In Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, war is a potentially stressful experience for those involved: combatants, support staff, medical personnel, civilians, etc. How might such a difficult...

In Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, war is a potentially stressful experience for those involved: combatants, support staff, medical personnel, civilians, etc. How might such a difficult experience make it hard for people involved to remember details from their wartime experiences correctly?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The formidable amount of stress caused in war makes it difficult to remember details from wartime experiences correctly.

In no way would the inability to fully recall all wartime experiences correctly indict the person who has suffered through war.  However, it is clear that the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that war triggers impacts the memory of the individual.  In a study on the topic, Dr. Kristin Samuelson from the California School of Professional Psychology concluded that "Memory dysfunction" is a significant result of PTSD.  She argues that the "trauma exposure" intrinsic to war creates "Memory disturbances" that "are predominant in the presentation of post-traumatic stress disorder."  The mind that emerges from war must experience a tremendous amount of processing to make sense of what happened. This processing takes place on multiple emotional and psychological levels, and can impact recollections from memory.  Making sense of such an experience would take priority over isolated factual recall and minutiae.  For example, someone who is trying to make sense of seeing injustice done to their family might not focus on the time and date it occurred.   

Wartime experiences impact the ability to meet a perfect standard of detailed recollection.  Some of the criticism leveled against Ishmael Beah and his account in A Long Way Gone comes from questioning the idea that the memories offered are absolutely accurate.  The critique suggests that because of the intense trauma Beah experienced as a child, which included subjugation, murder and drug use, his account might not be fully correct. Given how it is entirely first hand, some details could have been changed since the mind's processing of such an experience is so intense and difficult to chart.  

However, even if we stipulate that some of the details might not mesh with places and dates, we should not discard what Beah presents.  He was a child soldier, subjected to the worst of treatment, and children have experienced and continue to endure this same reality. While the fact-recall elements can be debated, the narrative that Beah depicted is quite real, according to Amani M'Bale, a worker with a humanitarian organization in Sierra Leone:

There are thousands of young people who weren't as lucky as Ishmael...They remain here, their lives interrupted, simply without the means to secure a livelihood. Many are illiterate. It's important for us to do something to give these people hope.

War makes it very difficult for people to remember details from their wartime experiences correctly.  However, that should not be a reason to discredit what they endured. Acknowledging the horrors of war is one of the most important ways to stop it from happening, as Beah illuminates in A Long Way Gone.

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A Long Way Gone

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