“Johnny Mad Dog” and Child SoldiersPosted: March 22, 2013
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:
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.