Do child soldier atrocities prove the human heart is black?

Someone gave me for Christmas Ishmael Beah’s book, A Long Way Gone. I smiled gratefully, though it felt like I’d been given a cupful of broken glass to swallow. I knew about the book – and all too well about the horrors it documents – and didn’t feel desirous of a deeper immersion. But eventually I made myself read it.

Ishmael was a normal 12 year old living normally in Sierra Leone in 1993, when civil war changed everything. Savage cruelty became commonplace. At 13, his family all killed, Ishmael was forced to become a soldier in this godawful war. At 15, he was out, “rehabilitated,” and at 17 managed to get himself to America. The book actually concentrates mostly upon his adventures and travails before and after his soldiering, with relatively little directly explained about his “military career.”  (I should note that some controversy has been raised concerning the details of Ishmael’s account. Click here.)

Child soldiers like him are very common in Africa’s wars. They are brutalized and made to do vile things. I was relieved when I read that it was a “government” soldier that Ishmael became, because the “rebels” were worse. But perhaps it’s just a shade of difference. Both armies subsisted mainly by attacking villages, killing the inhabitants, and grabbing their stuff.

This is not a tale to warm an optimist/humanist heart, certainly providing ample fodder for misanthropic pessimism. And yet . . .

One is struck by how much human sympathy could endure even in this pit of hell. Ishmael relates how he and some pals, wandering refugees and desperately hungry, espy a small boy eating corn. They grab it from his hands. The boy’s mother sees this. What does she do? She gives them more corn.

Ishmael moves on, with no comment. But the thought of that woman, and her astonishingly open-hearted reaction, lingers. There were numerous other examples.

At 12, Ishmael is a gentle, sensitive child. His first witnessing of violent brutality is a horrible shock, he is appalled. At 13, he is cutting men’s throats, sucked right in to the brutality. How could this happen? Does it prove there is something deeply rotten in the human soul?

I’m reminded of Philip Zimbardo’s famous experiment wherein student volunteers were tasked with role playing as either prison guards or prisoners. The guards were soon showing shocking cruelty toward the prisoners. But Zimbardo himself disavows that his experiment proved humans are fundamentally bad. Rather, he says, it proves that our behavior is highly dependent on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Indeed, our species’ evolutionary success is due, in great part, to our adaptability, the capacity to modify our behavior in accord with changing environments.

That does mean we have the capacity for atrocious behavior when circumstances so dictate. Ishmael’s story shows this. But there is a powerful antidote: society. The whole point of society is to minimize the kinds of circumstances conducive to bad behavior, and to create instead the conditions wherein “the better angels of our nature” predominate.

In the big picture, human society has been extremely successful at this. But it’s not a foolproof system, and so it’s vulnerable to the actions of fools. That’s what happened in Ishmael’s Sierra Leone, shredding the normal societal constraints; and in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in Gujarat, and too many other places, where fools have been allowed to unleash the whirlwind.

As an optimist, I do believe we’re gradually seeing less of this, and the advanced Western societies are pretty unlikely to experience it again. But still, our society is not completely foolproof, and we’d best keep a wary eye on the fools among us.

3 Responses to “Do child soldier atrocities prove the human heart is black?”

  1. Catherine Says:

    Hi Frank,

    thank you for always finding the beauty


  2. Gregory Kipp Says:

    Fear and aggression are very powerful, primitive emotions. They can be brought to the surface very easily with the right stimuli. As an advanced society governed by reason, it is our purpose to overcome these primitive emotions and not let them rule the day. The more mature and reasoned we become, the less such emotions can affect us.

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