The Last Child Soldier: “Beasts of No Nation” and the Child-Soldier Narrative




AT SOME POINT in the first decade of the 21st century, the African “child-soldier” narrative crystalized into a genre. Like all genres, this only became recognizable in retrospect. In 1985, the Nigerian novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote Sozaboy, a novel in “rotten English” about the Biafran war that anticipates (and also directly influenced) the kinds of stories that would be told about African child soldiers a few decades later. But one star is not a constellation; a genre only comes into existence when a specific type of story has been told and retold enough times to produce a sense of its essential organizing principles and limit points. In 1985, Sozaboy was a rebellious innovation, a real departure from literary norms. The stories that followed, which have repeated and developed what Saro-Wiwa had done, have turned innovation into convention.

Around the turn of the century, there was a burst of what we can, in hindsight, call child-soldier novels, most of them written in French. It began with Florent Couao-Zotti’s young adult novel Un enfant dans la guerre (1996; subsequently revised and republished as Charly en guerre) and was soon taken up by more established authors, as with Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah n’est pas obligé (2000), Tierno Monénembo L’Aîné des orphelins (2000), Emmanuel Dongala’s Johnny chien méchant (2002), and Abdourahman Waberi’s Transit (2003). The narrators of each of these books are children recovering from different conflicts: Dongala wrote about civil war in the Republic of the Congo, which he had experienced firsthand; Monénembo about the Rwandan genocide, which he had not; while the backdrop for Waberi’s novel is the civil war in his own Djibouti. Both Kourouma and Couao-Zotti took as their inspirations the long civil war in Liberia, which saw Charles Taylor’s rise to power in the late 1990s on the backs of an army of child soldiers. Taylor has remained the animating devil of the child-soldier genre. Taylor didn’t invent the child soldier, of course — children have been conscripted to fight for as long as there have been wars — but his name has become synonymous with a particular kind of child-soldier army, built on drug addiction, the acquisition of conflict commodities, and adolescents with Uzis.

Midway through the first decade of the 21st century — a few years after Taylor was forced from power in 2003 — the child-soldier narrative had its moment in Anglophone literature. By the time Kourouma’s Allah Is Not Obliged (2007) and Dongala’s Johnny Mad Dog (2006) were translated into English, the field had already become crowded: Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation (2005), Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s Moses, Citizen & Me (2005), Chris Abani’s Song for Night (2007), and Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone (2007) were all written and published in close succession, and together they consolidated the core of the genre as we know it today. These novels are not identical, of course, but there is enough overlap and family resemblance between them to allow us to observe a market forming, and a genre taking shape, during that relatively brief period. Before 2000, it wouldn’t have made sense to talk about “the African child-soldier narrative”; no such genre existed. By 2008, it names an immediately recognizable object, both in marketing terms and in terms of literary genre.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a backlash among African literati. “What attracts immediate and superficial attention to Africa’s child soldiers,” as Dinaw Mengestu aptly put it back in 2007, “is that the brutal existence of a child soldier dovetails neatly with depictions of Africa both as a place born of hell and misery and as a continent that, like a child, can be saved.” Others have attacked the genre for aesthetic, rather than political, reasons. “How many novels are there problematising the condition of the African child in a situation of war?” Binyavanga Wainaina recently complained. “Can you possibly read another one about the struggles of a child soldier? […] It is done, agreed, it’s done, it’s written. Now, how can you even make me want to buy another one?” In his recent meditation on James Baldwin, Letter to Jimmy (2014), Alain Mabanckou writes that the “variety of African literature known as ‘child soldier’ literature […] convinced me definitively that we were not yet free of the vortex of Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” decrying this sentimental writing in which the piteous spectacle of the tragic child was the only point of the exercise. This is African literature as Kony 2012: a purely manipulative spectacle charged with the task of “raising awareness” about atrocities, in which affective engagement takes precedence over any other mode of experience.

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We are probably done with the child-soldier novel. The market for it remains — no one has yet gone broke marketing African child-soldier narratives to Americans, as a perusal of most airport bookstores will demonstrate — but the novels lack novelty, and those who follow African literature seriously have moved on.

Yet the African child-soldier narrative has a second life now in movies. Again, we have a neglected Nigerian predecessor (Newton I. Aduaka’s Ezra [2007]) followed by a couple of French productions (Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog [2008] and Kim Nguyen’s Rebelle [2012]), all of which are now overshadowed by the American adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation (2015), written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, of True Detective season 1 fame. If you’re familiar with the genre, these films start to feel like repetitions, performances of the same well-rehearsed story.

In the same way that Vietnam war movies are now movies about other Vietnam war movies, rather than movies about the war itself, Fukunaga’s Beasts is ultimately a comment on genre, whether it knows it or not. There’s almost nothing in it that can’t be traced back to earlier child-soldier narratives (and not only Iweala’s), nothing that hasn’t already deadened into cliché. Fukunaga is a wonderful visual stylist, and there’s a virtuosic freshness to the cinematography that, as with True Detective, carries you quite far before it starts to get stale. But just as True Detective’s much-lauded aesthetic achievement eventually revealed itself as just old noir in new bottles, Beasts ultimately goes nowhere. It not only draws on its predecessors: it is imprisoned by them.

In his defense, Fukunaga began working on the project over a decade ago, before the child-soldier genre was codified. In 2003 he traveled to New Guinea, Sierra Leone, and the Liberian border to research an original screenplay, which he struggled to finish and ultimately scrapped in favor of adapting Iweala’s novel. Perhaps he needed distance from his subject: for a genre so often predicated on authentic experience presented in disorienting close-up, distance has always been crucial to the child-soldier narrative. Indeed, Fukunaga’s source material is itself secondhand: Iweala — the American-born son of Nigeria’s former Finance Minister — was prompted to write his senior honors thesis at Harvard on child soldiers after reading a Newsweek article about Sierra Leone. Distance liberates the storyteller to take a discrete and subjective experience and render it back in terms of abstraction, articulation, form. Much is always lost in the translation, of course, though much is inserted to fill the space: whatever “authenticity” the child-soldier narrative might once have had, is long gone by the time the story becomes a movie like Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. The question, then, is what is left?

Genres are always generalizations. Individual works are produced by authors; genres are produced by reading publics, critics, publishers, and all the others who collectively establish the terms according to which a work of literature will be read and understood. If we know we are reading a romance novel, or an epic poem, we come equipped with certain expectations before we’ve read a single word. In this sense, an author can’t be held totally responsible for the genre in which they find themselves; even if they did choose to write a child-soldier narrative, the general contours of that narrative — the manner in which it has become socially legible — is not precisely their fault. Moreover, choosing a genre is also, often, choosing to push against its limitations, to expand its possibilities, by telling a new version of an old story. It is always a push and pull: if genres constrain authors into telling particular kinds of stories, they also mark the boundaries of a space that authors — good ones, anyway — cannot help but expand.

So, here are some observations about the space Fukunaga has chosen to work. To tell a story about a child soldier in an unnamed country in Africa — not in Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, or Liberia, but in a generalized “Africa” of the mind — is to tell a very reductive story about people being reduced to animals, about “states of nature” and “failed states,” about violence as a condition of existence in “the jungle.” Whether a particular author wants to tell it or not, this is the story that the genre tells. Before you read the first word of Iweala’s novel or see the first frame of Fukunaga’s movie, you already know that story; before you hear the voice of its narrator, Agu (played by Abraham Attah in the film), or witness the first act of violence orchestrated by the Commandant (played by Idris Elba), you have already been placed in a genre whose terms are basically, fundamentally, and inescapably racist.

To condemn a genre is not the same thing as condemning its individual manifestations. If genres are the result of political conditions, or widespread attitudes — the popularity of the African child-soldier narrative in the West, for example, being a function of how Africa is imagined by many Westerners — then the thing to ask is how a particular writer has engaged with those attitudes, how she has pushed against, expanded, or complicated that general story. Genres define the questions, but how the artists choose to answer is the important thing.

Here is the story that Fukunaga’s film tells: a child, living a good life, in a good family, is swept up by a war that apparently comes from nowhere, a howling void that leaves a great vacuum in its wake. After Agu is left alone — in a jungle whose voiceless void tells an old and familiar story, Africa as maddening blankness — he is scooped up by an evil father figure, the Commandant, who schools him in brutality and gives him warped versions of love and community that the war has stripped away from him. As the Commandant uses drugs, violence, and love to build a world in which only atrocity makes sense, the film depicts the devolution of Agu’s language to reflect the warping of his worldview — something that occurs in nearly every iteration of the child-soldier genre — followed by his inevitable rescue by international peacekeepers at the film’s conclusion, allowing Agu to begin the slow process of recovery from the traumas we have just witnessed.

But Agu, while technically our protagonist, is not the figure on whose fortunes the drama of Beasts of No Nation depend. About halfway through the film, the army’s nameless political leader, the Supreme Commandant, abruptly instructs Idris Elba’s Commandant to stand down, telling him that he will not become a general, as he had been led to expect, but will be removed from the field. He frames it as a promotion, but the Commandant recognizes that he is being sidelined, demoted. As his superior explains, it is because the nature of the war has changed: “It has now become a battle of public image.” Enough awareness has been raised outside Africa, it seems, that the Commandant’s brand of soldiering has become a liability. “The world is becoming aware of this war, now,” the politician says. “No one will escape judgment when it is over.”

On the eve of the army’s victory, why have they suddenly become so concerned about how history will judge them, and so fearful of how the international community will regard their tactical deployment of war crimes? The Supreme Commandant seems to be consolidating his power, struggling for legitimacy, and worried that what his underling represents — a reputation for ruthless brutality — will hinder him from attaining it. He therefore suppresses this demon, which he has, up until this point, unleashed to such great effect. Instead, he receives a Chinese businessman with a briefcase — a figure whose significance is clear, if not explained — while he keeps the Commandant and his soldiers waiting. The point is clear. He has won the war, and so he has become a politician instead of a warlord. He has made a pact with international capital, and doesn’t need his local devils anymore.

In narrative terms, this is the pivotal scene in the movie, the moment when the implacable rise of Elba’s Commandant becomes a slow and tragic downfall. Until this point, it has been an unstoppable march that we have followed as mute, appalled, admiring witnesses. From here on, however, it will be a slow, remorseless slide into sad irrelevance, until the Commandant is ultimately left behind by his followers, forgotten and despised, a Lear howling blindly into the storm. Satan and his devils have been unstoppable, but no longer. Judgment has come.

The film’s complacent political assumptions become briefly visible in moments like this one, in the flashes of credulous faith that are revealed when the film’s nihilistic fog-of-war aesthetic lifts and lets us see the rather childish faith in international justice and the powers that be that lies beneath its cynical, ultraviolent surface. Crimes against humanity must be hidden, it seems, because the world has said “Never Again,” and because the world means it. Even the devil incarnate seems to fear the moral disapprobation of the world: if the world finds out what we’ve done here — as even the Supreme Commandant seems to think — who will escape judgment?

This is, however, a strange thing for the Supreme Commandant of an armed uprising to believe, especially if we see him as a fictionalized version of Charles Taylor. After all, when Taylor won his war and became president of Liberia in the late 1990s, he would have had good reason to expect that he would never face justice, and for decades, he didn’t. (Historically, “the world” has been utterly comfortable dealing with African heads of state with blood on their hands.) This points to an important difference between Iweala’s novel and Fukunaga’s film. When Iweala wrote the novel Beasts of No Nation, Taylor had been ousted from power in Liberia but was living comfortably in Nigeria as a guest of that country’s government. Novels like Iweala’s were part of an international demand that he be brought to justice. By 2012, the political winds had changed — helped, in part anyway, by novels like Iweala’s, but also by the kind of empty, easy consensus registered by Kony 2012’s hundred million views on YouTube. But Taylor’s 50-year sentence was not an inevitable outcome; indeed, in many respects, it was a very exceptional and surprising one.

Why, then, is the Supreme Commandant so afraid that the world is becoming “aware” of his crimes? To ask the question is to answer it. The film believes that telling these stories inevitably leads to justice because it must, because otherwise the film has no excuse for existing. The novel’s goal has been folded into the reality that the movie portrays, its political aspiration turned into a fait accompli: in place of a text that sought to make Charles Taylor’s punishment thinkable, the film is a text that takes his punishment as inevitable.

In 2005, after all, Iweala was trying to horrify, disturb, and outrage his readers. To be aware, in 2005, was to be upset that Charles Taylor was still living in peaceful luxury in Nigeria. In 2015, he lives in a maximum security prison in England. To be aware of Taylor’s crimes, now, is not to be spurred to action in the same way: it is merely to be upset, disgusted, depressed. Fittingly, then, the overwhelming affect of Fukunaga’s movie is depression, not outrage. The movie has no climax, only a slow, withering decline. Agu eventually just gets bummed out by all the killing and rape, and we, too, are meant to be depressed and enervated by what we are seeing. Worse, the Commandant becomes a figure of pathos: having abandoned his Supreme Commandant and struck out on his own, he is abandoned, in turn, by his own soldiers, his children. As they mournfully leave him behind, he screams and howls empty threats at their retreating backs: whatever demon he once was, he has now ceased to be, and we are meant to feel a twinge of sorrow for him.

I suspect that Beasts of No Nation will be the last version of this story we will see, and not only because Fukunaga’s film seems to have flopped at the box office. The child-soldier narrative has done its work; its political imperatives have tended toward the politics of military intervention and criminal justice. For better or for worse, the political moment has passed. Where there once was outrage, now there is a kind of depressed complacency: there’s so little work left for these stories to do, and only the hundred million converted to preach to. These spectacles are horrible, yes, but where is the urgency? Fukunaga’s Beasts is ultimately a story of disillusionment and depression, because the ending has come to seem inevitable. The genre has shown us how these stories always end, and this one does as well: after the escape from trauma, recovery begins with narration, with telling the story. But the story is already told. The necessary plot arc has been hammered into shape, and it resembles, in miniature, that long arc of the moral universe we’ve heard so much about, bending eventually toward justice. When Agu addresses the camera, explaining that he knows he did terrible things — but that he also has a mother! — he is repeating what has, by now, become a script, a routine, a well-rehearsed performance. The movie is ending the way it had to end. May it, and its brothers in arms, rest in peace.

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Aaron Bady is a writer in Oakland, and an editor at The New Inquiry.


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