This was a difficult book to read, not only because I kept imagining my own sons wearing scant clothing and bearing AK-47s. Sadly, the author’s style of prose does not lend texture, authenticity, or a newly detailed level of reality to his subject matter. While Jimmie Briggs is an obviously dedicated reporter and researcher, he did seemed confused as to whether he was writing a memoir or a current history of the problem of children soldiers. He did do a good job portraying the lack of simple answers, the blurred boundaries between good guys and bad guys. One thing that comes across clearly from this book: there are no clear solutions.
Briggs partitions his book into several chapters; each deals with a specific troubled country: Rwanda, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and Afghanistan. Within these chapters he generally provides a short history of the conflict and several personal stories of children who have served on the frontline. We meet Francois Minani, a Hutu Rwandan who, at the age of sixteen, was given the choice to either kill his four young Tutsi nephews or be killed himself. Sebastiana Figerardo tells the story of her daughter, Ida Carmelita, another sixteen-year-old, who was coerced into joining the Tamil Tigers for three years, fled from the guerillas, then suffered rape, torture, and death at the hands of soldiers from the Pallimunai Army a few weeks after her escape. These are only a couple of more than a dozen examples in the book of children damaged by war.
Among the stories of horror and deprivation, examples of hope spring weakly. Most of the countries portrayed in Innocents Lost have some resources devoted to helping the kids who escape the violence – group homes, counseling, education or training. Sadly, all the facilities seem insufficient in the face of such tumultuous political and social unrest. Saddest of all, global efforts to halt the heinous phenomenon of children soldiers are often derailed by countries with the most power, influence and money – namely, our own.
Briggs refers several times to his own traumas, the results of this self-assigned journey. He feels guilt over leaving his young daughter for dangerous places where his own death is a distinct prospect. He develops post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression from listening to story after story of abuse. These occasional mentions of his own suffering detract from the power of his subject matter, instead of serving as a supplement; his empathetic afflictions seem more calculated than spontaneous, a plot device as opposed to real, sudden emotional reaction. I’m not suggesting he didn’t feel anguish and manifest symptoms accordingly; those symptoms just don’t feel organic in the context of this book.
Equally distracting was the writing. While Briggs’ style of prose might be fine in short essays or articles, to stretch into a full length book takes more strength, structure, and attention. He repeats himself in at least one place and is often either careless or sparing with details. Some paragraphs take multiple readings to fully understand, due to awkward sentence structure. Luckily, his chosen subject matter is so important and inherently gripping that I could forgive him enough to finish the book. I wish, though, that he had stuck to straight, eager, front line reporting like Mark Fritz in Lost on Earth, or had switched whole-heartedly to memoir, like Alexandra Fuller in Scribbling the Cat. As it stands, Innocents Lost is a tepid read about a sizzling subject.