Rebels in a Rotten State: Understanding Atrocity in the Sierra Leone Civil War

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Rebels in a Rotten State: Understanding Atrocity in the Sierra Leone Civil War
By Kieran Mitton
Oxford University Press, 2015
256 pp.

Contemporary theories about the origins of civil war often emphasize the rationality of rebel leaders, who organize violence in order to achieve certain political and economic aims. At first glance, the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s seems to fit this pattern. Guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) used the fighting to gain access to power and diamonds. But as Mitton persuasively argues, such theories fail to explain the acts of wanton and dehumanizing violence that rebels perpetrated, including the often coerced savagery of child soldiers. He advances psychological explanations, showing how feelings of shame and disgust motivated individual acts of violence. Mitton’s key insight is that by the middle of the civil war, the RUF was led by men who had been themselves brutalized and terrorized and were thus driven less by the organization’s initial strategies than by their various mental illnesses. Mitton has produced a useful addition to the burgeoning literature on civil wars, enriched by his detailed knowledge of the war in Sierra Leone and his numerous interviews with men who committed atrocities.

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