Review of Danny Hoffman’s ‘The War Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia’, by Jacqueline Knörr (2014)

Hoffman, Danny (2012): The War Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Durham and London: Duke University Press. Critique of Anthropology 34: 124 (2014).

Hoffman’s book looks at the lives of young men who participated in the Sierra Leonean (1991-2002) and Liberian (1989-1996, 1999-2003) wars, which, in his view, were so closely intertwined that they should be regarded as one – namely the Mano River War (based on the fact that Sierra Leone and Liberia are located on both sides of the Mano River). His account and analysis, however, largely focus on the civil defense militias/Kamajors of Sierra Leone, among whom he began field work in mid-2000; hence, around one and a half years before the war came to an official end (January 2002).
Hoffman’s conceptualization of contemporary global politics and economic structures is largely based on Marxian thought. He argues that global political and economic structures leave masses of young men in the developing world marginalized and without perspective. For these men going to war means becoming part of a labor force and serves as “a violent mode of participating in today’s global economy” (122).
Hoffman’s ethnographic descriptions are detailed and well documented, his analysis is coherent and comprehensible, and his portrayals of militia men are both vivid and subtle. Depicting the urban barrack “Hotel Kamajor” (formerly the Brookefields Hotel) in Freetown as a locus of field research, Hoffman shows how urban environments function as “barracks” from which young men may be collected as work force, and deployed in different forms of labors, militant and violent ones included. He describes how the (re-)production of violence is related to complex networks: “Violence itself enters the networks of circulation and exchange (…), becomes interchangeable with diamonds and cash (…)” (108). Violence as well as the perpetrators of violence are conceptualized as commodities that “become integral to a new regulatory logic at work in the African postcolony” (108). Hoffman thereby also reveals not only the transformation of the Sierra Leonean Kamajors in the course of the war, but exemplifies more generally the trajectories of young men, who, as a result of being socially and economically marginalized, become ‘laborers’ in a market of violence, thereby aiming to ensure economic survival and social acknowledgement.
Hoffman’s detailed descriptions of the relationships between commanders and combatants contributes also to the understanding of the functioning of a patronage system under the conditions of conflict and war. Hoffman impressively shows how commanders make use of local patronage structures to gain in power and to enrich themselves. He describes aptly how within these structures violence may be perceived of – and practiced as – youth labor and how the Mano River War may serve as an example of what conflicts and wars (will) look like particularly in the African postcolony.
Hoffman contextualizes his ethnographic data and its analysis in the framework of the writings of Deleuze and Guattari, and, more specifically, by means of their notion of the “war machine”, which I do not find helpful to capture the reality he describes and analyzes. Deleuze’s and Guattari’s concept of a ‘war machine’ was developed in the context of the social uprisings in urban France in 1968 and is “[c]ontrary to its name, […] not dedicated to the production of war [which] (…) is simply an occasional by-product of what the war machine is really about: exteriority to the state.” Whether, to what extent and during which phases of recent Sierra Leonean history the civil defense militias/Kamajors were about exteriority to the state is still a contested issue which cannot be explored here. What cannot be denied is that the Kamajors were about violence and that, as Hoffman notes himself, “[t]he fantastical language that surrounds the war machine as a philosophical construct can easily eclipse the violence it is meant to describe” (4). I am not saying that the ‘war machine’ does not have “its potential implications for thinking about violence and social movements” (23), or may not have helped Hoffman to understand the complexities of Sierra Leone’s warscapes – however, in his writing the ‘war machine’ is depicted as an elevated and self-referential superstructure rather than a coherent theoretical frame or useful analytical tool. It is therefore likely to distract from the major revelations of Hoffman’s research rather than help readers to contextualize them. In my view, Hoffman’s description and analysis are most authentic, convincing, and refreshing where liberated from the theoretical excess baggage of Deleuze and Guattari.

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