until he was sure that he had mentioned all the ways the rebels had hurt every person in the gathering. (12.29)

In order to kill your enemies during wartime, you have to believe that they deserve it. This was what the lieutenant was trying to convince the boys to think—the rebels were evil murderers who did horrible, gruesome things. It had the side effect of scaring the boys to death.

My face, my hands, my shirt and gun were covered with blood. I raised my gun and pulled the trigger, and I killed a man. Suddenly, as if someone was shooting them inside my brain, all the massacres I had seen since the day I was touched by war began flashing in my head. Every time I stopped shooting to change magazines and saw my two young lifeless friends, I angrily pointed my gun into the swamp and killed more people. I shot everything that moved, until we were ordered to retreat because we needed another strategy. (13.13)

Ishmael has seen a lot of dead bodies in this war, but he's never killed anyone himself until this battle. Once he crosses this line, something snaps and he keeps killing. He seems to think that it was at this moment that he stopped being a person and turned into a killing machine.

I didn't feel a thing for him, didn't think that much about what I was doing. I just waited for the corporal's order. The prisoner was simply another rebel who was responsible for the death of my family, as I had come to truly believe. The corporal gave the signal with a pistol shot and I grabbed the man's head and slit his throat in one fluid motion. His Adam's apple made way for the sharp knife, and I turned the bayonet on its zigzag edge as I brought it out. His eyes rolled up and they looked me straight in the eye before they suddenly stopped in a frightful glance, as if caught by surprise. The prisoner leaned his weight on me as he gave out his last breath. I dropped him on the ground and wiped my bayonet on him. I reported to the corporal, who was holding a timer. The bodies of the other prisoners fought in the arms of the other boys, and some continued to shake on the ground for a while. I was proclaimed the winner. (14.13)

Ishmael is clearly the "winner" here though we're not sure what the prize is. This is a terrifying scene that shows us just how horrifically the war has affected our author. He once cried for the victims of the war; now he feels nothing.

The villages that we captured and turned into our bases as we went along and the forests that we slept in became my home. 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. We had been fighting for over two years, and killing had become a daily activity. I felt no pity for anyone. My childhood had gone by without my knowing, and it seemed as if my heart had frozen. 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. (15.1)

This pretty much sums up Ishmael's time in the military. The war has totally obliterated any normal ideas. He doesn't even know what day of the week it is. What would it matter? Any day is a good day for killing when you're in combat.

None of us knew why our commanders had let us go. We were excellent fighters and were ready to fight the war till the end. One boy was telling us that he thought the foreigners gave our commanders money in exchange for us. No one said anything to this. I still had the grenade in my hand as we conversed. Sometime during the conversation I turned to the man who had brought us to the kitchen. He was sitting at the edge of the table, shaking. His forehead perspired profusely. "Do you know why our commanders gave us up to you sissy civilians?" (15.32)

Even when Ishmael's able to escape the horrors of the war, he doesn't want to believe it's over. That's how tight a grip the war has on him. It's hard for many adult veterans to return to civilian life; can you imagine what it's like for brainwashed boys who can't even think straight anymore?

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