A Long Way Gone: Theme Analysis
From the moment Ishmael is forced to flee Mattru Jong his life focuses solely on the need to survive. This basic desire trumps everything else. He does whatever he has to do in order to survive, whether that entails wandering from place to place, alone or with companions, or being forced to join the army. He had to join the army or he would not have survived. Once he becomes a soldier, the need to survive becomes an even stronger motivating factor and makes him quite ruthless. He kills other people before they kill him. Survival by whatever means necessary becomes his way of life. After he is taken to the rehabilitation home he finds it hard to trust anyone, because for so long his survival has depended on not trusting. “I had learned to survive and take care of myself. . . . I liked being alone, since it made surviving easier.” (p. 153).
War and Its Atrocities
The war is brutal in particular because civilians are caught up in it. Whole villages are massacred simply because each side needs to establish bases from which to attack. Ishmael witnesses many atrocities against civilians, who are killed in all manner of brutal ways. Lieutenant Jabati describes these atrocities explicitly when he addresses the villagers and tells they boys they must take part in the fight. Then when Ishmael becomes a soldier he takes part in atrocities committed by the government forces. In particular, they kill their prisoners as well as any civilians that get in their way. The war so desensitizes them to decent human feelings that they commit unspeakable acts without so much as a thought. Atrocities become normal, everyday acts on both sides of the conflict.
The idea of revenge is drummed into the boy soldiers during their training by Corporal Gadafi. He tells them to visualize the enemy as the rebels who killed their parents. They must kill the rebels in order to avenge the deaths of their families. Ishmael accepts this explanation. When he sees rebels during a raid he gets angry because they remind him of the rebels who killed his family. When he is ordered to kill a prisoner he thinks nothing of it: “The prisoner was simply another rebel who was responsible for the death of my family, as I had come to truly believe” (p. 124). But as a result of his rehabilitation, Ishmael comes to realize that all revenge is futile, and he makes the point eloquently in his speech at the United Nations conference: What I have learned from my experiences is that revenge is not good. I joined the army to avenge the deaths of my family and to survive, but I’ve come to learn that if I am going to take revenge, in that process I will kill another person whose family will want revenge; then revenge and revenge and revenge will never come to an end . . .” (p. 199).
Loss and Rediscovery of Community
The personal story Ishmael Beah recounts is one of loss and rediscovery of community. When the story begins, as Ishmael makes his way to Mattru Jong with his brother and friend, he is like any other twelve-year-old. He has a family and a community to which he belongs. During the story he often flashes back to happy scenes from his early childhood. But when the rebels attack he loses everything and is completely alone in the world. The whole of Sierra Leone society breaks down, too. People become suspicious of each other; even children are regarded with suspicion because people know they are being recruited as soldiers. There is no longer any pleasure taken in greeting a strangers. Strangers are people to be wary of.
When Ishmael joins the army he rediscovers a sense of community with his comrades. “My squad was my family,” he writes (p. 126). But this newfound sense of solidarity with others comes at a terrible price; this particular “family” is trained in the ruthless killing of the enemy, and it leaves Ishmael full of hatred and mistrust of others who are not in his small military unit.
Ishmael slowly begins to recover community at the Benin Home during his rehabilitation. He learns to trust once more, and he becomes once more part of a family when he goes to live with his uncle. When he speaks at the UN he says, “We are all brothers and sisters,” which shows he now has an awareness of community at the widest possible level—the community of all people who must learn how to live in peace with one another.