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The War Machines by Danny Hoffman (thoughts)

October 20, 2011

Remember when I admitted to a mild obsession with Netgalley’s university press offerings? Well The War Machines by Danny Hoffman just made it stronger. Hoffman is a war photojournalist turned anthropology professor, and in this Duke University book, he combines an in-depth look at the Sierra Leone civil war with bigger picture musings on the effect of war on men in society, and how the current structure of the international community increases bellicosity in the developing world. I was in love from the introduction, in which Hoffman briefly includes some thoughts on the questionable impact of the international media and their propensity to publish photographs of young, black African men carrying guns (a rather ironic moment, considering this book’s cover and included photographs, but he does explain that). I found the whole book to have enough self awareness of the West and its biases to provide an intellectually satisfactory account but not so much as to be crippled with insecurity: a pretty perfect blend for my international relations nerdy self.

I came into the book with a reasonable amount of knowledge Sierra Leone, having taken a politics of West Africa class (with an awesome Cote d’Ivoire professor) and having once done a research project on the fate of internally displaced persons (aka, refugees that haven’t crossed an international border) for a different course, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Hoffman provides enough background for the reader to contextualise the book, which ranges from on-the-ground profiles of Sierra Leonean men Hoffman met while conducting research to discussions of complex intellectual theories. Throughout, the writing is engaging and informative: while obviously not aimed at a ‘popular’ audience, I think any intelligent, general reader with a bit of interest in the topic would get along fine. I, meanwhile, was in nerdy heaven! ;)

I feel like in all of my gushing, I haven’t really managed to tell you what the book is about. Let’s see if I can manage to do so in a couple sentences. Essentially, Hoffman argues that international economic and political structures have created a large pool of perennially unemployed, unattached young men who are then used by corrupt power-mongers for everything from mining to fighting. This phenomenon grows out of aspects of postcolonialism and current globalisation ‘outsourcing,’ and Hoffman projects how it might appear in the future and impact both individuals and world events. Interesting, right?

If you love smart, self-aware academic writing that combines big-picture theorising with personal details, I can’t recommend this highly enough!

Suggested Companion Reads

  • Days of Death, Days of Life by Kristin Norget (Another wonderful anthropological nonfiction work which explicitly addresses Western biases.)
  • Song for Night by Chris Abani (An incredibly lyrical novella written from the viewpoint of a West African child soldier.)
  • Africa’s World War by Gerard Prunier (If Hoffman’s descriptions of the Sierra Leone war leave you wanting more detailed-oriented descriptions of African politics, Prunier has written a tome about the DPRC civil war and its massive effects on its neighbours, which includes much of central, east, and southern Africa.)
17 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2011 11:34 am

    Sounds good! I am all ready a bit too obsessed with NetGalley, so maybe not the best thing in the world. lol

  2. October 20, 2011 1:50 pm

    Darn you, Eva. *Every* time I visit your site, I end up adding another book title to the TBR pile. This time, I have just ordered that Norget book on “Days of Death, Days of Life”…. Seems appropriate with Day of the Dead on nigh.

    Hope you are feeling better with your new meds.
    liz in texas.

  3. October 20, 2011 3:07 pm

    I’ve definitely had lots of excitement myself about Netgalley’s university press choices and this looks like something I’d be very very interested in. Probably not quite as appropriate for me as it is for you, but I’ll check it out regardless. Thanks!

  4. October 20, 2011 7:02 pm

    Oh, this sounds good! Does the book say the same amount about Liberia? You mostly mention Sierra Leone here, and I am interested in Sierra Leone! but mildly most interested in Liberia. Is it really both?

    (I learned a really alarming thing about Liberia recently, but I won’t tell you. It’s super gross. Suffice it to say, it involves ears and is really, really gross.)

    • Paulus permalink
      February 29, 2012 12:12 pm

      Jenny, it’s a great question given the subtitle of the book. Much of the urban ethnographic work which takes place in book happens within Sierra Leone, specifically in Freetown. Much of the book deals with kamajor soldiers outside of the city. Although “international boundaries” have neatly divided the nations the border is porous and young men working as soldiers and/or diamond mine workers move between the both countries. The soldiers have been recruited from and to both sided of the border. And the story of Liberia, is, as you know , closely linked to what happens in Liberia. I can’t recommend the book enough to you. It is the best anthropology I have read. Hoffman is brilliant. I still ordering books from the footnotes and bibliography.

  5. October 21, 2011 12:04 pm

    I love reading non-fiction that opens my eyes to problems outside the U.S. This is a perfect read for me.

  6. October 21, 2011 1:23 pm

    This book sounds awesome! I’m developing quite a crush on Duke UP books. I have yet to be disappointed.

  7. October 22, 2011 7:12 pm

    Thanks Eva, this is a new book and new author to me, but sounds fantastic!

  8. October 23, 2011 8:58 pm

    Since I wanna read more books about Africa, I’m going to put this one my list. Thanks !!

  9. October 24, 2011 9:28 am

    Oooooohhhh this sounds really fantastic. On my wishlist now, thanks!

  10. October 27, 2011 3:40 pm

    I really like your idea for this blog and so I’ve nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. I hope you’ll accept it in the spirit it’s given and be happy since that’s my intention with it. :-) See my post about it here:
    Thanks, Christina

  11. October 28, 2011 6:56 am

    I love it that NetGalley has university presses. I really need to do more exploring over there.

  12. Joanne Towers permalink
    October 29, 2011 11:35 am

    Hi, thanks for writing this blog. I work from home as I write full time (not published yet) and having this link into a world of people as crazy about books as me is fab (Plus as our house is rented we can’t have pets, a dog would totally take the edge off) I love a recommendation and I love how you champion libraries. So all the way from sunny Wales, keep up the good work.

  13. October 31, 2011 10:59 am

    This sounds like it would be a great book club read.

  14. November 11, 2011 4:23 pm

    This sounds great Eva! I’m taking a class next semester about conflict in contemporary Africa next semester which I’m really excited about…maybe I’ll warm myself up with this :)


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