The War Machines is a highly sophisticated leftist analysis of militia groups and their interpellators in West Africa. The study aims to link an enduring regional conflict to global political economies by examining how young men are mobilized for labor and wartime violence. It is based on approximately 10 years of photojournalistic and ethnographic research on the Mano River War, a historical-geographical term for the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia from the mid-1980s to the 2000s.

What is a “war machine”? Hoffman borrows this heuristic concept from continental political philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1986 [1980]), who use it to theorize the formation and movement of nomadic, nonstate sociopolitical entities throughout history. Some morphological acrobatics are needed to unpack the philosophers' ambitious project in Hoffman's introduction and expand it to link West Africa to contemporary global political economies. For Hoffman, West African militia groups are like nomadic sociopolitical entities, loosely or multiply organized, that emerge in moments of revolution or other transformative upheavals. Unlike states and their technocratic territorial projects of borders and fixed points, war machines do more mobile geographic work: they de-territorialize as they move across space. In the political-economic context of postcolonial state conflict, however, war machines are inevitably enveloped by the state and drawn up in service of globalized capitalist production. For Hoffman, West African militias as war machines are “an experimental technology … [producing] violence, masculinity, political subjects and exploitative economic relations in novel configurations” (xvi).

Hoffman focuses on the relation between work and wartime violence and asks, “Is it useful to think of violence today as a mode of work?” (xvi). Answering in the affirmative, he moves on to give an “official” chronology of the Mano River conflict and contextualize the war-machine concept. Staying sensitive to the nonlinear nature of informants' war narratives and the historiography of conflict, Hoffman locates the war's initial antistate offenses by Charles Taylor, Foday Sankoh, and other leaders as part of enduring complex postcolonial dictatorial regimes. Regional oppositionist movements and global Cold War–era geopolitical players inform these regimes. Over the span of the conflict, the emergence of war machines, which are highly fissiparous given these shifting regional and global actors, is astonishingly complex. As oppositionists actively drew support across several West African national borders, so did states in reaction to maintain control. States and their regional and multilateral allies mobilized security forces as well as community-level civil defense groups to assist them, groups that sometimes derived their inspiration from existing social categories of male hunting cohorts, kamajoisia and tamaboros. State-conscripted militia groups were often specifically underdeveloped in personnel and arms to stave off a potential internal unseating of power and, overall, the state “security force [was] best described as a network of semi-independent operators rather than a highly structured and centralized fighting force” (33). Some state militia groups brokered alliances with oppositionist movements, engendering an ambiguous group of men called sobel, soldier-rebel fighters. Multilateral interventionists helped establish war crimes tribunals and supported some militia groups to oust oppressive power-mongers after nearly 20 years of conflict. Hoffman argues that “what drew young men to join the various factions continues to lead them to participate in all manner of deployments, from labor at resource extraction to labor on the political campaign trail” (54); namely, participation in enduring social structures of patronage.

The description of young men who participate in these structures of patronage – that is, the loosely collectivized war machines – as laborers and fighters is provocative. After the historical background, Hoffman introduces these men in the last three chapters of the book's first part. His primary informants derive collective and militarized identity from an existing androcentric tableaux of aged and gendered personhood, sociopolitical organization, and ritual practices. His main focus is on men who were initiated into occult knowledge and the use of protective medicinal charms of male hunting cohorts and Poro secret societies to encourage fighting. Hunting cohorts and secret societies were less militarized than the social networks of patriarchal patron-client relationships that enabled their reemergence during the Mano River War. This is not an instance of cultural reproduction, Hoffman argues, but rather an innovative production of unequal male-male relationships to shore up lucrative postconflict futures. Again, patronage is key to understanding the social dynamics of young men's labor during conflict. He uses ethnographic examples of their deployment by military leaders and businessmen to mine diamonds, work on rubber plantations, extract taxes from civilians, or go on looting forays in order to demonstrate how “it is impossible to disaggregate the meanings of security, profit, citizenship, gender, and generation” (116). Two illustrative cases of Sierra Leonean Civil Defence Force members Mohammed Maada Gleh and General Joe Nunie in chapter 4 concretely situate this violent logic of patronage and labor distribution.

The bulk of the book's second part describes young men's lives in the cities of Freetown and Monrovia, which Hoffman conceptualizes as the “barracks,” “the nomos, or organizing principle” of postmodern West Africa. After conflicts ended, young ex-combatants often found themselves concentrated in cities, unemployed and residing temporarily in converted hotels and other spaces based on their patronage networks. They constitute a vast human labor surplus for further mobilization through these networks, making the city as barracks an economic zone of “excessive” and often violent production. One of the richer vignettes shows how men were easily rounded up to work as an impromptu “standby force” for the Sierra Leone People's Party in the run-up to the 2007 elections. Hoffman also gives a rich micro-sociology of his own embeddedness in one such urban space, the Brookfields Hotel, which also introduces the women companions and children of these young men. A final chapter discusses the social history of intertwining occult and military technologies to make kamajors invincibly bulletproof for battles. The conclusion ruminates about the future of warfare, with the anticipated wider conscription of local militias as counterinsurgent forces by geopolitical actors.

For Hoffman, the violence of war should be understood as a form of labor, and his study effectively operationalizes this definition. Groups of urban-dwelling, unemployed young men on the ground in West Africa realize this violence in its physical and structural forms and on multiple scales as they move and are made to move through networks that implicate far-removed participants in the global economy. His often-used adjectival description of these dynamics as “rhizomatic” is warranted. The idea of postconflict cities as sites of labor surplus encourages renewed attention to the utility of urban space or a geographic lens for the analysis of wartime work. The discussions of patronage relations and occult powers are resourceful contributions to his arguments, although the assertions that these social phenomena are more originally productive and less reproductive of preexisting cultural forms echo some previous analyses in the West African contexts he aims to expand from (see, e.g., Jackson 2005:53–54). This reader wished for an extended discussion of how this iteration of postcolonial wartime patronage relations might be different from the Cold War or other historical instances of gerontocratic-like control and redistributions of labor. Even though the study does “not set out to explain the Mano River War in locally meaningful terms” (xiii), it would be fascinating to see how young men talked about or understood their work in diamond mines, rubber plantations, or militia groups, in either metaphorical or critical terms.

Hoffman's career as a photojournalist shines through. His images of young men and women in everyday moments of leisure are as arresting as those where they wield guns and other weaponry. With a total of 50 illustrations, the book richly evinces a sense of enduring downtime for this militaristic labor surplus of young men until they are forced to move elsewhere for work or survival. Non-area specialists may struggle most with the first chapter, the “ ‘official’ history chapter” on the Mano River War. The regionalist, comparative scope of the study is methodologically and ethnographically admirable overall, but the high levels of fragmentation and mobility of militia groups and their national and transnational patrons make clear depiction difficult. A single glossary or “cast of characters” would be helpful, listing groups and their acronymic titles, which are peppered throughout an extensive index. Also, despite the many beautiful illustrations, the book does not include a map of either country or their adjoining riverine territory, which would help readers to better situate young men's deployments. The War Machines would be most instrumental for graduate-level courses on politics, economics, violence, urban studies, and Africa; professional seminars on critical theory; and anthropologists of work to think about the multi-scalar dimensions of social formations and the labor they perform in war and postconflict zones.


  1. Top of page
  2. References
  • Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1986 [1980]. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Brian Massumi, trans. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Jackson, Michael. 2005. Custom and Conflict in Sierra Leone: An Essay on Anarchy. In Existential Anthropology. Pp. 5373. New York: Berghahn.