A grievous feature of our age is the use of young men in combat. A recent film was made about this ongoing tragedy: Beasts of No Nation, based on the book of the same title by Uzodinma Iweala, and winner of numerous awards including the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival. The story coalesces around Commandant, a memorable if repellent character played in the movie by Idris Elba. Commandant is the leader of a boy army, one that dwindles over time. His sociopathy makes that outcome all but certain—Commandant cajoles, offers false friendship, controls by ferocity, and sways youths seeking security and affirmation in bad circumstances. The fact is that this work of fiction builds on widespread reality. Chaos breeds moral desolation in many parts of the world, from Angola to Myanmar, Ethiopia to Colombia and beyond. The collapse of states and spread of cheap weapons and zealous ideologies brutalize many, and yet it is the young who suffer above all. They have no choice but to rely on adults. They often believe what they are told. And they offer a special weakness to those exploiting them. In the words of one commander, quoted in a Unicef report on the impact of armed conflict on children, boys and young men are “more obedient, do not question orders and are easier to manipulate than adult soldiers.” Inexperienced, at times emboldened by drugs, they are always the first and most likely to die.
Writing The Gifted Passage: Young Men in Classic Maya Art and Text left me in a moral quandary. After years of study, deciphering glyphic writing and pondering carved or painted images, I had come to an unavoidable conclusion: that Classic Maya civilization in what is now northern Central America and southern Mexico paid central attention to youths. The most ambitious murals, those of Bonampak, Mexico, focused on a trio of princes. The most coveted ceramics, now the centerpieces of museum collections around the world, were given to youths in evident rites of passage and as part of larger sets of gifts. (That many fine pots formed such sets came as something of a surprise—I had regarded these masterpieces as singletons, one-off works by virtuosos.) Body ornament, filed or inlaid teeth, and tattoos, marked youthful bodies, and special rites, often homoerotic in nature, took place in buildings set aside for the use and instruction of boys and young men. Texts and images of the time displayed suitable models of exemplary behavior, while the most energetic investment went into forming royal and noble males. Indeed, the evidence seeps with a veiled if palpable anxiety, that the young might be found wanting. Perhaps royal courts would not reproduce themselves in future generations. The young would not have learned the right lessons, and society would suffer as a result.
Yet it became equally clear that such youth, when physically able, went off to war. In the Bonampak paintings, they are depicted within a bloody melee, tormenting captives, being tormented in turn. The very glyphic sign for “youth,” ch’ok or “sprout,” deciphered long ago by the epigrapher David Stuart, might have originated in a warrior title imported from Teotihuacan, Mexico, a distant city of considerable reach and imperial ambition. As a term, ch’ok undoubtedly went further back in the past. It is an ancient word, reconstructible in earlier stages of Mayan languages. But the connotation of the young organized into formations for war might have been, for the Maya, a novel import. What had seemed horribly “modern” about child-soldiers found a foretaste in Maya civilization. Youths were not incidental victims of failed states but the pawns—positively valued servants—of state policy and dynastic aggression. For Maya lords, to kill and maim was, in certain contexts, wholly “good.”
To work with the moral complexities of the past involves, at times, an attitude of measured apology. The Classic Maya did terrible things, just as many people do today. If there is a lesson to be learned it is that judgment requires understanding, and that, on occasion, art of inexpressible beauty arises from conditions of abuse, suffering, and violence.
Stephen Houston is Dupee Family Professor of Social Science and Professor of Anthropology at Brown University. He has received many awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship and the Order of the Quetzal, Guatemala’s highest decoration.