Can Child Soldiers Be Saved?

Everybody loves stories about child soldiers, it seems, as long as redemption is involved. A memoir about Sierra Leone’s civil war, for example, is not exactly the feel-good stuff you’d expect to see ...

Everybody loves stories about child soldiers, it seems, as long as redemption is involved. A memoir about Sierra Leone’s civil war, for example, is not exactly the feel-good stuff you’d expect to see at a Starbucks counter. But in 2007 Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, one of the first books sold in the retail coffee chain, became an instant best seller. Though filled with blood, drugs, and AK-47s, the narrative ends on a note of hope. After surviving horrific brutality, a rehabilitated Beah, now living in New York, finds it comforting that “part of my childhood is still embedded in me”: a stained childhood redeemed, living in the land of the free.

Hollywood also took note. Blood Diamond, another narrative set in Sierra Leone, hit theaters the same year as Beah’s memoir. The film follows Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), an ex-Rhodesian gunrunner in search of a diamond large enough to buy himself a life in the West. Archer finds the diamond, but in the end he gives it to Solomon Vandy, a humble fisherman recently reunited with his son, a child soldier. The film concludes with Solomon testifying before an international committee organized to halt the trade of conflict diamonds, the very problem that caused his son to be a soldier in the first place. Archer thus becomes a mediating savior, sacrificing his future so that Solomon can appeal to a higher redemptive power—Western democracy.

What unites these narratives is an ideological plot that was perhaps most famously championed by the viral sensation Kony 2012. In each, the redeemer is the democratic West, the redeemed the wide-eyed, helpless child of Africa. Teju Cole perceptively identifies the plot as a symptom of what he calls the “white-savior industrial complex.”1 This complex is becoming as common as the air we breathe in our neoliberal humanitarian culture, where all one has to do is purchase the right product (fair-trade coffee, buy-one-give-one shoes) to help a poor African. Riding this wave is Cary Fukunaga’s latest film, Beasts of No Nation, which has garnered the praise of critics at international film festivals and is now streaming on Netflix. Unlike A Long Way Gone, Blood Diamond, and Kony 2012, Beasts of No Nation
uses this figure of cultural obsession—the African child soldier2—to critique the ideology that surrounds the West’s savior complex.

The film is loosely based on Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel of the same name.3 Fukunaga’s adaptation offers an opportunity to revisit Iweala’s stark yet powerful novel, which bucks against the current mass-marketed humanitarianism. Iweala’s plot is as unsentimental as it is unsettling: a boy named Agu becomes a soldier in a nameless war against a nameless enemy in a nameless country and, in the end, cannot be rehabilitated by well-intentioned but clueless humanitarians. Needless to say, it wasn’t sold at Starbucks.

<i>Abraham Attah as Agu</i>

Abraham Attah as Agu

The novel is relentlessly violent. Agu gets high on “gun juice,” jumps on the chest of a boy who refuses to fight, hacks open the stomachs of pregnant women, and massacres men, women, and children. Throughout, Iweala infuses Agu’s violence with erotic energy. During Agu’s first act of killing, for instance, he machetes a man who has already been beaten and urinated upon. Agu vomits in disgust, but the laughter and cheers of his companions urge him on. “I am growing hard between my leg,” Agu admits, and wonders, “Is this like falling in love?” Agu is no Feed the Children poster child. The dual presence of his vomit (signifying horror) and erection (signifying pleasure) demonstrates a moral complexity that is absent from popular redemption narratives.

Compare this, for example, to the scene in Kony 2012 in which the narrator, Jason Russell, shows his young son a picture of Joseph Kony, dubbed “the bad guy,” next to a picture of a Ugandan named Jacob. “He forces them to do bad things,” Russell explains, morphing a politically complex reality into an easy-to-swallow story about Americans catching the bad guy on behalf of helpless Ugandans like Jacob. Here, Jacob clearly functions as a symbol of moral purity and lack of agency. In contrast, Agu reflects on his moral liminality during his killing sprees, placing himself permanently in between good and evil. “I am not bad boy. I am not bad boy,” he proclaims, but “still I am thinking maybe Devil born me and that is why I am doing all of this.” Undeniably a victim—he is, for example, raped by his commander, known as Commandant—Agu also recognizes himself as a perpetrator. Ironically, with this complexity, Iweala’s Agu, the beast of no nation, is more human than Russell’s Jacob, the human of a defenseless nation. Unlike the passive character of humanitarian ideology, Agu asserts agency, experiences both horror and pleasure, and questions the contradictions of his moral standing.

Fukunaga, meanwhile, has in many respects adapted Iweala’s plot to fit within Hollywood conventions, adding more elaborate backstories, character development, and sentiment. Nonetheless, Fukunaga’s adaptation is on the whole a success. In apparent recognition that the power of Beasts of No Nation resides less in the content of the story than in how the story is told, Fukunaga self-consciously critiques his own necessarily altered, visual translation of Iweala’s literary form. What emerges in the movement from Iweala to Fukunaga is a new narrative, a “re-creation,” as Walter Benjamin puts it in “The Task of the Translator.”

The novel’s first-person narration and continuous present tense mean that Agu’s story is told through his own consciousness as it is happening, giving the novel a sense of immediacy and endless movement. Take, for example, the opening paragraph:

It is starting like this. I am feeling itch like insect is crawling on my skin, and then my head is just starting to tingle right between my eye, and then I am wanting to sneeze because my nose is itching, and then air is just blowing into my ear and I am hearing so many thing: the clicking of insect, the sound of truck grumbling like one kind of animal, and then the sound of somebody shouting TAKE YOUR POSITION NOW! QUICK! QUICK QUICK! MOVE WITH SPEED! MOVE FAST OH! in voice that is just touching my body like knife.

The grammatically awkward account emphasizes the current action of the narrative, endowing every event with an uncomfortable sense of immediacy: somewhere, now, this very thing is happening—a politically powerful rhetorical effect. The long-winded and convoluted second sentence, moreover, which takes up the rest of the paragraph, produces a rhythm of unstoppable movement: and then, and then, and then. And every time a phrase is added, more bodily discomfort (an itch, a tingle, a sneeze) joins the snowballing mess—produced by the makeshift movement of Iweala’s sentence structure—that is Agu’s life.

Recognizing that the movement of Agu’s life is dictated by Iweala’s language, Fukunaga places the life of his Agu under the sovereignty of the televised image. The film begins with an old-school TV set displaying what appears to be a blurry video of a group of African children playing in a field. “It is starting like this,” Agu (Abraham Attah) softly states in voice-over narration as the camera zooms out, revealing that we are not actually watching a low-budget documentary about Africa. With a wider view, we now see that the TV is hollow, missing its screen, and placed in the same field as the children playing. Agu and his friend Dike watch the game alongside us, standing on each side of the broken TV that framed our initial view.

This self-reflexive opening scene suggests that the subject of the film is not an African child oppressed by war, but rather the hollow, obsolete framework through which we view televised images of Africa. Since Beasts of No Nation was simultaneously released globally via Netflix’s streaming service—its first feature film—and in only a limited theatrical release, most of us will watch these images on our own screens at home, the same screens through which we digest and circulate images of African warfare. Within the film’s first minute, then, Fukunaga embeds us viewers—binge-watchers and armchair activists—as subjects of the narrative.

In the next scene Agu carries the TV on his head, leading a group of children into town to test his latest business scheme: selling his one-of-a-kind “imagination TV.” Agu places the TV between his friends and a potential customer, thereby filtering the customer’s view of the children through the absent screen. Agu announces the name of the channel as he turns the TV’s rotary dial. “Soap opera”: the children perform a melodramatic breakup. “Dance”: a catchy rhythm. “Kung Fu”: a choreographed war scene symbolic of the film itself. Our view of the battle is framed by the imagination TV, placing us in the role of Agu’s customer. Fukunaga thus refuses, from the very beginning of the film, to allow viewers a passive role within his fiction. The scene makes clear the obvious fact that we watch Beasts of No Nation as Netflix customers and consumers of exotic, African images.

One of the main challenges Fukunaga faced was the creation of a cinematic world that, like the world of the novel, operates according to Agu’s assumptions about the nature of existence.

Aware of this economic relation, the children work the system. When Agu announces the “3-D” channel, Dike, impersonating some sort of animal, makes meaningless noises while sticking his head through the frame. Impressed by the performance, a border guard of a refugee “buffer zone” rewards the children with food. In this way the children assert a crafty form of agency, performing back to their viewers—i.e., us—the lack of agency imposed upon them. In other words, Agu and Dike ensure themselves food by performing the scripted role we humanitarian spectators love to watch: the helpless, hungry, beastly children of Africa.

Aside from the first line, the beginning of the film is completely different from the beginning of the novel. Yet it works—extraordinarily well. This different-yet-familiar feel runs through most of the film, demonstrating Fukunaga’s prowess at adaptation, especially when it comes to translating the novel’s philosophical and political themes into images.4

One such theme is ruptured time. As the convoluted, continuous present tense of the novel suggests, Iweala’s Agu is stuck in a broken time frame: to become a soldier as a child is to lose one’s time of childhood. As Agu puts it, “I am knowing I am no more child so if this war is ending I cannot be going back to doing child thing.” On the other hand, since Agu misses his village’s coming-of-age ritual, the “Dance of the Ox and Leopard,” he also loses his time of adulthood. “If war is not coming,” declares Agu, “then I would be man by now.” The war therefore destroys Agu’s experience of both boyhood and manhood, throwing him into an entangled temporality in which, to quote Hamlet, the “time is out of joint.”5

Here, ontology—an understanding of what it is to exist—becomes important to the story. Because the world of the novel is produced by Agu’s narration, Agu’s ontological assumptions are not just assumptions, but laws of the universe. In other words, for readers there is no division between Agu’s beliefs about existing in the world and the reality of existence in that world. So when Agu is denied participation in his village’s sacred rite, which signifies the passing of time, this produces a rupture in the cosmos itself. The past and future no longer exist, or, in Agu’s words, “Time is passing. Time is not passing.”

In translating the novel to the screen, one of the main challenges Fukunaga faced was the creation of a cinematic world that, like the world of the novel, operates according to Agu’s assumptions about the nature of existence. This world is both ritualized and fractured, illustrating a distinctly non-modern (what might be called animist6) belief that because rituals produce the movement of history, the breaking of rituals produces historic catastrophe. Such a cinematic form is incompatible with the anthropological documentary realism that most Western viewers—thanks to National Geographic and the like—associate with Africa, not to mention the zealous MTV-aesthetics of Kony 2012.

One way Fukunaga tries to construct this world is by saturating the film in magical fetishes and religious rituals that signify the deep entanglement of traditions. Throughout the film, so-called “Christian,” “indigenous,” and “secular” symbols—paintings of Jesus, vibrant charms, a “magic” sniper scope—all emit juju, demonstrating a slippage between all such categories. Commandant (Idris Elba) also takes on a more central role in the film, incarnating this uncanny fusion of physical and spiritual power—a fusion that seems to come naturally to the charismatic Elba. In what are some of the film’s most beautiful scenes, Commandant leads Agu and the troops in frightening, yet strangely attractive, rituals before their killing sprees. Unafraid of oncoming bullets, he waves a talisman and inspires his “sons” with speeches and chants that roll off his tongue as if he were at once a dictator, a shaman, and a Pentecostal preacher.

<i>Idris Elba as Commandant</i>

Idris Elba as Commandant

Agu hopes the induction ritual to join Commandant’s “family of strangers” will provide an escape from his broken cosmos. Although the rite ostensibly endows Agu with spirits that will protect him against bullets, he continues to wonder what cruel spirit guides him through such a chaotic life. His melancholic prayers—which, when spoken over the film’s visual contrast between natural beauty and human violence, scream Terrence Malick—are addressed to his mother, to God, and even to us viewers, casting the film as a confused spiritual quest.

While Fukunaga lets this internal quest affect the external world of the film by using formal techniques such as sudden shifts in tint and shutter speed, he also reminds us that we’ll never get a pure, unmediated view of Agu’s consciousness. As Agu flees into a mist-steeped jungle, for instance—symbolic of his severance from his mother, his village, and his childhood—Dan Romer’s eerie, dreamlike sound track fades in. Since the novel and film’s namesake is a song by Afrobeat genius Fela Kuti—perhaps the most famous West African musician—we may expect to hear his rhythmic chants. Instead, Romer’s synthesizers, which seem more suited to a drug trip in a college dorm room than a civil war in West Africa, take over. The incongruous ethereality of the sound track highlights our superimposed presence within the film: we Netflix subscribers sit here, the music reminds us, strangely observing exotic suffering through our imagination TVs.

Fukunaga continuously points toward the unnatural, haunting presence of our spectatorship—from the sunglasses images on Agu’s T-shirt (a symbol of our act of viewing him) to the scene in which a UN van randomly drives by to snap a photograph of Agu. This moment, which contains the only white people in the film, highlights the impetus behind Fukunaga’s adaptation: he is struggling to retain Iweala’s political critique of humanitarianism while necessarily using the same Hollywood conventions that Iweala indicts. Rather than trying to ignore this problem, Fukunaga thrusts it to the fore. He asks us viewers to join him in questioning the ideologies in which we participate when we passively consume spectacles of African violence.

The film’s—but not the novel’s—turning point takes place when Agu sees Commandant demoted by Supreme Commander. In a stylized midcentury office, sporting a cream-colored linen suit reminiscent of Miami Vice, Supreme Commander sits across from Commandant, whose domineering physique and military jacket dwarf his superior. Although Agu has been captivated by Commandant, he now watches a smooth-talking businessman wield a greater power. “The world is becoming aware of this war,” Supreme Commander explains, and in order to keep the UN on their side, “It has now become a battle for public image”—in other words, the images we viewers digest. As this scene suggests, the cruel, sovereign spirit Agu has been in search of may be none other than the arbitrary circulation of images by global capitalist media.

After this scene there are no more alluring rituals or bullet-shielding spirits. Because Agu has become disillusioned with Commandant’s ability to wield any power beyond the physical, the cinematic world becomes less animistic and more nihilistic. Agu ends up leaving Commandant and surrendering to the UN, a moment far less exciting and far more depressing than one may expect, which is precisely the strength of the film.

Though Iweala and Fukunaga tell different stories, what unites them is their critique of the redemption plot fostered by the white-savior industrial complex and celebrated by child-soldier narratives such as A Long Way Gone, Blood Diamond, and Kony 2012. At the end of both the novel and the film, Agu sits in a rehabilitation program, unable to grasp the concept of redemption that humanitarians offer him. A priest gives Agu a Bible, but he doesn’t read it.7 Although a humanitarian worker named Amy—a white American in the novel, a black African in the film—attempts talk therapy on Agu, therapy makes no sense to him. By pitting Agu against religious and secular humanitarianism, both Iweala and Fukunaga challenge Western attempts to save (which usually means Americanize) Africa.

It is here, however, that the contrast between the novel and the film raises a question as political as it is philosophical. The film concludes much as it begins, with children playing. This time, however, the children play in the ocean, and there is no imagination TV. Agu watches from the beach, estranged. He then runs into the ocean, a metaphor of rebirth, joining a new community of survivors. The novel’s conclusion, on the other hand, may be more pessimistic. Frustrated with Amy, Agu dreams of dying, of insects burrowing into him as his carcass sprouts a sacred Iroko tree. Unlike in Ovidian metamorphosis, Agu does not become a tree; rather, in this dream he dies and rots, and where he once was, a tree—an entirely different being—grows.8 For Fukunaga, communal rebirth; for Iweala, catastrophic metamorphosis. While Fukunaga places his hope in a melancholic humanism, Iweala suggests that some horrors are beyond salvation. Both artists challenge the white-savior industrial complex, but their conclusions lead us into the murky question that underlies what theologians have long called soteriology, and which we now call international human rights law: how does salvation happen, and, more troublingly, who gets to be saved? icon

  1. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” Atlantic, March 21, 2012.
  2. I pragmatically use the term “child soldier” despite the problems it poses, which can be summed up in two points. First, because childhood is a historically and culturally contingent category, a Sierra Leonean diamond miner’s view of when adulthood begins may be different than an American activist’s view. Second, although “children” fought in the American Revolution, the Civil War, and both World Wars, we reserve the term “child soldier” for Africans, assuming unwarranted Western superiority. See David Rosen’s Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism (Rutgers University Press, 2005). For the symbolic role of the “child” in our conception of politics, which should be applied to the problem of “child soldiers,” see Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Duke University Press, 2004).
  3. The novel is part of a growing subgenre of the postcolonial African novel that has emerged over the past decade or so—what could be called the “child-soldier novel.” To name a few, all by West African authors: Emmanuel Dongala’s Johnny Mad Dog (2002; translation 2005), Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah is Not Obliged (2000; translation 2006), Chris Abani’s Song for Night (2007) and Helon Habila’s Measuring Time (2007). Aaron Bady provides a helpful genealogy of the child-soldier novel in his review of the film, “The Last Child Soldier: ‘Beasts of No Nation’ and the Child-Soldier Narrative,” Los Angeles Review of Books, November 11, 2015. Bady’s review was published after I wrote this piece, but given our opposing interpretations of the novel and the film, our reviews form something of a debate. While I agree with Bady that the generic child-soldier narrative can be a “purely manipulative spectacle charged with the task of ‘raising awareness’ about atrocities,” I disagree, as will become clear, with his claims that Beasts of No Nation is complacent about its “inescapably racist” generic conventions and that the film boasts a “childish faith in international justice.”
  4. Fukunaga’s use of Twi paired with English subtitles—an “indigenous” language absent from the novel—highlights the film’s constant acts of translation, interpretation, and re-creation of the story.
  5. Maureen Moynagh insightfully thinks through this temporal entanglement in “Human Rights, Child-Soldier Narratives, and the Problem of Form,” Research in African Literatures, vol. 42, no. 4 (2011), pp. 39–59. So does Sam Durrant in his lecture “Child Soldiers and Arrested Development in Beasts of No Nation,” which I attended in the spring of 2014.
  6. See Caroline Rooney, African Literature, Animism and Politics (Routledge, 2000), and Harry Garuba, “Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society,” Public Culture, vol. 15, no. 2 (2003), pp. 261–286.
  7. Fukunaga changes the priest to what appears to be an evangelical pastor. Perhaps this move more directly targets the West Coast, American, Protestant, “laid-back” culture surrounding movements like Kony 2012, which can’t quite be embodied by the symbolic figure of a priest. If a priest symbolizes hierarchal power relations, an evangelical pastor nicely symbolizes the more adaptive power relations at work in global capitalism today.
  8. Iweala’s mythic, animist form of metamorphosis could thus be placed in dialogue with Catherine Malabou’s concept of “destructive plasticity.” See The Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity, translated from the French by Carolyn Shread (Polity, 2012).