The War Machines by Danny Hoffman (thoughts)
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.)