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  • Ambivalent War Machines of the West African Landscape – Hoffman’s The War Machines, Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia
  • Sammy Badran (bio)
Danny Hoffman, The War Machines, Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Duke University Press, 2011. 320 pp. $24.95 (paper) $89.95 (cloth). ISBN 978-0-8223-5077-4 and 978-0-8223-5059-0.


The Mano River conflict’s devastating effects on both Liberia and Sierra Leone has been extensively covered by other authors, but few have focused on violence as Danny Hoffman does in The War Machines. He asks: “How are young men in multiple locales mobilized by forces larger than themselves? How do we take seriously a grassroots defense force as a project of postcolonial, post-Cold War democratic citizenship? What form of labor does a mercenary perform? Is it useful to think of violence today as a mode of work? What are the technologies of (post) modern occult practices and how are they connected to the global circulation of images and ideas about war, masculinity, youth, and the body? What resonates in movements like these West African armed militias with other social and militant mobilizations worldwide?” (xvi). It’s clear from the onset that the questions pursued are quite original and nontraditional for an anthropological reading of young West African combatants, most notably his approach to analyzing violence in Africa as a form of labor. Hoffman sees violence as an organizational apparatus and not merely a chaotic reality of war. “[The anthropology of violence] looks to map how violence travels and asks for what it might be exchanged” (104). To view violence as a mode of work becomes very useful, since it is increasingly becoming a world trend and may be the predominating future of violence. It also becomes useful to see how violence may change in an unfettered capitalistic society like Sierra Leone during the conflict. Although the book may be labeled as an anthropological work, it feels more like a hybrid between political economics, untraditional anthropology, security studies, and a literature on civil war; this makes it perhaps more widely assessable to those without a specific interest in an anthropological study of Africa.

Hoffman’s ethnographic research of young fighters in Sierra Leone and Liberia from 1987 to 2007 departs from classical anthropologies of wars in Africa by focusing less on violence in relation to culture and more on the perpetuators of violence in relation to the globalized political economy. The outsourcing of violence in West Africa follows a global dynamic present in many postcolonial countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Hoffman sees “war as a violent mode of participating in today’s global economy” (122). War as work became a common occurrence during the Mano River War as demonstrated by the fact that many of the men who fought in Sierra Leone’s conflict also fought in Liberia’s civil war. The friend-enemy distinction becomes reciprocal in this environment where todays enemy may be tomorrows comrade; these “identities are fluid and fungible” (173). In a Schmittian sense, the friend-enemy distinction here is a result of the particular circumstances at any given time. Any violence employed by these young men is contingent upon the external and internal force of the economy and economic rather than political demands. The assembly of the war machine is focused less on who is the “moral enemy” and more on the existing networks of social relations. Therefore, the mainstream good versus evil binary that’s very commonly used regarding African conflicts is not relevant here.

This insight ultimately supports Hoffman’s claim that war is a form of work. After all, many of the “CDF fighters were former RUF combatants who switched sides, either voluntarily or when captured by the CDF” (134). Hoffman’s ethnography captures intimacies amidst the tumultuous events surrounding the young warriors of the Mano River Conflict. Such intimacies would not, perhaps, be so easily identified by someone who has not spent as much time within the belly of the conflict as Hoffman has.

“What do you think is a war machine?”(2)

Within the first few pages of the book, Hoffman lays out what the...

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