For many years, people of such countries as Seirra Leone, Uganda, Ethiopia and Chad have suffered from the innocent killings and destructions. In these parts of the world, the biggest challenge of all citizens remains the survival. One of the issues that arises as a result of civil war is child soldiering. Child soldier is someone under eighteen years of age who is the part of armed force. The forces select children because they are easily influenced and manipulated. The book A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah is the autobiographical story about the life of a child soldier in Sierra Leone.
In 1991, the civil war overtook Sierra Leone. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attempted to overthrow the government for the first time. Therefore, Ishmael became the unwilling boy soldier. At the age of twelve, he was recruited by the army to battle rebels and committed many murders and crimes. Many people argue that his deeds should not be left unpunished. In the book, Ishmael described bluntly but honestly many brutal moments of war. He did not try to conceal anything from the reader. However, he was a child while committing all those crimes under the pressure and influence of the war. Should he be prosecuted for becoming the unwilling soldier? No!
There are critics who argue that Ishmael should face the penalty for his actions since he was mature enough to understand the intensity of cruelness and inhumanity of his actions. Moreover, they declare that he took many innocent lives mercilessly, that is why he must be prosecuted.
They say, death is a natural result of the war. Nevertheless, burying people alive or cutting throats are not tolerable, even during the times of war. Considering all of these arguments, many believe that his crimes are far too serious to be forgiven, and he must be punished, not praised.
Critics believe that Ishmael was intelligent enough to understand the actions and the consequences. However, I believe that he was not mature enough and could be easily manipulated. That is why Ishmael cannot be fully responsible for the deeds that he had to do after the brainwashing. Ishmael Beah was merely 12 years old when he joined the army. According to Elizabeth Williamson, the brain is not fully formed until the age of 25. Maturation of the prefrontal cortex, which is a part of the brain responsible for problem solving, logic, weighing possible consequences of behavior and adjusting behavior with situation, will not occur until the age of 25. Undeveloped brain structure is the reason that children think differently than adults. Ishmael was only 12 years old when he joined the army. His age made him emotionally and physically vulnerable. Therefore, he chose the wrong path. Obsessed with thrillers and heroes like Rambo, Ishmael says, “We (Ishmael and his friends) all wanted to be like Rambo, we could not wait to implement his techniques” (121).
The influence of movies on child soldier was very strong; watching thrillers made boys aggressive. According to Ishmael’s comrade, “Sometimes I want to take on a whole village all by myself, just like Rambo” (122). These thoughts blaind his vision and altered the actions. That proves that Ishmael was not mature enough to understand the consequences of his deeds. He was convinced that acted like hero while taking on villages and killing rustics.
Another reason for his brutal behavior was the overdose of drugs. Stating the quantity of drugs Ishmael noted, “In the daytime, instead of playing soccer in the village square, I took turns at the guarding posts, smoking marijuana and sniffing brown brown; cocaine mixed with gun powder and of course take some more of those white capsules”(121). The military made him addicted to drugs which turned off his feelings. Drugs gave the soldiers the ability to repress their emotions and changed them into the painless soldiers. According Dr. Carol Boyd, the side effects of cocaine usage are depression, increasingly risky behavior, irritability, mood disturbances and the overdose. It is known that using drugs causes hallucination which easily impairs a person’s decision-making skills and reasoning abilities. For almost two years, Ishmael has been taking these drugs every day, which entirely changed his mental behavior and eventually drove his motives toward cruel actions. After getting the elementary training, an AK-47 and as many drugs as he could consume, Ishmael was on a two-year mind-bending killing spree phase (Boyd). They have been using high dosage of drugs before every operation to become fearless and merciless. They became addicted to those drugs and could not give up using them. Ishmael wrote, “During the same week, the drugs were wearing off. I craved cocaine and marijuana so badly that I would roll a plain sheet of paper and smoke it” (139). Continuous usage of drugs dulled their sences, shutting down their emotions; therefore, they became restless murderers. Something that we should not neglect is that there are thousands of child soldiers, hopped-up on drugs and spinning AK-47s. They take part in many conflicts around the world. Ishmael Beah is just one more child soldier.
Revenge is one more reason for committing those crimes. Revenge is a powerful driving force that “has been cited as a factor in one in five murders that occur in developed countries” (Jaffe). Ishmael had had a remarkable childhood until the war struck their village. Suddenly, his childlike life changed into blood and destruction. Ishmael blamed the rebels for all the killings. He wanted to take revenge on them “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”(122). The army also used his negative feelings to brainwash him turn into a killing machine. During their training, they’ve repeatedly used provoking words like “Visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you”(112). In reality, the army is responsible for making boys to commit acts they would never have believed themselves capable of. Ishmael was encouraged to take revenge for his family`s death. He is only one of those child soldiers striking back for revenge like thousands of other rebels. If we decide to punish Ishmael and persecute all child soldiers, it means we have to punish thousands of innocent children who fought to avenge the killers of their families. Peace cannot be achieved by the persecution and punishment of these children.
Survival has been the ultimate goal of mankind throughout the history. As humans, we desire to continue our lives and we would do anything to protect it from the elimination. Ishmael is not an exception. From the first day, ever since the war reached his homeland, the young innocent boy Ishmael had to travel miles to escape the rebel`s attack and find a safe place. Civil war damages people`s morality and they become suspicious of everyone, including children. They tried to take refuge in different villages, however, the villagers never accepted them and rural people even tried to hurt them. One of the chief of communities in one village said to Ishmael and his friends, “Well, this is the end of the road for devils like you. Out there in the ocean, even you rascals cannot survive” (66). They walked from town to town, yet, they were not welcomed there; not even a single family felt pity for them. The only place that partially comforted them was Yele, a military base and the home of many innocent people. Ishmael narrated about Yele; “At the beginning it seemed that we had finally found safety”(101). Very soon, the war reached that place, as well. The commanding officer offered people two options, either to join the armed forces or leave the base. The lieutenant, as an example showed the bodies of a man and a child who decided to leave the base. They were mercilessly killed by rebels, claiming that the man did not want to be part of the war and left the military base(107). “After managing to survive the forest, Ishmael finally joins the army because he does not have any other choice if he wants to live” (Iweala). Ishmael was not left with many options, he either had to kill or be killed. Can we blame him for protecting his life?
As human beings, we are all afraid of death. Ishmael is not an exception. He was a young boy who was left alone in a situation far more dangerous than any of us can imagine. It was impossible for a boy of his age to choose death over killing. Ishmael simply did what he had to do to survive. He lost his family and was left all alone in the dangerous world in the time of the civil war. We spend most of our lives in peace and have not seen any extreme violence in everyday life, we cannot comprehend the pain that Ishmael must have gone through as a child. Furthermore, we cannot fully underastand the mental and physical situation of a 12-year-old child who was brainwashed, drugged, left alone and endangered. Let alone a young boy, such situations can even bend an old man’s will. We cannot ask for his persecution and punishment, because if faced the same situation, most likely we would do the same. Ishmael Beah was ultimately released by the military force and sent to a UNICEF rehabilitation center, where he struggled to regain the normal life. Today, he attends college in the United States.