Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ishmael Beah, "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier"

(D&M, 2007)

In the early 90s, Ishmael Beah was a bright and promising youngster displaced by the Sierra Leone Civil War. He wandered the countryside alone or with other displaced boys until recruited by government forces to combat the insurgent Revolutionary United Front. By the age of 15, Beah was a remorseless killer whose life consisted solely of military maneuvers, drugs and Hollywood war movies. He describes how he was taken out of the fighting by UNICEF and rehabilited at a centre for former child soldiers. Turning 30 this year, Beah is now an inspiring spokesperson on child soldier issues. His memoir touched a popular nerve in the affluent North - for instance, it has the Oprah stamp of approval - and quickly became a bestseller. I'll bracket here the controversies that have plagued Beah over his credibility. What interests me most is why so many people in the North have gravitated to his story, and what precisely, thereby, they risk failing to take away from it.

Beah's narrative portrays the war as fought by two cynical and thuggish factions who pay lip service to social justice and civil order, but at bottom crave nothing but access to resources and power. He makes the occasional reference in his narrative to the fighting between the RUF and government forces over mining areas. This detail is crucial but not systematically addressed: each major player in the conflict was after control of the country's diamond industry, and at bottom, the war was fought for economic reasons. The ideologically confused RUF claimed that it sought to give control of mining resources to "the people"; the government forces essentially claimed the same thing (note how anyone on the opposing side is automatically disqualified from belonging to "the people" - as Mao aptly if unintentionally demonstrated in his theoretical writings, recourse to "the people" is often a mystifying blank cheque). The real issue, however, was over who could sell the resources off to the European and North American companies which generally turned a blind eye to how they were obtained.

To be sure, Beah's narrative is a personal account rather than a political-economic critique. The risk attendant, however, is that the reader will come away from it thinking that there are good people and evil people, full stop - that there are resource-hungry, power-hungry people on one side, and those who just want to go about their lives on the other. Unless we want to posit arbitrarily the profound evil of certain "culturally under-developed" persons or groups (for instance, succumbing to the implicitly racist reduction of the conflict to "ethnic"or "tribal"reasons), the Sierra Leone Civil War must be plugged into the broader context of global capitalism. In fact, conflicts in economically "outlying areas" generally afford privileged sites from which to glean the overall workings of capital. We should resist the temptation to become economic reductionists about African conflicts, but nonetheless emphasize that incorporation into global capitalism creates powerful incentives towards violence and instability. To neglect this is to court absurdity: think about how affluent Northerners bemoan the inhumanity of the war in the Congo, but generally do not make the connection that the fighting is over such scarce resources as coltan, which is used to make their cellular telephones. An analysis which takes into account such factors as ethnic tensions without pausing to look at the role played by capitalism risks the worst kind of racism and paternalism.

The fact that Beah's novel was so well received by the very beneficiaries of global capitalism reveals something of a paradox: the inhumanity of capitalism is hidden in plain sight precisely at the point where it is uncovered. This is perhaps not surprising, since affluent Northerners have a vested interest in imagining that African conflicts cannot be traced to their own lifestyle choices. At any rate I wonder whether Beah's novel, and the wider cause celebre of child soldiers, could survive being grafted onto a properly Marxist critique.

1 comment:

Devin Zane Shaw said...

It strikes me that you've been reading David Harvey with the comments about "outlying areas" and the workings of capital. I think I will be writing up a review of A Brief History of Neoliberalism sometime soon.

This review shows how politically misleading humanitarian causes célèbres can be.