Book Review Time! Though this is different from what I typically talk about, I thought that with Juneteeth happening just yesterday (in the US), it would be awesome to educate and learn about other amazing events that happened to black people. Enjoy!
A Long Way Gone is a biographical memoir written by Ishmael Beah, an author from Sierra Leone and previous child soldier during the Sierra Leone Civil War that began in March of 1991; well known for the heinous acts of violence committed by both Joseph Momoh’s government forces, whom Beah fought for, and the well-equipped Revolutionary United Front’s (RUF) guerilla warfare coalition, which intended to overthrow the government due to its corrupt infrastructure that depleted Sierra Leone’s resources and instituted an unforgiving dictatorship.
The narrative depicts the many horrors of war, more specifically the brutalisation of individuals on opposing sides, and the psychological ramifications it has. As Beah is thrust into the stark and grotesque reality of warfare in pursuit of vengeance for his family’s murder, he is still young and impressionable, and shocked at the sight of a man spilled guts or a corpse, but as time progresses, he rapidly matures – or rather, hardens -, becoming capable of torture and nauseating killings. Based on Beah’s true story, the book reflects many contemporary truths; its profound nature, however, comes from how its dynamics interlace with past revolutions in history. A Long Way Gone shows how violence is consistently used by those in power and leadership during revolutions as a means of control, a vengeful display of power, and demonstrates a blatant indifference for the lives of others, which is reaffirmed by both the Haitian Revolution and the Taiping Rebellion respectively.
A primary theme determined by violence in A Long Way Gone is the principle of control. From Beah’s perspective, and the perspective of the Sierra Leone government, this conflict with the RUF is not only about the party that is in command of the blood diamonds, but also their future. After the death of a comatose partner, Ishmael narrates, “I know that the chances of coming back to the village were slim, as we had no control over our future. We know only how to survive”. This quote tells much about the raw aftermath of violence psychologically and its relationship with control. Although Beah did not describe a gruesome scene, he nevertheless reveals how experiencing death so often as a result of the power battle between the RUF and government has caused Beah and his companions’ to become apathetic, as they have been stripped of their control by the vicious cycle of war. As their morals have been torn down and they have buried their coma-stricken friend, their autonomy has been engulfed as well, not only by their enemies but also by the government and the anger that led them to war. For them, life has become binary: death or survival. Those in the government have felt that their control has been threatened by the RUF, and they, therefore, commit the vulnerable to savagery and stoicism to retaliate. As a result, the vulnerable individuals, especially the children, who are deployed have their beliefs and ethical constructs shattered as collateral damage, and replaced with a “rule is to kill or be killed,” as Ishmael states. This same essence appeared during the Haitian Revolution beginning in 1791, where slaves – all of which were people of colour – fought for mental and physical liberation from their captivity by French colonial rule in Saint Domingue, where a similar impulse in the uprising emerged as a result of the many bloody murders and losses both sides of the war committed and endured.
A large part of the way control was exerted by both the Momoh-led Government and the RUF was through their terrifying acts of violence left behind, typically inspired by the desire to avenge a lost comrade. This is an especially significant element in revolutions that ties back to the fundamental struggle over control. Oftentimes in war, control is achieved through the party whose display of vengeance is grandest. Interestingly, it seems that the pursuit of control through violence by higher powers is less productive than perceived.
Sierra Leone’s authority attempts to prey on the hatred of those who have lost due to the war, such as Beuh and his teammates, using their fear and anger as fodder to regain control. However, Beuh himself comes to realise the destructive nature of this tactic, explaining that “[He’s] come to learn that if [he is] going to take revenge, in that process [he] will kill another person whose family will want revenge; then revenge and revenge and revenge will never come to an end,” resulting in an intractable cycle of death. His perspective is proven true and can be seen during the 15-year Taiping rebellion between the 20 million to 30 million pseudo-religious rebellious civilians and the Qing Dynasty, in which the rebellion took no prisoners due to so much resentment for the Dynasty being cultivated over time, as the Dynasty excluded poorer individuals from its bureaucracy, and created unfair policies in China. The rebellion’s leader, Hong Xiuqian, felt that his position in China was threatened by the Qing, and used the desperation of the poor to his advantage. Notwithstanding the Qing Dynasty’s success in thwarting the rebellion, the war was one of the bloodiest in history, and China was thrust into an economic crisis when the Qing Dynasty fell after being exhausted and forever scarred by Xiuqian’s coup. The recurring theme of using military force by employing exploitable individuals is an unfortunate behaviour exhibited by both the rebellion and government in revolutions and often leads to an inauspicious conclusion.
The overarching theme that encompasses the significance of authoritarian powers exhibiting control through fear via violence is the inhuman lack of regard for innocent lives by leaders as a response to an opposing threat. Not only is the Sierra Leone government a proponent of this behaviour, but they also condition young individuals for it. Beah recounts his experiences, saying that “[he] would come back hours later after killing many people and continue the movie as if [he] had just returned from intermission. We were always either at the front lines, watching a war movie, or doing drugs.” This sporadic response from powers also led those on the front lines to mature too quickly, forcing them to get used to the sight of a mutilated body, alongside many other gory sights. Similar instances occurred during both the Taiping and Haitian revolutions, respectively. During the Taiping rebellion, Hong Xiuqian and his other leaders would capture Qing members and mutilate them, rape them, or stab them multiple times as a means of exacting their revenge, and displaying their lack of care for the lives of their enemies. The civilians as part of the rebellion were said to have become ruthless, much like the fighters during the Haitian revolution, who massacred the French whites and slave owners, and later committed a post-war genocide.
The propensity to extreme violence by leaders during rebellions, such as in the Sierra Leone Civil War, the Haitian Revolution, and the Taiping Rebellion is the result of a complex dynamic with no objectifiable ‘good’ side, or perhaps even intentions. Instead, it is unambiguous that a common impetus for violence is control, which is succeeded by incessant revenge, resulting in a swath of issues, the ultimate and exhaustive one being a disregard for human lives, including innocent ones, positioned on the side of the opposition, and the perceived expendable nature of those fighting as allies. The result of war may be prosperity, but war itself is an ugly event and one that which people, children especially, cannot thrive in, as depicted in A Long Way Gone by the experiences of Ishmael Beah and his fellow soldiers.
Before you go…
My name’s Okezue, a developer and researcher obsessed with learning and building things, especially when it involves any technology or science. Check out my socials here, or contact me: email@example.com.
I write something new every day/week, so I hope to see you again soon! Make sure you comment, and leave some claps on this too — especially if you liked it! I sure enjoyed writing it!