Carolyn Nordstrom’s A Different Kind of War Story is an incredible work of scholarship. She pulls no punches when it comes to portraying the frontline horrors of Mozambique’s armed conflict, but she is just as faithful to the forms of creative resistance formed by everyday people against the terror-warfare. Nordstrom tells us how Mozambicans peacefully fought a war against War… and won. She describes the process as people “combating the insidious hegemony of violence in their daily lives, repairing ruptures in cultural viability maimed by the atrocities of lethal conflict” (xviii). Despite the utter and total destruction of the war, Nordstrom shows that Mozambique at no point resembled Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all—far from it.
Nordstrom offers a concise summary of the book in its early pages:
Because the encounter with violence is a profoundly personal event, it is fundamentally linked to processes of self-identity and the politics of personhood—for ultimately, war victims have taught me, violence is about the destruction of culture and identity in a bid to control (or crush) political will. People at the epicenters of violence demonstrated to me that resistance emerges as the first sign oppression, and is most powerfully coded in re-creating culture and identity against the vicissitudes of violence and oppression. It is in creativity, in the fashioning of self and world, that people find their most potent weapon against war. (4)
She further adds, “My goal in this book is to explore the widely shared cultures of violence ad the profound creativity that defeats, not one side or the other, but violence altogether—while attending to the very personal experience of violence and peace-building in people’s lives” (11). By “cultures of violence” Nordstrom does not mean some kind of natural predisposition toward violent behavior. She sees violence as both culturally constructed and learned, meaning it can be (and was) culturally deconstructed and unlearned. “Violence becomes a cultural fact, a persistent enduring dynamic. This cultural force of violence maintains the reality of violence beyond its mere physical expression” (123). Violence, moreover, is undefinable and intensely personal; it is multilayered and entwined, not only ruthlessly enacted and silently structured, but also lived, perpetuated, remembered, reverberated. “The question is complex and the layers of violence to which people are subjected are stacked one on another in an experiential whole that can be understood only by investigating all the strata” (116).
Throughout the book, Nordstrom weaves together the intensely local and personal threads of the war with its international and global dimensions—the scale relationality is personified from the South African mercenary to the ox exploded by a landmine. She also shows the diverse casts of characters that populate Mozambique’s war-scape, even Renamo and Frelimo are complex subjects who singularity under their respective names borders on caricature.
The sections that Nordstrom writes about scholars studying violence—and the questions this raises in terms of ethics and responsibilities— resonated strongly with me. Some of the more “mundane” aspects of this also rang a bell. For instance, she wonders: Why aren’t people who study exchange rates or kinship asked why they study what they study? Is it the rush, excitement, the thrill? A morbid fascination? “No one who has studied war up close asks those questions” (19). I wonder what Nordstrom would respond to a question I always find intensely uncomfortable (I’ve never really understood why): “Isn’t your research really dangerous?” The question is searching, and behind it, I often detect many of the points she brings up.
More importantly, she states her views on how to write about violence: She carefully positions her stances in relation to “pornography of violence” arguments and questions about “the politics of speaking.” Her aim is to write against (or in distinction from) accounts that have “erased the actual fact of violence in the very accounting for it” and what results from such accounts is a taming of violence “into something we can manage. It is no longer violence per se, but it is safe” (17). Nordstrom also embraces the tension or “uncomfortable contradictions … about the abuse of privilege in speaking for another and simultaneously recognizing the need to speak against the injustices another is subjected to” (26).
Another point I really liked is her critique of scholarship that draws dichotomous distinctions between academic and “popular knowledge.” She repeatedly shows how Mozambicans theorize about knowledge with complex conceptions of their world, however much torn asunder. “To deny this the status of epistemology, to distinguish scholarly from popular knowledge… to deny that such people are our colleagues raises the hoary question of whether such acts are simple hierarchical recolonizations” (28).
As for how Mozambicans, made war (peacefully) against war and the insidious hegemony of violence, Nordstrom presents many examples. Besides full-on mass social movements—she mentions two, those associated with Parama and Mungoi—she also traces the social contours of grassroots conflict resolution via village ceremonies meant to heal and reintegrate victims and combatants. Most of the forceful examples of these peace efforts are strongly rooted in Mozambicans religious beliefs in which the curandeiros and curandeiras play important roles in healing (physical, psychological, emotional, social). She also shows how critiques of violence were articulated with its grotesqueness as a way of delegitimizing violence, its spectacle and its power (156-159).
If violence seeks to crush the possible, people, far from passive victims, re-create the possible as a tactic of survival and political agency. If the grotesque is used against people to repress them, then people identify these grotesque tactics to delegitimize the politics and actions of the perpetrators. In illuminating the harsh realities of terror-warfare, its victims are demonstrating that those who employ the grotesque are, by definition, not fit to govern. The use of the grotesque negates its own claim to power. (172)
This partly points out to me the blurry line in some contexts between survival and political agency. Often the former is dismissed of political force as “merely” survival, which to me rings incredibly hollow. Survival, and the necessary socialities it engenders, can be a quite radical practice of politics. The grotesque, as critique, only goes so far: layers of violence can be dissimulated and those in power, shameless.