How to make a killer

Last year, film critic David Denby gushed in the New Yorker about Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond. Set in Sierra Leone during its horrific civil war, the film is a romantic drama about an American journalist and a South African diamond smuggler. Despite a great performance by Djimon Hounsou, every African character is little more than a backdrop used to highlight the white protagonists—Jennifer Connelly and Leonardo DiCaprio—as they ascend to new heights of angst.

That might sound reductive or mind numbingly PC, but one doesn’t need a degree in post-Colonial theory to understand what a problematic cliche it all is. That’s why it’s a welcome relief to read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone.

Unless you’ve endured a civil war, it’s probably impossible to understand what Beah went through. From the age of 12 to 15, he was a fugitive from the Revolutionary United Front, which attacked his village and would later kill his family. At age 13 he was recruited into the army of the Sierra Leone government. He was hardly an anomaly as a child solider.

Beah recounts his experience in prose that’s deceptively simple. Reading of killing and fleeing looted villages, rapes and murders right in broad daylight, it’s so far beyond the pale of first-world unpleasantness that ingesting it is like logging in to a dead URL. It just won’t load. However, sprinkled between the atrocities are moments that underline the madness of being young, desperate and unprotected.

Witness a short list of what can be considered the “lighter side” of his pre-soldier wanderings: Being chased into trees by packs of wild boars; sleeping in trees for safety; being rounded up (and bounded up) with a half-dozen refugee children in a coastal village.

Strange then that these adventures are sometimes more frightening than the war itself; perhaps because being alone in the jungle fleeing feral pigs is easier to envision than a brigade of middle schoolers shooting up a rural village. As Beah said, he quickly lost compassion for anyone and could shoot a person as easily as one might recycle a can of Coke. Like most other young conscripts, Beah became addicted to “brown brown,” a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder popular among his comrades.

From a safer perspective, the enemy is anyone who turns children into killing machines. As he’d later learn, both factions peddled the same logic to their child soldiers “Over and over in our training he would say the 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.”

It’s an unenviable contradiction: being revved up for killing by channeling your suffering and then get loaded on numbing agents to forget it just the same.

There is a happy ending. Beah is chosen to be part of a U.N. panel on child soldiers. He travels to New York City and, years later, is adopted by a woman he meets there. He goes on to graduate from Oberlin College, an elite private college in Ohio.

How does he make sense of these two starkly different realities? What does a young man do with childhood memories few adults can handle? Maybe we’ll find out in another book. Beah doesn’t wrap up his life in a neat bow, as well he shouldn’t: It’s far from over.