Child Soldiers and Military Culture

Yet again, we are introduced to a situation in which the rest of the world fails to act during a terrible crisis.  Ishamel Beah’s memoir, A Long Way Gone, discusses his life before, during, and after the time he was recruited as a child soldier in Sierra Leone.  Our in-class exercise asked us to think about which actors could have successfully intervened in this conflict and what could have been done differently.  After learning how much influence the presence of UN peacekeepers has in war-torn areas, I have a hard time understanding why they would not go into as many areas as physically possible to provide assistance to those in need.  While reading the text, I could not stop thinking about the ways that war is perceived and interpreted by Western countries, mainly the United States.  Here, we do not experience what it is like to live in an area torn apart by war and deep-seated hatred.  These problems are only made evident to us through the media.  We do not understand this reality unless we have lived through it.  Our limited understanding comes from multiple sources within the media.  Here are picture of child soldiers from Sierra Leone.

We learn about war and genocide, first and foremost, through the news.  Although it is great that we have this resource, there are many problems with the news as a whole.  Often, we do not hear about many conflicts and issues affecting the rest of the world.  If we do, it is often only for a short segment.  More reliable sources of news include newspapers and educational magazines, but these sources do not reach as many people as mainstream television media.  Often, when I bring about the Rwandan genocide or the conflict in Sierra Leone to friends and family members, they do not know what I am talking about.  Many Americans would be able to fill you in on recent wars (Iraq, Afghanistan), but not nearly as many are informed about conflicts that do not directly affect the United States.

Another way that people, specifically children and teenagers, is video games.  I sometimes watch as my younger brother plays video games and am astonished by what he is playing.  Most of the games involve him shooting and killing other people in a war setting.  Granted, it is just a game, but it puts him under the illusion that military lifestyle and war in general are “cool.”  It has been proven that these games play a large role in desensitizing people to violence.  This is most evident in military training: military research has found that soldiers are more willing to fight and shoot in active combat if they are introduced to violence in video games and simulators before hand.  They have found this to be equally effective as prior methods of military training and much more economically beneficial.  On the first page of A Long Way Gone, Ishmael discusses a conversation he had with friends in high school who referred to people “running around with guns and shooting each other” as cool.  Ishmael does not discuss this any more in his memoir, but this stood out to me more than anything else in the book.  To those who cannot and may never understood, war seems cool. It seems impossible to imagine life in that situation.  The only comparable images are those we see in video games, which are not comparable by any means.  Although this method is effective in desensitization and has proven to be a good complement to military training, or even a supplement to military training, there are a few things that cannot be replaced.  As an article in USA Today says, “For all the virtues of virtual reality, it cannot recreate the tension, terror and bloodshed of war.”  In A Long Way Gone, we see how Ishmael was trained to fight.  To learn more about video games in military training, click here.

It is interesting to compare this to the methods being researched and implemented today in the United States.  Ishmael was told that the enemies were the people that killed his family, which gave him personal justification for his actions.  In the United States, this justification stems from a sense of civic nationalism, duty, and honor.  However, Ishmael was not simply a perpetrator, which is why people are able to understand and forgive his actions.  He was only a child and his life was at risk.  The question I want to pose (and not answer) may seem as though it has an obvious answer, but I feel it may be more complex than it may appear.  American soldiers fighting abroad are heroes in the United States but perpetrators in the countries where they are fighting.  From the Western perspective, their actions are justified and respected, but if we look at this from an outside perspective, is there any justification?

Another point that I felt was interesting was made in class last week.  The book rarely mentions women and Ishmael does not choose to discuss his relationships with women during this time (assuming there were any).  As we discussed in regards to Kosovo and Rwanda, rape is used as a weapon of war.  Beah briefly mentions women being raped in front of their families and sons being forced to have sex with their mothers.  Aside from that, we do not hear much of that side of the story.  I do agree with my classmates that this book was supposed to be about his experience, which may be why we did not learn about women.  However, I was interested in learning a bit more about what women were going through during this time.  In this video, we are introduced to Mariatua who was targeted by soldiers in the war by soldiers and survived to tell the story.

Word Count: 969

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mohammed Adawulai
    Mar 01, 2010 @ 16:40:46

    this article spells out the relationship between violent video games and real violence. the evidence you gave are very compelling. when i first came to America, i had, like i still do, no interest in video games because i didn’t grow up with it. so my host mom use to say “i trust you not to join your host brothers in killing people on the computer.” and i just give her my usual smile and she hates it when my brothers do that, and she’s right as you also pointed out. i am also pretty certain that Beah, like me, did not grow with video games, but he grew up on movies like Rambo, or commando. and i could see how those violent movies inspired him and his friends to be like rambo or Schwarzenegger, only this time, it is not fake. and i agree with you when you said that you dont understand why the UN with its peacekeepers fail to prevent the escalation of the war. but the bottom line is, the UN will sometimes fail us as it did many times in the past. what is therefore required is for people to take responsibility for themselves. we need a system of government in sierra leonne that is strong politically and militarily. politically in the sense that it would be able to recognize the existence of its own people by by providing them with jobs, good education, hospitals and other basic amenities. it also need to be strengthened militarily so as to be able to contain rebels like the R.U.F when they decide to destabilize the peace. but again, we need governments that works for its own people, instead of looking up in vain to the UN.on the morality of the child soldier or the American soldier…Mitchell, why dont we just call a spade what it is, A SPADE. no matter how we polish it or regardless of who the killer is, killing can never be moralized on any ground. but certainly the circumstance of the war or the killing could be justified because sometimes war is the defendant of liberty. but i do agree with you that the story is missing other important lessons especially women’s life during the civil war. i enjoy reading your blog but its time to do dinner.


  2. Trackback: Torture and Abu Ghraib « Michelle's Blog

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