“Johnny Mad Dog” and Child Soldiers

The truest films in this world don’t climax; they don’t end. The credits close an ephemeral snapshot rather than the story itself. This is what makes Johnny Mad Dog‘s depiction of child soldiery from the second Liberian Civil War so harrowing; we’re left, in the final moments, with the fleeting images of two children staring into the heart of violence (or the heart of darkness) and grabbing it with both hands. A young girl is turned rabid when the memory of her brother and father meet whom she blames for their deaths, the only onlooker an infant whose parents never make it onto screen.

And the truest films know that the greatest tragedies are neither parasitic, nor corruptive, nor even simply destructive; they are total in their transformation, all links with the former self severed from redemption. Hamlet’s murders are symptoms of a psychological crisis, his mind first emptied by loss and then filled with a madness made frighteningly concrete with the lust for power. When wars bring down villages there is at least the memory of what once stood in their place, the acceptance that in forgetting we lose the only part that can be preserved.

Johnny Mad Dog does not let us forget this. The two girls who end the film – a young generation raised in tribalism incarnate – is one part, perhaps the most intrinsically central; but constantly in foreshadow is the absurdity of the child soldiers who have already been nurtured by crazed warriors for whom the label “war criminal” would be much too civilized. Later on in the film, even the coldest of viewers find some sympathy with Mad Dog. For a brief moment there is the spectre of a love which his comrades quickly dissipate; an ember smothered.

Take a look the children in this photo from the film:

Johnny Mad Dog

The arbitrary outfits conceal the uniform that underpins them: a common monstrosity, perhaps the naivety of innocence diverted into the single hedonistic pursuit of war, the disregard for the self and the hunger for blood. They are roused by chants that turn them into the wildest  of animals that look more like iron age hunters than modern rebels. And this is the true tragedy, when we no longer really know how much moral vindication we can afford them. The most horrific acts are committed; viewers of the film are fortunate to be spared how some of them are concluded. But at the end we are troubled with a simple question: how much of a child soldier is still child?

I’m left thinking that it’s an oxymoron.

(You can watch the film online here. It’s brilliant – many thanks to Lost in Babel for bringing this film to my attention!)


6 Comments on ““Johnny Mad Dog” and Child Soldiers”

  1. Brilliant review. Absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, brilliant. Bravo. I’m split 50-50 on rather i wish to see the film or not.

    • Mark says:

      Thanks so much for that – I really appreciate it! It’s definitely worth seeing, but you do have to be prepared. It’s a bit like Hotel Rwanda in that respect if you’ve seen it?

  2. saved link to watch tomorrow or on weekend (2:33 Am here…) Every time I see cases as this I remember William Golding’s masterpiece (http://www.solarmovie.so/link/play/1045657/) ,… we have heard many times about how brutal it is to use kids for war,… but… isn’t it anymore, to become inhumanized in times of desperation, a part of being human?

    • Mark says:

      That’s a very interesting comparison with Golding – I hadn’t thought about it like that. But it’s true what you say about desperation; and we’re seeing it in Syria at the moment with fanatics taking advantage of poverty for their own ends. I guess child soldiery is a measure of desperation? The children themselves might not know what they’re doing, but the families are entirely aware.

  3. The pic of the children from the movie reminds me of the cover of Romeo D’Allaire’s book – They Fight Like Soldiers – They Die Like Children. A young boy is depicted holding a gun, pointing it right at the camera and you can just make out the shape of the fluffy pink coloured animal backpack he is wearing – a startling and disturbing juxtaposition. I wrote a blog on the subject of child soldiers for a daily prompt – if you could uninvent one thing – http://disappearinginplainsight.com/2013/02/21/un-invent-fight-like-soldiers-die-like-children/ I link to a couple of organizations. One of your last points really struck me – how much of the child is left? Heartbreaking – we may have to accept that exposure to and participation in a certain level of brutality changes one irrevocably – I am now too sad to keep on writing.

  4. I quite like reading a post that can make
    men and women think. Also, thanks for allowing
    for me to comment!

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