The War Machines

Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia

The War Machines

The Cultures and Practices of Violence

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Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 51 photographs Published: September 2011

Author: Danny Hoffman

African Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Sociology > Social Theory

In The War Machines, Danny Hoffman considers how young men are made available for violent labor both on the battlefields and in the diamond mines, rubber plantations, and other unregulated industries of West Africa. Based on his ethnographic research with militia groups in Sierra Leone and Liberia during those countries’ recent civil wars, Hoffman traces the path of young fighters who moved from grassroots community-defense organizations in Sierra Leone during the mid-1990s into a large pool of mercenary labor.

Hoffman argues that in contemporary West Africa, space, sociality, and life itself are organized around making young men available for all manner of dangerous work. Drawing on his ethnographic research over the past nine years, as well as the anthropology of violence, interdisciplinary security studies, and contemporary critical theory, he maintains that the mobilization of West African men exemplifies a global trend in the outsourcing of warfare and security operations. A similar dynamic underlies the political economy of violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and a growing number of postcolonial spaces. An experienced photojournalist, Hoffman integrates more than fifty of his photographs of young West Africans into The War Machines.


“What is especially notable about this work is the combination of sophisticated social theorizing with intrepid ethnographic fieldwork in a very dangerous world. Hoffman’s book is one of the best examples of this new anthropological genre of studying war and violence with fieldwork methods that generate data about the lived experience of violence. Such methods and data help dislodge common assumptions about this violence – wild youth on a rampage, primordial ethnic hatred, et cetera.” — William P. Murphey, African Affairs

“[A] path-breaking ethnography that offers a completely novel analytical framework for the anthropology of war in general, and for the interconnected wars in the West African Mano River Basin region in particular.” — Sverker Finnström, African Studies Quarterly

“Hoffman avoids the common language of chaos and failed states, noting that though it is hard to idealize militia life, in this context it may be seen as asocial movement prepared to defend itself against external predations. Highly recommended.” — O. Pi-Sunyer, Choice

“Hoffman’s book is at once a tightly-wound first person account of life amongst Sierra Leone’s ‘lumpen proletariat’ and an impressive work of economic and cultural theory. It is this unusual lens that makes The War Machines so thought-provoking, even for those intimately familiar with the Mano River War, and Hoffman provides enough background and context that it is still a powerful read for the uninitiated. “ — D. Tsomondo, cool'eh

“It is to Hoffman’s great credit as a scholar and author that his writing… is equally compelling, deftly articulating political philosophical concepts (no small feat with the repertoire he has selected) and evocatively rendering dynamic social environments…. Hoffman succeeds in making the political, economic and social connections he sets out to make. The War Machines provides a welcome addition to the modest Mano River canon, and a valuable entry point for academic visitors in and voyageurs out.” — Zoe Marks, Journal of Modern African Studies

“It’s clear from the onset that the questions pursued are quite original and nontraditional for an anthropological reading of young West African combatants….widely accessable to those without a specific interest in an anthropological study of Africa.” — Sammy Badran, Theory & Event

“The ethnographic narrative, as well as the crafted images throughout the text, conveys a rich and nuanced portrayal of the lives of Hoffman’s subjects and their context, which avoids at all times violence aestheticizing or full denial of individual’s agency…. This book is a must read for any serious scholar interested in the study of globalisation, post-colonialism, or visual research methodology.” — Yolanda C. Martin, Visual Studies

“This is a novel departure from most previous studies of youth and violence in Africa, and as such it is a necessary and provocative addition to the literature.… [A] wealth of material he brings to bear on our understanding of youth violence.” — Catherine Bolten, Anthropos

“This is an exceptional read for an audience well-beyond war and conflict interested anthropologists. Hoffman has an apt eye, is analytically sass and writes in straightforward prose. The book is richly illustrated with Hoffman’s excellent photos.” — Mats Utas, Anthropological Quarterly

“In today’s African worlds people have to constantly come up with new stories in order to access livelihood and opportunity: stories about how they are to be seen, to be part of a larger world. In this account of young fighters in West Africa, Danny Hoffman demonstrates that armed conflict is an opportunity for young men to work. It is work that attempts to be contemporaneous with what is perceived as the ‘real global world,’ to go beyond the constrictions of state, culture, and society. Even if their attempts are eventually incorporated into narrow agendas or the prevailing logics of capitalist administration and value, they still strive to live in new ways. Hoffman, with great courage and hard work, has engaged the complexity of such conflict, making it count for something—the entanglement of brutality and hope.” — AbdouMaliq Simone, author of For the City Yet to Come: Changing African Life in Four Cities

“This is a strikingly original account of a West African warscape, here translated into memorable prose and sophisticated theory. As much a zone of labor and extraction as of war-making, this landscape of fluid and fungible identities forces us to think of Sierra Leone and Liberia, provoked by Danny Hoffman, as a laboratory of the future. This brilliant book will be widely read and debated.” — Charles Piot, author of Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War


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Price: $27.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Danny Hoffman is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. As a photojournalist, he documented conflicts in southern Africa and the Balkans from 1994 to 1998.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations ix
Preface xi
Acknowledgments xxiii
Introduction: War Machines 1
I. Histories
1. The Mano River War: A Chronology 27
2. Hunters, Lumpens, and War Boys: A Social History of the Kamajors 55
3. States of Conflict: A Social History of the Kamajors Continued 88
II. Building The Barracks
4. Big Men, Small Boys 127
5. The Barracks 162
6. The Hotel Kamajor 194
7. The Magic of War 224
Conclusion: A Laboratory of the Future 252
Notes 261
Bibliography 273
Index 289
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5077-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5059-0
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