EDITOR’S NOTE: Dear Readers, the below is the first post of a three-part series on the moral economy of resource extraction, with its attendant violent commodification of people’s lives. In this post, Ben Cox, an editorial assistant for The CIHA Blog, sits down with Danny Hoffman to discuss his latest book. Topics addressed include the politics of photographic representation; mobility, labor, youth and violence; and future projects in West Africa. All images have been graciously provided by Danny Hoffman.
Ben Cox (BC): The title of your first book is War Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia. What are the stakes of doing an ethnography in a warzone? What is the book about?
Danny Hoffman (DH): The phrase the “war machines,” and the theoretical underpinnings of the book is from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, but what I have really been interested in is thinking about young men and their participation in the conflict on both sides of the Mano River, which forms the border between Sierra Leone and Liberia. I am thinking of these guys as essentially a labor force, which I think is an unusual way to think about African violence, at least in a lot of the popular literature, but also in anthropology and political science as well. I was interested in the movement of young men across the region, and the forces that allow for them to be assembled and deployed as laborers in a certain kind of violent economy. What I found during the time of this research was that for a lot of the fighters on both sides of the border, the work of going to war was one form of labor that they didn’t necessarily think of as being qualitatively distinct from any other form of labor, such as taking diamonds, tapping rubber, etc. The thing that interested me was: how are these guys moving around the region, what are the forces that allow them to be assembled and deployed, and how does that change for them over time, if it does? For one of the groups that I worked with, the Civil Defense Forces in Sierra Leone, they followed an interesting trajectory. They began as a village-based community defense body and then, over time, became essentially a mercenary pool of reserve labor to be deployed around the region. The book follows that trajectory. It looks at these factors within the history of the region and the history of the conflict, and then doing a closer ethnographic reading of the different facets of those processes in various regions over time. Continue reading