What happens to soldiers after they leave the military? From the Middle East to Africa, increasing numbers of demobilised soldiers have found work in private military and security companies or as security consultants, military trainers, and risk management professionals. While often in the news, sustained ethnographic research with this group is limited, and they are rarely acknowledged as individuals with complex desires, fears and anxieties.
What follows is an interview with Jethro Norman about his novel multi-sited research following, interviewing, and living with security professionals across Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan. His upcoming book project, tentatively titled Military Afterlives: private security contractors in Africa, dislodges assumptions about private security contractors as either destabilizing mercenaries or the unwitting proxies of states. Instead, Jethro radically reconceives private security work as a struggle for community and solidarity amidst the trauma of demobilisation and the precarity of the labour market.
The conversation highlights the heady mix of privilege and precarity that defines contemporary private security work. Whilst money is an indisputable motivation for many, Jethro’s research shows that there is far more to this line of work. Among other things, we discuss the allure of life in (post)conflict zones and the complex desires and fears of former soldiers, including escapism and colonial nostalgia. Jethro also shares his personal experiences of conducting research in post-conflict areas, his ‘uncomfortable positionality’ and some of the quandaries involved in anthropological research with groups often considered undesirable or repugnant.
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