The Violence of Democracy
Mary H. Moran
2005 | 200 pages | Cloth $49.95 | Paper $24.95
Anthropology | Political Science | African-American Studies/African Studies
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Liberia, Violence, and Democracy
1. The Case for Indigenous Democracy
2. Contested Histories
3. Civilization and the Liberian Nation
4. The Promise and Terror of Elections
5. The Lock on the Outhouse Door: Discourses of Development
6. The Crisis of Youth and the Promise of the Future
7. Conclusion: A Wedding and a Funeral
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
Introduction: Liberia, Violence, and Democracy
Violence and democracy are words that do not sit easily together in the same sentence. Indeed, our tendency as Westerners is to see them as opposite ends of an evolutionary scale; the successor to widespread violence, we often imagine, is democracy, a system in which rulers are freely chosen by their people and in which everyone is allowed to voice their opinions and concerns. If such conditions exist, what need is there to resort to violence?
In the 1990s and into the current century, war and genocide in the Balkans, the Middle East, and numerous African countries have been attributed to the absence of democratic institutions. Processes of "democratization," including "capacity-building" workshops and efforts to promote "civil society," are prescribed as post-conflict solutions to support the "free and fair" elections which are the ultimate goal. Indeed, the ability to hold a "transparent" election is held to be the real test of whether or not democracy has "taken root" in a formerly troubled society and is seen as a bulwark against further outbreaks of war. Democratic societies, we are told, do not make war on their neighbors, but must be poised to intervene when nondemocratic regimes threaten to overstep their boundaries. But are democracy and violence really separate (or separable) ontological states, or is there violence in democracy and democracy in violence? Can both be viewed as means of communication between higher and lower levels of political organization; for example, between the local community and the state? In what instances does the discourse of democracy, grounded in the expectation of "a fair discussion among equals" (Guinier 1995, cited in Wonkeryor et al. 2000: 52), fail? When does the state resort to imposing its will by force, and the local population resort to resistance or aggression? Conversely, what conflicts between local and national elites can be accommodated by the ritual forms of elections and designated representatives? How do leaders on both the small and the large scale manage to allow disparate voices to be heard without compromising their own legitimacy? Can a people really be said to "choose" democracy over war, and vice versa?
Liberia, resting on the great bulge of West Africa, is the setting in which I investigate these questions . It is in many ways a paradoxical place, often cited as the exception to most sweeping generalizations about sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike the rest of the continent, Liberia was never formally colonized by a European power; its pseudocolonial "mother country" is the United States. It was born out of the contradictions inherent in the founding of the United States itself; a nation predicated on individual liberty which at the same time condoned and profited by chattel slavery. Although frequently characterized in the Western media as "founded by freed slaves," Liberia was initially imagined as a haven for "free people of color," descendants of Africans who by luck, birth, or their own efforts were no longer legally enslaved. The country was literally the philanthropic project of a private, white, benevolent organization founded in 1816, the American Colonization Society. Its establishment in 1822 of an American outpost on the West African coast served multiple interests. Slaveowners saw repatriation as a means of removing unwelcome examples of independent, self-supporting free blacks from the view of their slaves. Some white abolitionists who felt slavery as an institution was immoral were nevertheless uncomfortable with the prospect of actually living in a multiracial society. Evangelical Christians, inspired by the Second Great Awakening, envisioned a divine plan to "redeem" African heathens through the example of black missionaries and Christian communities. American merchants, competing with their European counterparts, welcomed a secure landing place on the African coast and an advantage in the emerging "legitimate trade" in palm oil, coffee, and other tropical products (see Adeleke 1998; Beyan 1991; for older accounts, see Staudenraus 1961; Shick 1980, among others).
Although most American abolitionists, white and black, rejected the colonization movement, between twelve and thirteen thousand colonists were settled in Liberia between 1822 and 1867 (Liebenow 1987: 19). Of these, roughly 4,500 had been born free, while the others were emancipated from slavery on the condition that they emigrate to Africa. These numbers were augmented by about 6,000 "recaptive" Africans taken from impounded slave ships before they ever crossed the Atlantic. Along with a few hundred immigrants from Barbados arriving after the abolition of slavery there, this group over time became the national elite known as Americo-Liberians, "Congoes," or simply "Settlers."
The remainder of Liberia's population of between two and three million have affiliation with one or more of over sixteen indigenous ethnolinguistic groups, often glossed as "tribes." As is commonly the case in Africa, these groups are not bounded, internally organized, or historically continuous political units, but rough approximations of regional and sometimes religious identity. Intermarriage and internal migration have made it possible for many Liberians to invoke more than one "tribal" affiliation, despite the fact that all the indigenous groups subscribe to an ideology of patrilineal descent (see d'Azevedo 1969-70: 111-12). Although "tribalism" has been invoked as an explanation for the violence in Liberia in recent years, local histories point to more evidence of conflict within than between ethnic categories.
It is hard for me to believe that I first went to Liberia more than twenty years ago, in 1982. This book has evolved over those years of my involvement with the country, taking a different shape from the way it was first imagined as a "followup" to my work on gender and prestige among the Glebo people of the southeast (Moran 1990). At various times, it was to be a study of local and national interpretations of political events, then it became a book on civil war and state collapse, and, finally, it has taken its current shape as a study of themes of democracy and violence in Liberia, past and present. It has taken me a long time to parse the relationship between these two terms, so often represented as polar opposites, and to understand them as persistent and mutually constitutive themes in Liberian history.
In the early nineteenth century, the American missionary John Payne characterized the Glebo of southeastern Liberia as practicing "the purest of democracies" (cited in Martin 1968: 15). In 1847 the African American settlers declared their independence from the American Colonization Society, affirming their commitment to an American-style constitution and its attendant democratic institutions. For one hundred and thirty-three years following, elections were held at regular intervals for both national offices like the presidency and local positions such as town chief. Although members of the settler group maintained a monopoly on state institutions and the indigenous people were not fully enfranchised until the 1960s (Liebenow 1987: 63-65), there is substantial evidence that some principles of transparency and accountability were employed even during the period of single-party rule (1877-1980) by the True Whig Party. "There was, first of all, the observance of constitutional norms, which apparently had high value to the legally minded Americo-Liberians. Secondly, it did provide for at least a biennial discussion of the party's goals and permitted new generations to be socialized . . . the personnel of government did change as a result of this active discussion" (1987: 94; see also Sawyer 1992; Liberty 2002). Before centralized power was fully consolidated in the executive branch by W. V. S. Tubman (1943-71), recognized corruption in political office was severely punished; several Liberian presidents were impeached or forced to resign, and transitions were relatively peaceful.
Why then did Liberia, with a longer experience of political independence than any other nation in Africa, fall victim to the syndrome of violent civil war and state collapse which swept the continent in the 1990s? Following a military coup in 1980, the situation deteriorated into outright war from 1989 to 1996, leading to complete national disruption, foreign occupation, and the deaths of up to 200,000 people, most of them civilians. Even after a brokered peace agreement and internationally supervised elections in 1997, Liberia could not enjoy an end to violence. Charles Taylor, who had begun the war in 1989, received 75 percent of the vote in what were widely described as free and transparent elections, yet within two years he was challenged by another armed faction and spent his five-year term as president trying in vain to hold off "rebels" who occupied more and more of the country. Taylor was forced into exile in Nigeria in 2003, and a transitional government is preparing for new elections in 2005. Along with its neighbor Sierra Leone, Liberia in the 1990s gave the world ghastly images of child soldiers, "warlord" politics fueled by "blood diamonds," and utter, regionwide devastation.
Explanations have been offered from a variety of perspectives for this puzzling phenomenon. Some analysts have seen the combination of rising populations, ecological degradation, deep-seated "tribal" animosities, and marginalization from the global economy as enough to throw any society into irrational chaos and anarchy (see Kaplan 1994, 2000). Other scholars reject this "New Barbarism" argument and locate the source of the conflict in the very rational competition for resources amid rising but unfulfilled expectations that underlies civil wars in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Congo as well as Liberia (Reno 1995b, 1998; Richards 1996a). Still others point to the postcolonial "politics of the belly" that has, in the absence of an industrial sector, made state institutions the primary means of accumulation and distribution of wealth (Bayart 1993; Chabal and Daloz 1999). There is an extensive literature on Liberia which argues that elections and other "democratic" trappings were never more than show pieces to begin with; that since its inception the nation has been dominated by the small settler elite through the mechanisms of a one-party state, an "imperial" presidency, and a set of exclusive institutions ranging from churches and schools to Masonic lodges (Dolo 1996; Dunn and Tarr 1988, Gershoni 1985; Sawyer 1987, 1992; Leibenow 1987; Holphe 1979; Osaghae 1996, among others). Finally, it has been suggested that the peculiar "religious" orientation of Liberians, related to a regional "politics of secrecy," may have influenced both the shape and the extent of the violence (Ellis 1999; for Sierra Leone, see Ferme 2001).
This book is a response, from an anthropological perspective, to the literature on state collapse, reintegration, and democratization in Africa, through the lens of the particular case of Liberia. Specifically, I hope to make three related contributions to the current scholarship. First, this project contributes to the goal of "denaturalizing" violence and warfare, directed particularly at essentialist commentators like Kaplan (1994, 2000) and Huntington (1993, 1996).This project has dominated the "anthropology of violence" during the 1990s and into the present century (Warren 1993; Nordstrom 1997; Daniel 1996; Besteman 1999; Richards 1996a; Taylor 1999, Besteman and Gusterson 2005, among others). Second, I contest the characterization of Liberia and other Guinea Coast societies as dominated by secrecy, distrust, and hierarchy; as religious and cultural systems that explicitly impede democratization (Ellis 1999; Bellman 1975, 1984; Ferme 2001). These authors, of course, acknowledge that a range of political orientations exists within the region, but see alternatives to hierarchy and secrecy as suppressed or underdeveloped. I argue that there are strong indigenous traditions of participation, voice, and empowerment, otherwise known as "democratic values," embedded in the governmental structures of local communities and in the operative conceptions of personhood used by these populations. Although these structures and values have undeniably changed over time, there is also a remarkable continuity in the language people use to talk about what they expect from political leaders, both local and national. Following Piot (1999), I argue that these democratic traditions are fully "modern," in the sense of being part of the repertoire of daily life, and are the result of global historical processes involving the indigenous people of Liberia, while at the same time insisting that they represent an alternative model of political process to that which has its origins in Western Europe. Third, I suggest that violence and democracy are not conceptually opposed in Liberian political discourse but are aspects of the same understanding of legitimacy. Liberian history can be understood as an ongoing interplay between themes of democracy and violence enacted on both local and national levels. This point is particularly crucial in the context of American foreign policy of the early twenty-first century, in which the establishment of democracy (by force if necessary) is seen as a solution to regional instability and the ensuing threat to strategic resources.
This analysis requires an interrogation of both terms, "democracy" and "violence," as discourses that are deployed, contested, and altered by participants in small communities, in the national capital, and within the state apparatus. At all these levels, actors must also refer to international definitions of democracy and "human rights" as these are tied to multilateral aid packages and relations with foreign powers. A key feature of the scholarly and policymaking literature on political transition in Africa is the tendency to view representational democracy as unproblematic, an obvious "good" that will only benefit all sectors of society. Furthermore, democracy is often represented as alien to Africa, a recent import from the West; much of the debate within the discipline of political science has centered on whether or not Africans are "ready" for democracy, generally defined as the ability to hold transparent elections (for one example, see Diamond, Linz, and Lipset 1988). Strongly evolutionary assumptions underlie this line of argument, since preexisting political institutions, kin, and ethnic ties are described as "patrimonial" and are believed to be antithetical to more modern forms of rational bureaucracy and efficiency (Clapham 1985, but for a rethinking of these models, see Joseph 1999). Several African scholars have contested these assumptions (Ake 2000; Monga 1996), but they continue to underlie a great deal of the foreign policy of the Western powers regarding Africa. I will argue that this approach not only obscures the democratic possibilities in indigenous political arrangements, but blinds Western scholars from interrogating the meaning and operation of democracy in general.
As an anthropologist, I want to consider seriously what led John Payne to recognize "democracy" in the political organization of nineteenth-century Glebo towns. What characteristics of governmental structure and conceptions of the person and of individual rights led him to this evaluation? Are these features still salient today, after over one hundred years of violent confrontation with an expanding colonial state? Following Geschiere (1982, 1997), I focus on the differences and similarities between local and national understandings of legitimate political process and the legitimate use of force. I examine how these differences are mediated by both local and national elites, the so-called "civilized people" of both indigenous and settler background. Acknowledging that greater power, in the raw sense of the ability to enforce compliance, may rest with the national government, I look at local forms of resistance and expectations of how and when violence should be deployed.
Stephen Ellis has suggested (1999) that the particular shape and character of the Liberian civil war was a result of religious ideas about power, life, death, and blood. He follows a long scholarly tradition of emphasizing the occult, cosmological aspects of Liberian politics (Harley 1941, 1950; Bellman 1975, 1984). Clearly, Liberians hold a variety of religious beliefs, some of which are widely shared. I will argue that an explicitly political discourse is at work, one which is recognized as such by those who participate in it. I will argue that an ongoing contest over the nature of democracy and political legitimacy has characterized the Liberian experience for over a century, not just in the last few decades. Moreover, the "political" is not just a hegemony imposed from the center over the local community, but a product of the interaction between them. In the following chapters, I trace the struggle over the meaning and value of democracy and violence through five selected aspects of Liberian society.
Methodologically, the core of my research draws on fifteen months of fieldwork in southeastern Liberia in 1982-83, as well as on interviews, news reports, Internet sources, and ongoing conversations with Liberians over the past twenty years. My initial fieldwork was during the period between the military coup led by Samuel Doe in 1980 and the beginning of the civil war in 1989. When I arrived in Liberia, the country was under military rule, the constitution of 1847 was suspended, and a commission was drafting and debating a new constitution for the second republic. It was an historical moment in which the country seemed poised to make some kind of transition. The seventies had been characterized by considerable political openness as the ruling one-party state responded to increasing demands for greater participation in government by intellectuals, rural people, and those of indigenous background. The young military men who took power violently in 1980 represented themselves as acting in the interests of the disenfranchised: the rural and urban poor, the "tribal" people who had been excluded from real power for the previous 130 years. Promising to hold elections and return the country to civilian rule in five years, the military temporarily allied themselves with the activists and university-based intellectuals who had been agitating for change. People seemed cautiously optimistic.
From my field site in the extreme southeastern part of Liberia, I observed the reaction of local Glebo people to what was going on in the capital, Monrovia. In the course of carrying out a "classic" ethnographic study for my dissertation, I lived with a Glebo family, struggled with the language, and attended a wide range of public and private events and ceremonies. I conducted a house-to-house census of six communities containing a total of about 3,000 people on the outskirts of Harper, the regional capital. My dissertation and subsequent book centered on understanding women's lives and status aspirations in a period of economic decline that offered few options for educated or "civilized" people (Moran 1990). At the same time, I was intrigued by what was going on in the country at large, and recorded many conversations with local people about national events as we listened to the radio (both the government station and the BBC, VOA, and Radio Moscow) or passed around my subscription to one of the independent Monrovia dailies (which arrived in large batches every few weeks, invariably several months out of date). I amassed a large clipping file on various topics from these papers and others purchased on my infrequent trips to Monrovia. The local celebrations of national holidays like Independence Day, Flag Day, the birthday of former president W. V. S. Tubman, and "Redemption Day" (the anniversary of the 1980 military coup) were all carefully described in my fieldnotes. I hoped to return in a few years for a new project focused on the relationship between the community and the state.
Shortly after I left Liberia, in December 1983, Head of State Samuel K. Doe moved to convert himself from a military leader to a civilian candidate. The election of 1985 was widely acknowledged to have been stolen by Doe and his party, although it was certified as "free and fair" by the Reagan State Department. Various attempts were made to unseat Doe, resulting in armed incursions against the home regions of his rivals. For his own protection, the soldier-turned-president surrounded himself with members of his own small ethnolinguistic group, the Krahn, and embarked on a deliberate policy of creating and manipulating ethnic antagonisms. In late 1989, one rival, Charles Taylor, entered the country with a small group of Libyan mercenaries and succeeded in coordinating local resistance into full-scale civil war. By the summer of 1990, his forces and those of breakaway factions were closing in on Monrovia.
I had planned to return for new fieldwork during a leave in 1988-89, but was convinced by well-meaning advisors to prepare my tenure dossier instead. Unfortunately, that year was probably the last moment that I could have done ethnographic fieldwork in Liberia. When the war started, it was very difficult to get any reliable news about what was happening in the country. American journalists were preoccupied with the situation which would soon become the first Gulf War, and the few international news sources were difficult to access. I employed work-study students whose job consisted of photocopying everything they could find on Liberia in the news magazine West Africa and the International Herald Tribune, information that was "only" one or two weeks old by the time I got it. Late in the summer of 1990, as Monrovia was cut off from water, power, and food by the surrounding rebel factions, a telephone tree was set up with one of the few remaining Americans in Monrovia, an anthropologist. A group of us here in the States had a system whereby someone would call her every few hours to get news on the situation, her safety, and the safety of others who were staying with her. Then, the caller would call two other people and pass the word along. It was cumbersome and expensive, but it worked. Finally, all phone communication was cut off and the anthropologist was evacuated by the U.S. Marines.
For the next few years, it was almost impossible to get any news at all. My Glebo foster family was in a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast and managed to get a letter out once in a while, but did not seem to be receiving mine. The war dragged on. Occasionally there was something on NPR or CNN, or in the New York Times, generally on the theme of how "ancient tribal hatreds" were sending Africa back to the "Heart of Darkness." A multinational West African force controlled the capital city, up to seven warring factions had carved up the countryside, and unless you could get access to non-American news sources, it was very hard to hear anything at all. I tried to remain in contact with friends at the UN and the African American Institute, and began a new project, interviewing Liberian expatriates in the United States, including former student leaders, labor activists, and government officials, about their experiences during the 1970s and '80s. I was hoping to combine their views with my understanding of how local populations reacted to national events.
Then, about 1995, everything changed. I refer, of course, to the rise of the Internet, which has significantly altered the prospects for anthropologists who work on countries in conflict. In this case, a dedicated group of volunteers known as Friends of Liberia started an e-mail news service. Composed mostly of former Peace Corps volunteers with experience in Liberia, FOL had acted as an advocate for the country throughout the war, lobbying Congress to cut funding to the Doe regime, working to regularize the immigration status of Liberians in the United States, and raising funds for refugee relief. The e-mail news was a free service that brought together anything in the international media that mentioned Liberia. All at once, sometimes several times a day, I was getting the latest reports on peace negotiations, refugee issues, and Liberians abroad. Coverage included the AP and Reuters, the BBC and other European news outlets, PANA (the Pan-African News Association), and even the Chinese news service. There were also links to the web sites being created by Liberian communities in the United States and other countries. At the time, I had been considering giving up on Liberia and beginning research in another African country, as many colleagues were doing. All at once, it seemed possible to stay connected, to remain current enough to consider going back in the future, even to use the information I was getting to write critically, as an anthropologist, about events in Liberia. I began to think of it as "virtual fieldwork."
At roughly the same time, my foster family reestablished contact. My foster brothers, who had been in college and high school when the war began, traveled to Monrovia in 1996 to see if they could pick up their disrupted educations. Telephone trees became important once again; I would be awakened at four or five in the morning by a call from a Liberian expatriate in New Jersey or Pennsylvania. "I just spoke with your family in Monrovia," they would begin, "take down this number, they are waiting by a phone right now for you to call." When I would get through, the first part of the conversation was always, "When we finish, please call this number and tell them their family members are here, it's their turn next." The few working private telephones in Monrovia were being used to maintain complex transnational networks, into which I had suddenly become incorporated. When Monrovia was threatened by armed insurgents again in June 2003, such telephone trees were once again called into service. Ironically, technological change had a less positive effect in this instance, as cell phone service was far more unreliable than the old land lines.
Unfortunately, in April 1996 the peace agreement on which my brothers had pinned their hopes fell apart. The armed factions, which had been allowed to bring their troops into a ring around the city, began fighting among themselves, looting and destroying Monrovia in the process. The international peacekeeping forces from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) stood aside or joined in the looting. As battles raged all over the city, my brothers somehow found themselves trapped in an apartment with a phone that could make international collect calls. They did not have a working radio, so they had no idea what was happening except for the sounds of shooting and shelling going on all around them. Over the next few days, we had some very bizarre conversations.
"We're close to the port," they said, "maybe we could get to a boat and get out of here." "No!" I screamed into the phone, having just read about "ghost ships" of Liberian refugees on my e-mail news. "None of the other West African countries are accepting more Liberian refugees. There are overloaded boats floating along the coast that are not being allowed to land; the people have no food or water and there is cholera breaking out! Don't get on a boat!"
"But we have no food here. We have to try and get out and find some, but we don't know which way to go."
"Well, I've seen on the news that most of the soldiers are concentrating on looting the NGO offices around the UN compound, so don't go over there. Try to go toward the Waterside Market."
The Internet was providing me with information not just for my personal or scholarly use, but with a life-or-death importance to the people I was in contact with. Ironically, I sometimes knew more about what was going on in any given section of Monrovia than people who were physically there. It was a moment that brought home forcefully the eroding distinction between being "in" and "out" of the field for anthropologists in the digital age. This situation replayed itself during the summer of 2003, when I became the point of contact for my three foster brothers, located in three different cities along the coast. All were able to reach me by phone, but they could not communicate with each other from within the country. For each of them, I was the source of information that the others were still alive.
As the crisis of 1996 resolved itself in still another peace agreement and the country moved toward elections in 1997, new players entered the Internet news scene. The Hirondelle Foundation, a Swiss NGO committed to funding independent news media in countries struggling with democratic transitions, initiated STAR radio, an independent station staffed by Liberian journalists telling their own stories. Liberia has a long tradition of crusading, critical journalism in spite or because of its autocratic history. STAR radio's daily broadcasts, added to the international news services, were soon joined by articles from the many independent Monrovia newspapers which were being published as soon as they could get access to the city's one remaining printing press. The character of what came over my e-mail each day began to change as recognizably Liberian voices and concerns took over the bulk of the transcripts. From being dominated by the reporting and analysis of foreigners, the news now began to sound like "being there." I could use my expensive telephone time actually to discuss the news with my foster family, who were astonished by how much I seemed to know. The "fieldwork" was beginning to feel more real than virtual. Only in the last few years have my foster brothers gained access to e-mail accounts of their own; once again, a new means of communication has opened between us.
Having this access has kept me committed to doing research on Liberia, with Liberians, there, over the Internet, and in the United States. I no longer feel compelled to find another field site. Even though Charles Taylor shut down STAR radio in 1998 and continued to harass and close independent newspapers, the wonderful Liberian genius for subversion came through the writing that still made it onto the Friends of Liberia news. Within weeks of Taylor's departure during the summer of 2003, STAR Radio was back on the airwaves and the independent press was more vibrant than ever.
All these sources of information have contributed to this book. Although I did not personally witness the violence of the war and its aftermath, my experience of living the daily life of a Glebo community before the war contextualizes my analysis of what I read on the Internet. I look for ways in which local people interpret, resist, and accommodate national events and institutions and look back in my notes to the stories they told me of how they interacted with the national government in the past. Like them, I hope to resist the tendency to overvalorize events taking place in the capital city. This is not to understate the terrible devastation and disruption that have taken place in Liberia during the long years of civil conflict, but rather to suggest that people's responses to the tragedy may hold the key to a reconceptualization of the national state.
Here in the United States, I have struggled to analyze the interviews conducted with Liberians in the diaspora. Many of these were with scholars, activists, and important national figures who honestly saw themselves as acting on behalf of "the people" and were dealing with a profound sense of failure. Some were searching desperately for answers and solutions to the ongoing conflict and were willing to entertain whole new perspectives on the history of the national state. Others continued to locate the seeds of the present war in the mistakes of the past, citing the inherent racism of the American Colonization Society's project and the deliberate concentration of power in the presidency afforded by the 1847 constitution. A significant body of work published by Liberian politicians and intellectuals lays out their analysis of past failures and visions for the future (among them Wonkeryor et al. 2000; Liberty 2002; Sawyer 1992). In early 2003, I participated in a small conference of Liberian intellectuals and former government officials as they struggled to rethink completely their assumptions about citizenship, constitutionalism, and "traditional political institutions." After years of reading stinging critiques of "Africanist" discourse and the colonialist construction of indigenous otherness by anthropologists from scholars like Mudimbe (1988, 1994) and Mamdani (1996), it was something of a shock to be asked, by a roomful of prominent Liberians, if I could please provide them with an account of rural political institutions of their country, in the hopes that these might serve as an alternative to the American-derived structures which had failed so spectacularly. This process, which is still ongoing, will be addressed in Chapter 7. The overall goal of this work is to elucidate the tension between these two levels of experience, the national and the local, without reducing one to the other.
Tragically, what happened in Liberia during the nineties and first decade of the twenty-first century was not unique. Although the years between the Gulf War and the events following September 11, 2001, are generally regarded as a period of "peace and prosperity" in the United States, many other parts of the world experienced terrible instability and violence. In the rest of this chapter, I will review some of the recent literature on violence and war produced by anthropologists during the last decade. I seek to locate my work within this body of literature, because I see it as countering a dangerously simplistic model of conflict which has been called the "New Barbarism Hypothesis" (Richards 1996) This set of ideas, which predominates in foreign policy studies, political science, and much political journalism, seems to provide an explanation for the fundamental difference between the "rational" deployment of American military might and the "senseless" terrorism of others. Certainly, most Western audiences have gained their understanding of "African wars" and the relationship between democracy and violence within this paradigm. In subsequent chapters, I consider how indigenous Liberians construct and enact the expression of individual voice and autonomy and what they consider justifies the use of violence (Chapter 1). I then trace the interaction of these ideas with those emanating from the national center in five specific contexts: representations of the past (history, Chapter 2), struggles over prestige, identity, and lifestyle (modernity or "civilization," Chapter 3), the conferral of political legitimacy (elections, Chapter 4), discourses of local and national economic transformation (development, Chapter 5), and the tensions between elders and youth (generation, Chapter 6). I argue that contests in each of these areas make use of a range of conceptions of political legitimacy and the legitimate use of force. The national state, rather than simply dictating and enforcing its policies at the local level, has had to adapt to these local interpretations and demands, just as local populations have often been forced to adapt to the demands of the state.
According to Richards (1996: xiv-xvii), the central tenets of the New Barbarism thesis are best articulated in the work of journalist Robert Kaplan in his influential article, "The Coming Anarchy" (later expanded into a book by the same name), in Atlantic Monthly in 1994. The Atlantic Monthly piece was considered so important by policymakers that it was faxed by the U.S. State Department to every American embassy around the world and sparked a confidential meeting by top officials at the United Nations (Richards 1996: xiv; Ellis 1999: 19-20). The three basic ideas, of what Kaplan himself has called his "paradigm for the Post-Cold War era" (2000: xiii), are relatively familiar: one might say that Kaplan has only articulated "common sense" notions about Africa held by many Americans (see also Keim 1999).
First, cultural identity, either "ethnic" or "tribal," is presumed to be stable, enduring, and almost unchangeable. Cultural differences between human populations are seen as leading inevitably to conflict (Richards 1996: xiv). This idea has been extended by the political theorist Samuel Huntington in his famous 1993 article (and later book by the same name, 1996) "The Clash of Civilizations," in Foreign Affairs and has enjoyed wide acceptance in political science and policy studies. Anna Simons notes that the military analyst Ralph Peters, writing for a Defense and State Department audience in the journal Parameters, has taken up these ideas and reworked for them for policymakers. Peters believes that certain societies, which seem to be coterminous with national states, are "rooted in culture." Such countries are those which restrict the free flow of information, subjugate women, do not assign responsibility for individual and collective failure, have the clan or family as the basic unit of social organization, are dominated by a restrictive religion, and place a low value on education and low prestige on work (Peters 1998, cited in Simons 1999). These societies are in a constant state of struggle against the more "rational" polities of the West, but are doomed to failure by their inefficiency; they are simply culturally inferior to the West (Simons 1999: 93; see also Huntington 1996). One can easily recognize in this "laundry list" the features attributed to Iraq under Saddaam Hussain or Afghanistan under the Taliban. The enemies of freedom and democracy at the turn of the millennium are trapped in their outmoded and irrational cultures, just as the communist demons earlier in the century were trapped by their unworkable socialist ideology. Simons notes that these "grand theories" all use "catchall terms—anarchy, civilization, culture—to explain phenomena that have local roots" (1999: 92). The whole construction, therefore, divides the world neatly into two sides, or in Huntington's terms, "civilizations." One represents the rational modernity of the West, while the other consists of less evolved cultures still dominated by religion, kinship, and "tradition." The argument rests on the evolutionist assumption that the West has somehow progressed "beyond culture" as a cause of violence and conflict; if and when we go to war, it is to defend "democratic principles," to "make the world safe from terrorism," or to secure the strategic resources (like oil) which make this benevolent intervention possible. The democratic government of the United States conducts rational "policy debates," holds hearings, and considers opinion polls before making the reasoned judgment to go to war. In contrast, other regions of the world seem to be prone to "spontaneous" outbreaks of warfare which erupt from time to time, rather like a volcano.
The second tenet of the New Barbarism thesis is that the post-Cold War context of globalization has thrown the monopoly of the nation-state over the means of violence into question. Weapons are cheaply made and easily transported; they are small and light, and can be operated even by children. Sovereign states can no longer contain the ambitions of warlords, criminals, and just disaffected teenagers (Richards 1996: xiv). Since postcolonial states in the Third World and central Europe are no longer needed as buffers and proxies by two competing super powers, there is no one to step in and clean up the mess when such states "fail" or "implode."
Driving all the above, the third tenet holds that overpopulation in the poorer parts of the world leads to inevitable environmental degradation, which causes competition for resources, resulting in local conflict. With no "big brother" to intervene, these conflicts become national and regional rather than local. Since, as described in the first tenet, some "civilizations" or cultures are simply more "barbaric" than others and since these nations are multiethnic and different ethnic groups will naturally want to fight each other, such conflicts consist of assaults on civilians, bizarre masquerades, acts of unspeakable cruelty, and outright genocide, as in Bosnia and Rwanda.
Kaplan's argument, which appears to wrap up a range of variables into one satisfying explanation, has been systematically and effectively dismantled by a number of scholars (Richards 1996; Besteman 1996; Besteman and Gusterson 2005, and others) but continues to influence both popular understandings and policy responses to "foreign wars." One reason for its popularity is that it resonates with Western evolutionist assumptions that cultural difference can be understood as a function of time. In many years of teaching undergraduate anthropology, I have frequently noticed that my undergraduate students are surprised to discover that customs such as polygyny, belief in sorcery, or veneration of ancestors "still" exist in the contemporary period (see also Fabian 1983, 1991, for a discussion of the use of time in categorizing human societies). My students share with Kaplan and Huntington the idea that some unfortunate people have made it into the twenty-first century with social and political institutions more suited to an earlier era. When reading media accounts of "tribal" conflicts in Liberia or Rwanda (or Afghanistan or Iraq), most Westerners imagine a premodern, "traditional" form of violence grounded in "ancient tribal hatreds." Yet there is striking evidence that these supposedly primordial identities can be manufactured and mobilized with great speed. In Liberia, where group identity had historically been fluid, localized, and situational, politicized "tribalism" emerged only after 1980, when the young leader of the military coup, Samuel Doe, moved to surround himself with friends and kin from his home region in Tuzon, Grand Gedeh County, purportedly the home of the Krahn "tribe." Doe and his originally multiethnic group of young soldiers had articulated a vague justification for the coup by defining themselves as indigenous "redeemers" and liberators who had overthrown the alien Americo-Liberian minority. The great sin of the previous administration, described as selfish and insular, was its unwillingness really to share both the national wealth and the promise of democratic participation with all Liberians, regardless of ethnicity. By the mid-1980s, the increasing presence of coethnics in Doe's inner circle invited grumbling about the "Krahn people's government." After Doe declared himself the winner of obviously rigged elections in 1985, a coup attempt by a former military associate almost succeeded in overthrowing him. For the first time, Doe retaliated not only against his rival but against the rival's rural homeland. The army, now composed mostly of recruits from Grand Gedeh, was sent to this region, identified with the "Gio" and "Mano" people, and went on a rampage of killing, looting, and raping. At the same time, Doe purged the army and civil service of Gio speakers, and well-known Gio citizens in Monrovia began to "disappear."
Four years later, another aspirant to unseat Doe, Charles Taylor, brought a small force of Libyan-trained mercenaries into the country through this same area. Doe, predictably, sent the army back to the towns and villages they had so recently ravaged. The people there responded to Taylor's invitation to join his uprising, swelling his forces from two hundred to over twenty thousand in a few months. Since Taylor's troops were now mostly Gio and Mano and Doe's army had been made solidly Krahn, the conflict was represented in the American and European press as an ethnic war grounded in, as the New York Times reported, "ancient tribal hatreds." As is clear from the above account, the antiquity of those hatreds amounted to less than a decade.
The story of how the Liberian conflict became a "tribal war" was not unique in the 1990s, especially as events in Africa have been reported. Catherine Besteman has documented the same process at work in the reporting on Somalia, in which rival "clans" took the place of "tribes" in that conflict (1996: 121). "The crisis in Somalia has been caused by intense clan rivalries, a problem common in Africa, but here carried out with such violence, there is nothing left of civil society, only anarchy and the rule of the gun" (CNN 1992, quoted in Besteman 1996: 121-22). Besteman points out that, far from being a homogeneous, egalitarian, kinship-based society, Somalia was in fact deeply divided by class and race (defined as the difference between northern Somalis and those of southern "Bantu" or slave origins). Economic stratification and a growing gap between rural and urban populations led, ironically, to increasing identification with "clans," which had formerly been just one among many status positions that Somalis could assert. During the 1980s, as external "development" aid poured into Somalia and "the state became a primary source of wealth and resources, competition among the new urban elite who gained prominence . . . often played out along bloodlines. This urban-based elite struggle for personal enrichment through acquiring state resources is what came to be known as tribalism or clannism, although it bore little, if any resemblance to traditional lineage mediated interactions" (Besteman 1996: 126-27). Just as in Liberia, the cleavages of contemporary warfare are not relics of the past; rather, they are new constructions, employed for specific purposes in contexts that are the result of changes often initiated from abroad.
Likewise, the horrific genocide in Rwanda, represented as the outcome of "age-old" struggles between Tutsi and Hutu, has been analyzed differently by Christopher Taylor, who demonstrates how European colonial powers built upon existing status differences to produce rigid ethnic categories, beginning in the late 1880s. According to the so-called "Hamitic hypothesis" favored by Europeans to explain the status hierarchies they observed, the tall, "Caucasian-featured" Tutsi were the biblical lost sons of Ham and so were the natural rulers of the shorter, more "African" Hutu (Taylor 1999: 55-97). The fact that these supposedly separate groups speak the same language and have intermarried for generations made little difference in the colonial policies of the region. A variant of this hypothesis was later used by competing political factions as justification for the wave of massacres that began in April of 1994. The willingness of international bodies like the United Nations to believe that the killings were "tribal" and therefore somehow unavoidable led to the withdrawal of peacekeeping troops and the escalation of the violence.
All three of these examples from Africa demonstrate the fallacy on which the first tenet of the New Barbarism hypothesis is based: that archaic cultural identities are essentially stable, historically unchangeable, and the source of conflict in the present day. Why do we find it so satisfying to believe that other people are rooted in culture while we ourselves have somehow evolved beyond tribalism to rational politics? One answer is that this makes complex events easier to understand. "Tribal violence" functions as both a description and an explanation; once something has been designated as tribal, we no longer feel we need additional information. Besteman suggests another way in which this view responds to anxieties closer to home: "Viewing Somalis as caught in a destructive spiral of 'tradition' allows us to imagine them as very different kinds of human beings, to pity them, and feel safe" (1996: 130). We feel safe, she argues, because as long as we are so different from those "others," the horrors they experience could never happen to us. More significantly, displacing the source of conflict away from issues of race and class and onto tribes and clans "allows us to ignore the legitimacy of these categories and our growing inability to manage their 'dangerous' mix within our own societies, borders, and world" (Besteman 1996:130). In other words, as national borders become more permeable and "others" take to living as our neighbors, it becomes harder to ignore the inequalities and injustices of our own society. Understanding violent conflict as an outcome of primordial hatreds rather than as a product of the complex interaction of numerous factors and local histories is comforting under these circumstances.
Recently, the "othering" of supposedly traditional cultures has become even more pronounced as the United States settles into an extended "war on terrorism." In seeking to understand the motivation behind the suicide bombings of September 11th, the notion that the perpetrators were products of "cultures of terror" was given wide currency. During the brief military intervention in Afghanistan, anti-Taliban Afghans were represented as unreliable allies due to their "tribalism" and the fact that "Pashtuns have always hated Uzbeks." Even long-term alliances have come under recent scrutiny as fears of "Islamic culture" grow. In an editorial on August 9, 2002, entitled "Saudis pose a threat to U.S.," the syndicated columnist Cal Thomas describes a briefing commissioned by the Pentagon from the Rand Corporation. The report characterizes Saudi Arabia as "a regime that oppresses women, denies human rights and favors a privileged few at the top over the mostly poor and illiterate at the vast bottom." While this may in fact be an accurate portrayal of the Saudi state, the same conditions held ten years before, when the Saudis were American allies in the Gulf War against Iraq. What was tolerated then as merely a "different" form of government has taken on sinister connotations in the new "cultural war." The columnist concludes, "The United States is being invaded by the immigration of such people." The implication, of course, is that "such people," already dangerous by virtue of their ancient cultural commitments, are violating both spatial and temporal boundaries through immigration ("invasion"). As transnationalism becomes a way of life and economic globalization demands the constant shifting of labor and capital, the barriers separating "us" and "them" dissolve in both time and space.
To anthropologists, the idea that some people have "culture" while others have moved on to a superior rationality is absurd. Anthropologists understand "culture" to be our species' means of adapting to the physical world and creating systems of meaning through which experience can be interpreted; all human beings, by definition, are rooted in culture. As Clifford Geertz noted, cultureless humans (if such were possible) would not be "talented apes," but "unworkable monstrosities with very few useful instincts, fewer recognizable sentiments, and no intellect: mental basket cases. As our central nervous system . . . grew up in great part in interaction with culture, it is incapable of directing our behavior or organizing our experience without the guidance provided by systems of significant symbols" (1973a: 48).
Yet New Barbarism theorists suggest that we in the West have somehow transcended or evolved beyond this most human of capacities, leaving others to stagnate. Until those others are also able to leave behind their warlike, mystical, and irrational cultures, they will be unable to participate fully in the modern world of the West, forced to occupy a kind of half-life as unreliable allies if not outright threats.
The appropriation and misrepresentation of the anthropological concept of culture by policy analysts who use it in this static, reductionist way must be challenged. The examples from Liberia, Somalia, and Rwanda make clear that culture is a dynamic process of making meaning from ongoing events, not a fixed position on an evolutionary scale. After all, what is the New Barbarism thesis itself if not a cultural product of our own assumptions about the world and our place in it, one that conveniently disguises the role of major powers like the United States in violent conflicts elsewhere in the world?
I now turn to the second tenet of the hypothesis: the argument that Cold War policies in the post-World War II period served the purpose of keeping local conflicts "under control." All classic social science definitions of the state include the observation that under this form of political organization, the central government (rather than the kin group or the local community) reserves to itself the legitimate use of violence. In other words, if I kill someone for my own purposes, the act constitutes murder and is defined as a crime, but if I do so while in a police or army uniform pursuing my official duties, the same act may be defined as heroism. From the point of view of the victim, of course, there is no difference, but from the perspective of the state one killing is legitimate and the other is not. One of the defining features of the "failed" states of the 1990s—from Bosnia to Somalia to Liberia—was the state's loss of control over the means of violence and their usurpation by "nonstate actors," defined as militias, warlords, or terrorists.
It has been asserted that the Cold-War era superpower competition kept such tendencies in check during the post-World War II period (Kaplan 2000). Using the world as a giant chessboard, the United States and the Soviet Union distributed financial aid and military equipment to a carefully balanced assortment of client states, clearly identified as "ours" or "theirs." While admittedly some of the leaders of "our" clients were rather unsavory characters (Mobutu of Zaire comes to mind), at least they provided stability if not democracy and kept tribal and other factional tendencies in check. In this sense, the Cold War was seen as having brought benefits to countries in Africa and Eastern Europe, giving them a much needed break from their own "natural" cycles of internal tribal conflict. The emergence of wars in these regions after the demise of the Soviet Union, on the other hand, was viewed as an unfortunate side effect of the triumph of the United States as the sole remaining superpower and of capitalism as the uncontested, dominant form of economic organization on the planet. The fact that the former Soviet Union is no longer capable of supporting client states and the United States no longer needs them is the regrettable cause of the "descent into anarchy" experienced by these now expendable nations.
Such a formulation, like the assertion of cultural difference in the first tenet of the hypothesis, sounds reasonable, but it ignores several alternative understandings of the Cold War period and the question of who bears responsibility for the wars of the 1990s. In the first place, the model ignores the fact that both Cold War antagonists had active programs to destabilize each other's clients. Superpower competition generated rather than preventing warfare in Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia, among other countries. Development aid, often granted with no mechanisms for accountability, rewarded cooperative clients but exacerbated the kind of class stratification that Besteman noted was key to the outbreak of conflict in Somalia (1996: 126). Moreover, the tremendous influx of weapons, all manufactured in the developed world, saturated African countries with the means of violence while profits accrued to those at a safe distance. During the height of Cold War tensions in the first Reagan administration (1980-84), tiny Liberia, with a population of two and a half million people and an area the size of the state of Ohio, was the "beneficiary" of the second largest package of United States military aid in the world (after Israel). This was presumably to keep Liberia safe from the "communist threat," but these were the same weapons that Samuel Doe turned against his own civilian population in 1986. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, arms manufacturers in Ukraine and other newly independent republics, as well as in the United States, have depended on demand from the African market to maintain domestic employment in their aging industrial plants (Ellis 1999: 90, 180; Reno 1993: 181). The militarization of Africa was a deliberate Cold War strategy and continues to benefit its principal architects, long after the Cold War itself was declared over.
A second problem with the "Cold War peace" formulation is that the tendency to view warfare in the non-Western world as simple "anarchy" obscures the very "rational" economic incentives that fuel long-term conflicts. Charles Taylor quickly learned that he did not need the legitimacy of the Liberian state in order to profit from the country's natural resources. With control over roughly three-fourths of the country, including significant timber and diamond reserves, Taylor was able to build his personal wealth over the many years of the Liberian civil war, even though an international peacekeeping force occupied Monrovia and a series of helpless interim governments struggled to bring him to the negotiating table. The logic of global capitalism dictated that international firms were more than willing to buy the products Taylor had to offer, whether or not he had the "legitimate" right to sell them (for an extended analysis, see Reno 1993, 1998). In fact, the rationality of pricing made Taylor an even more attractive trading partner to countries like France and China, since as a "warlord" he was not bound by any cumbersome environmental or labor restrictions. A similar economic rationality supported the flow of "blood diamonds" from Sierra Leone and petroleum from Angola, while both countries were trapped in seemingly endless wars. Rather than mindless anarchy, the post-Cold War conflicts of Africa are the logical outgrowth of the triumph of capitalism and economic globalization, achievements celebrated by the same authors who decry the barbarism of their victims.
The final element of the New Barbarism hypothesis would appear to be the most "natural": that overpopulation and natural resource depletion are driving the world's poor into a desperate struggle for existence. Richards has dubbed this aspect of the model "Malthus-with-guns" (1996a: xiv). Kaplan dwells at length on a frightening metaphor of the developed world as a luxury limousine, with its few occupants temporarily insulated from the teeming hordes just beyond the tinted windows (1994: 62). Kaplan attributes this population explosion in Africa to "loose family structures" and polygyny, which he sees as "largely responsible for the world's highest birth rates and the explosion of the HIV virus on the continent" (1994: 46). The pressure of this burgeoning population on a fragile and already depleted environment, Kaplan argues, will ultimately overwhelm the continent and the comfortable lives of those in the developed world, as the violent, the diseased, and the dispossessed overflow out of Africa to engulf the planet.
I am not a demographer, and so will leave it to others to dissect Kaplan's Malthusian argument in detail. I will note, however, just a few fallacies in its logic. One is that in using Sierra Leone and Liberia as examples of the corrosive relationship between overpopulation and anarchic violence, Kaplan chose two countries that have among the lowest population densities in sub-Saharan Africa (this point has been made by Richards 1996a: xvi). Rather than driving up population, polygyny is generally considered by demographers to have, if anything, the effect of decreasing average fertility per woman. While multiple wives may increase the number of children claimed by an individual man, other men will have no wives at all and women in polygynous unions are likely to have fewer children than their monogamous counterparts. At its root, Kaplan's analysis seems to rest on the old racist trope of the oversexed African, unable to control his "natural" impulses.
With regard to the supposition that population pressure and resource depletion, especially deforestation, drive young people to violent behavior, it is once again unfortunate for Kaplan's thesis that he chose to base it on Liberia and Sierra Leone. New research by Fairhead and Leach on this region of West Africa has suggested that "the extent of forest loss in the twentieth century has been vastly exaggerated . . . calling into question the commonplace view of population growth and deforestation as linked one-way processes" (1998: xiv). While there may be environmental crises elsewhere in Africa, they are not coterminous with the wars that Kaplan attributes to them.
On all his major points, therefore, Kaplan is rehashing old, disqualified ideas and assuming that the events he witnessed during his brief visits were the outcome of ageold structures and processes. His observations have much in common with the travel writing of the Victorian era, in that he generalizes widely from single examples and assumes in advance that he is witnessing a "clash of civilizations." His "master stroke" and the secret of his ability to "touch a chord with Western policy makers," according to Ellis, was his suggestion that barbaric wars driven by overpopulation and environmental mismanagement "would soon be breaking out in other parts of the world too, and that West Africa was ahead of the trend" (1999: 19). Yet, as we have seen in the case of Liberia, neither environmental factors nor the end of the Cold War nor "ancient tribal hatreds" can fully explain why 200,000 people lost their lives and over the half the population was displaced during a fourteen-year period. Sadly, none of these explanations reassure us that "it could never happen here."
Faced with an integrated, seemingly logical construction like the New Barbarism thesis, what critical tools can anthropology provide to serve as an alternative? The United States is currently the only global superpower, capable of destroying entire nations and regions as well as enforcing peace agreements in those contexts where we choose to intervene. Such immense power confers responsibility not only on our political leaders but on all citizens. The ability to cut through the mythology of the "cultural other" is crucial to understanding and evaluating what we are told about the deployment (or decision not to deploy) American military power abroad. I believe that anthropological analyses can serve to bring to light naturalizing assumptions about violence and war.
Richards notes that the "New Barbarism pays scant regard to the insurgents' own claims concerning the purposes of their movement (that they took up arms to fight for multiparty democracy and against state corruption)" (1996a: xvi). Rather, Kaplan talked almost exclusively to elites in the African countries he visited, elites who have their own reasons for defining young fighters as out-of-control criminals. In contrast, anthropologists attempting to understand the violence and disruption bearing down on the people they work with and care about use ethnographic methods of long-term participant observation in specific local situations, often returning to the same place to build a deeper understanding of communities through time. In recent years, many anthropological studies have explored the impact of warfare and violence on local communities, both historical and contemporary. Michael Taussig (1987), building on Foucault (1979, 1983), documented the deliberate construction of "cultures of terror" and the ways that local populations respond by drawing on existing traditions and creative innovations. Kay Warren examined the revitalization of older religious practices among Mayan populations in Guatemala—including the idea of multiple "selves" capable of operating independently and taking on supernatural qualities—as a way of answering the question: "Whom can I trust in a world in which I may be betrayed by my neighbors?" (1993: 12). Likewise, Carolyn Nordstrom emphasized the resilience and creativity of Mozambicans in constructing alternatives to the terror and violence of a seemingly endless war (1997).
Although the "ethnic" character of the Guatemalan violence is commonly highlighted (indigenous Maya against Hispanicized ladino), Warren showed that local people recognized that the troops of the government's counterinsurgency force were also Mayan and in actuality, their own neighbors (1993: 26-27). Similarly, Valentine Daniel, in decoding Tamil/Sinhala (also often framed as Buddhist/Hindu) conflict in Sri Lanka, wrote that "many Sri Lankans have either forgotten or do not know that there was a time in Sri Lanka when where one lived mattered more than what language one spoke or what one's religion was" (1996: 16). Historicizing and denaturalizing ethnicity have been central to anthropologists' alternatives to the New Barbarism accounts.
Other ethnographers have refuted the notion that Third-World wars are anarchic and inscrutable forms of violence, as opposed to the technologically "clean" or "surgical" havoc wreaked by Western militaries. The effort to make conflicts understandable by placing them within a local cultural context is a key theme of this literature. For example, Christopher Taylor explained some of the peculiar mutilations and tortures employed in Rwanda in terms of broadly shared understandings of movement, impediment, fluidity, and blockage employed in folk medicine and ideas of how the health of land, cattle, and people is maintained (1999: 99-149). I felt compelled to respond to demeaning and frankly racist stories in supposedly serious magazines like Atlantic Monthly and Esquire that ridiculed Liberian fighters who dressed in women's wigs and dresses. The authors of these pieces could not resist referencing Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and they assumed that the bizarre attire of the fighters either was due to ignorance of Western clothing (and hence was evidence that the fighters were unsophisticated tribesmen) or was motivated by "juju" or other magical beliefs. I argued, rather, that far from displaying primitive ignorance, these fighters were asserting the gender ambiguity of the traditional warrior through intentional transvestism, in ways that I had observed numerous times in funeral dances before the war (Moran 1995).
The work of these and other anthropologists undermines the New Barbarism hypothesis by exposing the fallacies on which it rests. First, it underlines the incorrectness of any evolutionary assumption that "progress" is linear and unidirectional, with all human societies moving inexorably toward something resembling contemporary Western life. No society or people can evolve "beyond culture" to a universal rationality, because all human products (including the belief that one is rational) are cultural by definition. The combatants in African and Middle Eastern wars are behaving rationally according to their own understandings of the world. They may also have very real grievances against the West that our own cultural frameworks do not recognize or acknowledge. By positing archaic "culture" as the cause of violence in the developing world, this framework blinds us to the tensions and antagonisms of race, class, and inequality existing in our own communities—a far more dangerous situation than that presented by "invading" immigrants (Besteman 1996: 130). The New Barbarism thesis also imposes historical blinders, as when ethnic or tribal identities are projected into the primordial past rather than understood as products of colonial and postcolonial power struggles.
Finally, the New Barbarism framework falls back on a reductionism that attributes violence, in the final analysis, to "natural" causes, both those seen as endemic in humans and those, like population growth and resource competition, that have to do with human interactions with the environment. This view leads to the inescapable conclusion that nothing can be done; "those people" will continue to kill each other and we had best not get involved beyond erecting barriers that will prevent their conflicts from spilling into our territory. Anthropologists insist on returning local histories of conflict, and their relationship with global political and economic forces, back to the center of the analysis.
The events of September 11, 2001, may have reinforced the sense that many Americans have of themselves as the endpoint of a progressive evolutionary process, waiting as the rest of the world—jealous and resentful—tries to catch up. The New Barbarism hypothesis fits neatly into this understanding of self and other, but it is based on a systematic misunderstanding of both culture and history. A critically aware citizenry, able to see through the essentialism and reductionism of such notions, is our best hope that we will be able to find a peaceful future. The archeologist Philip Walker has argued that the message of the deep historical record is one of equality and universality; no people, in any time or place, have been immune from war and, conversely, none have held a monopoly on it (2001: 590).
There is also the danger, pointed out by Nordstrom and others, of making too much sense of violence: "A concern with the reasons of war comes dangerously close to a concern with making war reasonable" (Nordstrom 1995: 138). Likewise, our emphasis on the resilience, resistance, and creativity of populations under fire may result in the feeling, as voiced by one of my students after reading Nordstrom's book on Mozambique, that "They're doing all right, we don't have to worry about them." The overcelebration of local resistance or "the allure of agency," as Rosalind Shaw refers to it, can result in the misreading of every action on the part of subjugated people as deliberate and strategic (2002: 18-20; see also Abu-Lughod 1990). Although convinced that local actors and their responses have more impact on national events than has been recognized, I strive to avoid the romanticizing impulse inherent in "orientalizing" discourses of otherness (see Piot 1999: 20-21), while still insisting that we have much to learn about democracy and violence from rural Liberians.
I locate this study within this evolving literature. The Liberian war, like that in neighboring Sierra Leone, has been taken as emblematic of the "barbaric" nature of wars conducted by non-Western combatants using low-technology weapons. Contesting this characterization, of Africa and the rest of the non-Western world, is indeed one of the most important contributions that anthropologists can make. We must no longer allow whole peoples and cultures to be described as "naturally warlike" or barbaric. The chapters which follow seek to extend this project while also encouraging a critical reevaluation of how violence and political legitimacy are interrelated.