Two Ethnographies of Conflict

I’m peaking my head over the books to give a brief glimpse at two really incredible books that I read recently. In a course on insurgency, the state, and political consciousness, I’ve had the chance to read two ethnographies that present really interesting approaches to studying conflict: Danny Hoffman’s The War Machines and Sharika Thiranagama’s In My Mother’s House. I’ve wanted to read the former for a couple of years, the latter I hadn’t heard about until I picked it up. Both are new books which hopefully haven’t slipped under everyone’s radar (and if they have, now you have no excuse!) – they’re well worth your time if you’re interested in how conflict shapes society and vice versa.

Just published last year, Thiranagama’s In My Mother’s House was my first real foray into understanding the civil war in Sri Lanka. After her mother, a human rights advocate in Sri Lanka, was killed by the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, LTTE), Thiranagama fled abroad. Returning several years later, her ethnography focuses on notions of home for the displaced, inter-generational relationships, and inter- and intra-minority relationships among Tamil and Northern Muslim groups.

Thiranagama’s focus on these two groups helps identify characteristics and histories specific to each and those that are common across both. For example, it was only the Northern Muslims that were evicted from their homes in 1990 (thus creating a whole new demographic of Northern Muslims), but it was only the Tamil who were forced to flee with the rebels as human shields five years later. Even Thiranagama’s fieldwork was shaped by the differences between the two: Muslims in displacement camps talked openly about their experiences with her while most Tamil would only talk behind closed doors. While Muslims had been denied their home, they lived without the everyday oppression of the LTTE authorities, while Tamil remained in their homes in northern Sri Lanka but were unable to live normal lives.

Despite their differences, both groups faced intergenerational conflict and a struggle to identify “home.” For Tamil in their youth in the 1980s, their identities were shaped first by anti-Tamil riots and then by the political awakening of insurgent formation. This awakening was later dashed by the forced recruitment of children by the LTTE and the intense policing of everyday life. This was wildly different from other generations before and after and even those in the same age group that grew up in exile. Meanwhile, displaced Muslims’ desire to return “home” was dependent on their age – between those who remembered home before the war, those who only remembered home under the LTTE, and those whose only home was the camp.

By focusing on family transformations and notions of home, Thiranagama gives an interesting look into the effects of political violence on everyday lives. She also gives a thorough look at insurgency and militarization through the eyes of members of various northern rebel groups. Central to her monograph is the idea of war as a site of making and unmaking, evident in creating political awakenings and new identities but also in destroying homes and relationships. It’s not an entirely new concept, but it’s put together quite well in this book.

Hoffman explores a similar theme in War Machines. In it, he finds war as productive as it is destructive for those who live through it. Channeling Deleuze and Guattari, Hoffman identifies the war machine in the Mano River War in and between Sierra Leone and Liberia. The war machine is not a machine that produces war, but rather a condition outside the state, a condition from which war is a byproduct.

In the Mano River Basin, young men were able to use war to violently change their surroundings by refashioning new relations, new mobility, and new forms of patronage.  Central to Hoffman’s study is the concept of the city as a barracks that frames society. Postcolonial, postmodern cities are increasingly becoming sites of the market – where their populations are organized to serve the war economy.

Hoffman provides a great site-specific ethnography of two barracks – the Brookfields Hotel in Freetown and Johnson Yard in Duala, Monrovia. These barracks (and others like them) become sites of violent labor or sites of preparation for violent labor. (Former and current) rebels gather at the Brookfields Hotel and await their deployment into any of a variety of violent work, be it fighting against a state, mining for diamonds, the back-breaking work of the rubber plantation, or electioneering by intimidating opposition supporters. He outlines an intricate network of barracks as Sierra Leonean rebels become miners become plantation workers become rebels in Guinea and Liberia and back again. This mobility and fluidity is central to the labor and production that the barracks produces, and it’s also central both to the modern war economy.

I think Hoffman offers a really interesting way of looking at the postcolonial by honing in on violent labor and security privatization as an emerging characteristic of the region (and maybe the world). Despite being an ethnography of a group of young men (the kamajors), Hoffman spends a lot of time telling an ethnography of locations. This makes sense in this specific context – kamajors need a barracks as much as the barracks need kamajors – but it’s also a really useful framework for talking about people but also the environment in which those people find themselves.

Both of these ethnographies touch on violence and war as a site of creation as well as destruction. Though they take that theme in different directions, one looking at family and home and the other at labor, they both do so to great effect.

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