This is from the brilliant new book Tribe – On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. I have heard a lot of stories about the problems of well meaning westerners going to poor countries to ‘do good’ but this is the most disturbing and damning of their attempts to force western behaviour onto others, and rewarding them for it:
Because modern society has almost completely eliminated trauma and violence from everyday life, anyone who does suffer those things is deemed to be extraordinarily unfortunate. This gives people access to sympathy and resources but also creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery. Anthropologist Danny Hoffman, who studied Mende tribal combatants both during and after civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, found that international relief organisations introduced the idea of victimhood to combatants who until then had rarely, if ever, thought of themselves in those terms. “The language of ‘I am a victim too’ did not originate from the combatants themselves,” Hoffman told me. “[Aid organisations] would come in and say, ‘This is how you’re supposed to be feeling… and if you do, then you’ll have access to food, supplies and training’“
The consequence, Hoffman told me,was that ex-combatants were incentivized to see themselves as victims rather than as perpetrators. Thee people committed terrible acts of violence during their wars, and many of them felt enormously guilty about it, but they were never able to work through those feelings because their victim status eclipsed more accurate and meaningful understandings of violence. Mende combatants often descried combat a something that makes the heart “heat up”, transforming a fighter to the point where he is thought to have literally become someone else. In that state he is capable of both great courage and great cruelty. Such a state of hyper-arousal is familiar to many soldiers or athletes and has a firm basis in the neurobiology of the brain. For the Mende, it means that the moral excesses of the battlefield don’t necessarily have to be brought home.
I was in both LIberia and Sierra Leone during those wars, and the combatants who had a “hot heart’ were unmistakable. They wore amulets and magical charms and acted as f they were possessed, deliberately running into gunfire and dancing while firing their weapons to prove how brave they were. Other people’s lives didn’t seem to matter to them because their own lives didn’t seem to matter to them.
They were true nihilists, and that made them the most terrifying human beings I’ve ever encountered. According to Hoffman, even highly traumatised ex-combatants such as these could have been reincorporated into Mende society if indigenous concepts like the “hot heart” had been applied. their classification as victims, however – with the attendant perks and benefits common to Western society – made their reintegration much harder.
The civil war in nearby Ivory Coast unfolded n much the same way, although relief organizations had less access to combatants afterward. “In tribal cultures, combat can be part of the maturation process,” I was told by Sharon Abramowitz, who was in Ivory Coast with the Peace Corps i 2002. “When youth return from combat, their return is seen as integral to their own society – they don’t feel like outsiders. In the United States we valorize our vets with words and posters and signs, but we don’t give them what’s really important to Americans, what really sets you apart as someone who is valuable in society – we don’t give them jobs. All the praise in the world doesn’t mean anything if you’re not recognised by society as someone who can contribute valuable labor.”