The War Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia

By Utas, Mats | Anthropological Quarterly, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The War Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia


Utas, Mats, Anthropological Quarterly


Danny Hoffman, The War Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. 320 pp.

Malaria in Insecure Spaces. The first time I heard of Danny Hoffman was at an international conference and it was a fantastic story. Some of the senior academics shook their heads at the risks he had taken, blaming it on his "youth"; but I was rather impressed. My reading was that surviving this situation was dependent on his skillful building of trust and mutual respect with his research subjects: rebel soldiers. Hoffman had caught a serious case of malaria while accompanying rebel soldiers deep into the Sierra Leonean bush. He was saved by rebels who carried him across the border to Liberia for medical attention; clearly risking their lives, but thereby saving his.

Respect and Research. Sierra Leoneans have quite clear ideas of the "white man," many are bad-afraid of local people, greedy, and arrogant. These qualities are awarded the average UN/INGO-worker, businessman, and researcher. Without doubt no Sierra Leonean would risk their life for him/her. There are a few others who escape the bad "white man" category. You hear of them in the streets of Freetown and beyond. Researchers in post-war settings are many, but surprisingly few are spoken of as "good." Meeting people in the streets of Freetown in post-Hoffman time, I can say for certain that he is considered a good one. As researchers fieldworking sensitive issues know, mutual respect and trust is absolutely crucial for the outcome-if not, we end up doing science on a spectra ranging from semi-truths to outright lies.

Previous Reads. It has always inspired me to read Danny Hoffman. He writes exceptionally well. Another advantage of Hoffman is that his texts are extremely varied; he is far from rewriting the same paper time and again. Thematically, he has guided us from rational choice perspectives of the Sierra Leone war (Hoffman 2004) to interesting theoretical developments of the Agambean camp (Hoffman 2007, see also chapter 5 in this book). In his current book, The War Machines, Hoffman is taking on yet another challenge.

Hoffman's Plateaus. This book is principally about "war as a violent mode of participating in today's global economy" (122) based on ethnographic material from the Mano River War (primarily in Sierra Leone, and to some extent the interrelated conflict in Liberia), but it is also a reading of Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1983) and A Thousand Plateaus (1987), and as such, is an important theoretical contribution with implications far beyond the Mano River warscape. Although there are many theoretically stimulating parts of the book, by far the most inspiring is how Hoffman consistently uses the work of Deleuze and Guattari as an overarching framework; especially the war machine concept.1 By doing so he at times bends his ethnography slightly too much. Yet still it is great with an anthropologist going beyond eclectically picking pieces of philosophical theory.

Jealousy and Praise. I have myself researched the wars in the Mano River region since 1996, starting out in a refugee camp in Côte d'Ivoire, followed by a year of fieldwork in Liberia, and subsequently two years in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Throughout this time I have focused on young people's experiences of war and its aftermath. Most of Hoffman's conclusions fit well with mine. I am slightly jealous: I would have liked to be the author of this fine book. Reading Hoffman, I am very much impressed by his close knowledge of the Sierra Leonean Kamajors, both concerning their activities in Sierra Leone and later in Liberia. With a focus on the advent and gradual metamorphosis of the Kamajors, following a plateaulike logic of the Deleuzian and Guattarian war machine, this is the most well-informed research on this particular group up to date. But it is goes far beyond just an ethnographic study of the Kamajors. …

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