John V. Clune. The Abongo Abroad: Military-Sponsored Travel in Ghana, the United States, and the World, 1959-1992. The Cold War in Global Perspective Series. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2017. 288 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8265-2151-4.
Reviewed by Timothy Stapleton (University of Calgary)
Published on H-Diplo (September, 2017)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
The Abongo Abroad discusses the context and experience of Ghana Armed Forces personnel who engaged in international military travel during the Cold War era. While the focus is mostly on the United States’ International Military Education and Training Program (IMET), which brought just over 670 Ghanaians to America in this period, Ghana’s participation in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions in the Middle East is also included. John V. Clune’s main argument is that while American defense planners thought that travel to the United States would transform Ghanaian military personnel, whom civilian Ghanaians had once derisively called “abongo” (meaning that they were uneducated louts), into “modern men” who would supposedly return home and create American-like institutions (p. 2), the Ghanaians who participated in IMET as well as UN missions ultimately forged a new though somewhat restricted international identity. As the author explains, Ghana was selected as the case study for the book because the country’s participation in the American IMET program was remarkably consistent from around 1960 to the end of the Cold War despite the rise and fall of both conservative and revolutionary military regimes in Accra and Ghana’s lack of direct involvement in a Cold War era proxy conflict. As the book shows, the IMET program came to represent one of the main diplomatic points of contact between the governments of the United States and Ghana.
The Abongo Abroad is divided into four chapters. The first offers a detailed examination of the rise of modernization theory as a driving force behind American foreign policy toward the Global South during Africa’s decolonization period of the 1950s and early 1960s, and its subsequent decline during the Vietnam War era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, as Clune points out, some of the basic expectations of American modernization theory continued into the 1970s and 1980s within the IMET program, which assumed that social contact with what was seen as the essentially good American society would influence international military visitors for the better though the impact would be mostly psychological and immeasurable. The second chapter charts the development of military education in postcolonial and internationally nonaligned Ghana, which founded its own military academy and staff college with British and Canadian assistance, within the context of Ghanaians’ continued participation in military education in the United States. Indeed, while Ghanaian military personnel were learning about leadership, management, and professionalism in other countries, including the United States, Ghana itself became a Pan-Africanist educational destination for military officers from other African states who were seeking the same lessons. The international experience of specific Ghanaian military personnel and their families is the subject of chapter 3. Like other Ghanaians in the diaspora, military personnel used international travel as an economic opportunity, such as saving their additional pay to buy land and build a house at home, and to purchase commodities, such as refrigerators, televisions, and cars, that were not available in Ghana. From my experience as a historian of Africa, I see that this is also exactly what African university faculty on staff development programs in North America and Europe did and probably still do. Furthermore, Clune points out that international military travel could also serve as a temporary sanctuary from the political turmoil of postcolonial Ghana where military officers were sometimes imprisoned and even executed. The last chapter explores how the United States’ IMET program survived several rounds of criticism in Washington over lack of tangible benefits with sympathetic officials emphasizing its importance in terms of cultivating nonpolitical military professionalism among Ghanaian military officers (despite the continuation of coups) and as a key element in preserving United States’ diplomatic relations with Ghana. The relative lack of expense was also an important factor in the program’s survival. Interesting but unanswered questions are raised here about whether or not the American military educational and social experience, despite the rhetoric of an apolitical military, made Ghanaian and other international officers less or more willing to overthrow governments at home.
The primary strength of this book is how it places Ghana’s involvement in the IMET program very firmly within the changing context of American foreign policy. In this respect, the author impressively engages a voluminous scholarly literature and effectively employs a host of American and UN archival sources obtained through painstaking research. At the same time, the African side of the story is disappointingly thin. While Ghana’s numerous postcolonial military coups and the relevant academic literature on African military regimes are discussed, there is a striking lack of historical context for important African topics, such as Ghana’s decolonization and Ghana’s military. Indeed, the relatively new and growing historiography on Africa’s colonial militaries (which were transformed into the defense forces of the independent states, such as Ghana) and the social experience of African colonial soldiers is touched on very lightly. For example, the British tendency to focus colonial military recruitment on specific African ethnic groups with imagined martial traits is mentioned briefly but not much is said about the impact this might have had on the postcolonial Ghanaian military and its international engagement. Similarly, the empirical examples and evidentiary base related to Ghanaian service personnel is limited. Of the hundreds of Ghanaians who undertook military education in the United States, only three officers who wrote memoirs are discussed in much detail. Although the section in chapter 3 on the Ghanaian experience of UN service is extremely interesting and begs for wider treatment, it does not fit well within the larger discussion of US foreign policy and military education. In addition, it appears that not much relevant archival material was found in Ghana. I suspect that the reason for this relates to the general obsession with secrecy that exists in many contemporary African armed forces (it is rare to find documents on the postcolonial military in most African state archives) and which hinders research on Africa’s postcolonial military history. The Ghanaian voice in this book is mostly derived from a few semi-official histories and published memoirs, and a Ghanaian Armed Forces magazine that was meant for public distribution. The author would have been well served by explaining these methodological issues in the introduction. While oral history might have offered a way around this problem to some extent, the author seems to have conducted only six interviews with Ghanaian military personnel, which is surprising given the hundreds who studied in the United States and the many thousands who deployed with the UN in the not too distant past. Lastly, although the book deals with the Cold War era, it is a shame that the role of Ghanaian soldiers in the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) during the 1994 genocide is not mentioned as many Ghanaians, both soldiers and civilians, are rightly proud of this contribution given that the Ghanaian contingent (UNAMIR’s last armed and functional unit) refused to abandon Rwandans despite UN orders for them to do so. This omission is puzzling considering that the author acknowledges that one of the Ghanaian IMET participants whom he covers in some detail, Henry Kwami Anyidoho, served in Rwanda and wrote about his experience. In fact, Anyidoho was second-in-command of UNAMIR and the most senior African UN peacekeeper on the ground during the genocide.
The above criticisms aside, the book points to an important and challenging new direction for African military history. Over the past two decades or so, increased interest in African military history, particularly in looking at the life experience of ordinary African soldiers, has focused mostly on the colonial era, and it is clear that this trend has been largely informed by the accessibility of colonial archives. Although postcolonial African wars and military coups have attracted considerable attention from academic and popular historians, the same cannot be said of the military structures of independent African states from the second half of the twentieth century. To be sure, the availability of primary sources will continue to pose problems for those interested in this subject as it obviously did for this book. However, Clune has shown the potential for such research and his book serves as a model for placing an aspect of postcolonial African military history within a much wider context: in this case Cold War era American foreign policy. It also valuably demonstrates that postcolonial African military history does not have to always concentrate on warfighting or other gory subjects like child soldiers or massacres but that scholars can effectively explore the social history of postcolonial African military personnel and their families even with regard to countries that have not experienced armed conflict. Anyone interested in such themes as American foreign policy, the Cold War, military education, or African military history should read this important book.
. The author cites the seminal scholarly works of Myron Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Senegalais in French West Africa, 1857-1960 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1991); and Timothy H. Parsons, The African Rank-and-File: Social Implications of Colonial Military Service in the King’s African Rifles, 1902-1964 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999); as well as two shorter pieces by David Killingray: David Killingray, “Imagined Martial Communities: Recruiting for the Military and Police in Colonial Ghana, 1860-1960,” in Ethnicity in Ghana: The Limits of Invention, ed. Carola Lentz and Paul Nugent (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 119-136; and David Killingray, “Soldiers, Ex-servicemen and Politics in the Gold Coast, 1939-50,” Journal of Modern African Studies 21, no. 3 (1983): 523-534. However, many others are ignored, such as Anthony Clayton and David Killingray, Khaki and Blue: Military and Police in British Colonial Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989); Adrienne M. Israel, “Ex-servicemen at the Crossroad: Protest and Politics in Post-War Ghana,” Journal of Modern African Studies 30, no. 2 (1992): 359-368; David Killingray, Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War (Rochester, NY: James Currey, 2010); David Killingray, “Military and Labour Recruitment in the Gold Coast during the Second World War,” Journal of African History 23, no. 1 (1982): 83-95; David Killingray and D. Omissi, eds., Guardians of Empire: The Armed Forces of the Colonial Powers, c. 1700-1964 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000); Nancy Lawler, Soldiers of Misfortune: Ivoirien Tirailleurs of World War II (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992); Risto Marjomaa, “The Martial Spirit: Yao Soldiers in British Service in Nyasaland (Malawi) 1895-1939,” Journal of African History 44 (2003): 413-432; Michelle Moyd, Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2014); Myles Osborne, Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya: Loyalty and Martial Race among the Kamba, c. 1800 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Timothy H. Parsons, The 1964 Army Mutinies and the Making of Modern East Africa (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003); Timothy Stapleton, African Police and Soldiers in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1923-80 (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2011); Jacqueline Woodfork, “‘It Is a Crime to Be a Tirailleur in the Army’: The Impact of Senegalese Civilian Status in the French Colonial Army during the Second World War,” Journal of Military History 77, no. 1 (January 2013): 115-139; and Sarah Zimmerman, “Mesdames Tirailleurs and Indirect Clients: West African Women and the French Colonial Army, 1908-1918,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 44, no. 2 (2011): 299-322. The discussion of colonial historiography also comes up a little short as there is no mention of A. H. W. Haywood and F. A. S. Clarke, The History of the Royal West African Frontier Force (Aldershot: Gale and Polden, 1964).
. For example, see Michael Addae, A Short History of Ghana Armed Forces (Accra: Ministry of Defence, 2005); Henry Kwami Anyidoho, My Journey ... Every Step (Accra: Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2010); Emmanuel Erskine, A Mission with UNIFIL: An African Soldier’s Reflections (London: Hurst, 1989); Steve Oduro-Kwarteng, The Memoirs of a Retired Colonel (Accra: Self-published, 2009); and Ghana Armed Forces Magazine.
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Timothy Stapleton. Review of Clune, John V., The Abongo Abroad: Military-Sponsored Travel in Ghana, the United States, and the World, 1959-1992.
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