War as Smoke and Mirrors: Sierra Leone 1991-2, 1994-5, 1995-6

Article excerpt


The present paper assesses the implications of various observations of war in Sierra Leone-cross-border operations of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in 1991-2, an RUF attack on Bo in December-January 1994-5, and disruptions by private security companies of the 1995-6 peace process. The material supports the view that a basic mechanism of war is ritual action. But the scope of war-as-ritual must be properly specified. Events involved rites in the air as well as on the ground. The paper draws military agents of private security companies more fully into the picture. The strategic impact of these mercenary elements upon the course of the war was probably less than claimed. On the other hand, impact upon its ritual aspects may have been underestimated. A focus upon ritual dynamics helps make sense of a war that seems inexplicable in terms of its material incentives or ideological motives. [war, ritual, performance, Sierra Leone, private security]

Few anthropologists adopt the vantage point of the war correspondent, but some are caught up in events. Part of the discipline's comparative advantage lies in a capacity to analyze and understand war as ritual. The present paper integrates a series of circumstantial observations of war in Sierra Leone into such an analysis. An aim is to demonstrate that a focus upon ritual aspects is as applicable to the analysis of war fought with sophisticated modern weapons as with knives and cutlasses.

Rites and Riots

Anthropology has often approached ritual as the enactment of a program (Collins 2004). Emile Durkheim (1856-1917) initiated a radically different approach; ritual intensifies emotions generated by group activity. There is no program. Ritual does not convey meanings, but creates them. Enduring symbols and shared values (collective representations) are forged in the heat of ritual excitement.

Durkheim's standpoint is close to that of the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), for whom the significance of music was contained in its sounds alone.2 His ballet, The Rite of Spring (originally entitled "The Great Sacrifice") is contemporary with Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. At its premiere in Paris in 1913, the Rite provoked a riot. The French intelligentsia were equally shocked by Elementary Forms (first published in Paris in 1912). Right-wing students sought Durkheim's dismissal, complaining his analyses of Aboriginal and Iroquois religion had introduced "savages into the Sorbonne" and were a threat to the literary traditions upon which French culture was based (Richman 2001).

A source for the idea that ritual action creates its own logic and meaning can be found in Schopenhauer's distinction between will and idea. Stravinsky openly espoused Schopenhauer (Joseph 2001). Durkheim was well versed in 19th century German social thought, and Mestrovic (1999) considers Schopenhauer a major influence (if mainly mediated through his French followers in the 1870s and 1880s). Schopenhauer understood music as non-representational. It engages our attention not because it alludes to a program but because it expresses the will. If the Rite established (at a stroke) a modern music to be assessed on its own psycho-dynamic terms, Elementary Forms was a knife cutting through encrusted and stultifying traditions to ritual as a source of social renewal.

Drumming Up a Storm

My own intellectual formation drew upon environmental studies, anthropology, and ethnomusicology. I first encountered the Durkheimian tradition through the work of Marcel Mauss on seasonal variations in social life. I became interested in farming seasons as a stimulus to labor cooperation and agricultural innovation. After a decade spent studying small-scale farming practices in Nigeria, I moved to Sierra Leone (at the other extremity of the West African forest belt) seeking comparisons. In 1982-3,1 started a long-term study of farming as seasonal performance in Mogbuama, a Mende-speaking village in central Sierra Leone. …