Saturday, July 31, 2010

Children No More: the afterword

I've printed parts of this before, but with the book now appearing and us trying to raise as much money as possible, I thought folks might find this interesting reading. Enjoy.

My first goal in any book is to tell a good story. In the course of doing so, themes naturally arise. Sometimes, those themes are clear only in hindsight, when the work is complete.

Other times, as in Children No More, they appear the moment the story idea pops into my brain.

The use of children as soldiers is one of those topics that few people like to discuss. Depending on what you read and watch, you can go a very long time without bumping into it. Do a Web search on the subject, however, and you'll find that children are fighting and dying every day. Hard numbers are, as you might expect, difficult to come by, but groups such as The International Rescue Committee ( estimate about 300,000 boys and girls are involved today in this horrific practice.

I find this deeply disturbing. I think everyone should.

I understand that in the catalog of the world's woes, a cause with only a few hundred thousand sufferers may seem like a small thing. Numerically, it certainly falls way below hunger, disease, poverty, and many other vital issues our world must address. But these are children, children that adults are turning into soldiers, and that is simply wrong.

I must confess to a special connection to this cause because of a personal experience--not, I hasten to note, as a child soldier. I have never experienced anything as bad as what these boys and girls undergo.

I did, however, spend three years in a youth group that trained boys in how to be soldiers. The group's intentions were good: To use military conventions and structures to teach discipline, fitness, teamwork, and many other valuable lessons. It certainly accomplished many of those goals with me.

The year I joined, however, was 1965, and war was ramping up in Viet Nam. I was ten years old. On my first day, an active soldier on leave showed up and acted as our drill sergeant. That day, I saw my first--but not my last--necklace of human ears and learned the ethics of collecting them. That day, I stood at attention in the hot Florida sun while this grown man screamed at me and, when I cried, punched me in the stomach so hard that I fell to the ground and threw up. He put his boot on my head and ground the side of my face into my vomit.

That was not the worst day I had in those three years. It wasn't even close.

My worst days with that group were nothing compared to what the child soldiers endure. Nothing.

The basics of this novel sprang into my mind a few years ago while I was driving with my family back from lunch. I knew it would involve child soldiers, the story of how Jon changed from the gentle boy he had been into the hard man he became, and the challenges of reintegrating child soldiers. I also knew in that same flash of insight that the book would let me depart from the classic outsider hero story structure and instead force Jon to do the one thing outsider heroes never do: Stay after the fighting is done. All of this was secondary, of course, to the story, but it all arrived at once.

I grew up believing in a number of virtues that my mother taught me were essential American beliefs. One of the most important and powerful of them was something that seemed--and still seems--so obvious to me that I have always held it close: Each generation owes the next one a better world. We owe our children a better life than the one we enjoyed.

When any group makes its children into soldiers, it is abandoning that responsibility. That group is wrong. This practice must stop, and we owe it to the former child soldiers to help reintegrate them into their societies.

I hope we pay that debt.


Todd said...

I hope the cone man visits that drill sergeant some dark night with a sock full of soap.

Mark said...

My hope is that we can stop more kids from going through similar--and far worse--experiences.

Todd said...

I recall seeing a special on the children soldiers of the Sudan (I believe it was the Sudan). Scary stuff - but enlightening. I'll be picking up a book here shortly.

Mark said...

Thanks, Todd, for buying the book and for all the support.


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