Frazier on Spall, 'Manhood, Morality and the Transformation of Angolan Society: MPLA Veterans and Post-war Dynamics'

John Spall
Javan D. Frazier

John Spall. Manhood, Morality and the Transformation of Angolan Society: MPLA Veterans and Post-war Dynamics. Suffolk: James Currey, 2020. Illustrations. xiv + 206 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84701-250-0; $24.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-78744-886-5.

Reviewed by Javan D. Frazier (Middle Georgia State College) Published on H-War (January, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

In this work, John Spall examines the ramifications of the Angolan Civil War (1975-2002) for veterans of the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) and the FAPLA (Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola). Some veterans of UNITA (Union for the Total Independence of Angola) are also included in the study but their numbers were small. Spall focused his research on a group of veterans in the city of Huambo in the central highlands of Angola. The veterans he interviewed, socialized with, played games with, attended church with, and lived alongside primarily worked in the city market as owners or employees in various stalls or as motorbike taxi drivers and money changers near the market. The author also used a 2013 survey of 760 veterans from the wider province of Huambo to determine what veterans’ lives were like after the war.

Spall examines how military experience influenced ideas of masculinity among veterans. He presents a convincing argument by peeling away layers of social and cultural influences to discover how these veterans were affected by their military experience. Spall discovered that due to the number of soldiers who entered military service, forced conscription, harsh civil war experiences, the targeting of civilians and other atrocities, the immediate aftermath of their time in service, major social upheaval, and disillusionment with the treatment of veterans, the impact of their military service on ideas of masculinity was limited. Most veterans also rejected the government-promoted ideas of the accumulation of wealth and consumption of goods. In addition, veterans tended to speak Umbundu instead of the Portuguese that the Angolan government promoted.

Spall argues that most of the veterans worked at building a moral economy for themselves, which included a set of ideas and values for accumulating wealth and living one’s life. Since many of these men were young when they entered military service, this experience should have, seemingly, dominated their adult formative process. Instead, veterans tended to cultivate and adhere to ideas on how to become successful or be an “honored elder” instilled in them at a young age. In addition, many veterans reinforced these ideas from their youth with religion through active service in Christian churches. They tended to strive to be an “honored elder” and not a “useless elder,” a designation and goal decidedly different from the official government promotion of wealth accumulation and consumption.

Spall notes the struggles many veterans had in preserving their ideas of a moral economy in post-civil war Angola. Men were to be the leading breadwinners and controllers of finances, yet the economic situation in the city provided opportunities for many women to earn money on their own. In addition, the civil war caused societal and economic changes that women had to adopt to first, which gave them an advantage over veterans who returned to a dramatically altered civilian life. In addition to economic changes, changes occurred in the religious, social, and cultural realms, which caused veterans to struggle to hold on to their ideas of a moral economy. Spall notes that some veterans embraced other approaches but most adhered to a strong sense of a moral economy.

Tracing specifically how one aspect of people’s lives, in this case military service, influenced all of their life is challenging. Spall has done a good job of focusing on military service to show how lives changed. Yet modernity challenged tradition, urbanity was in conflict with rural areas, religious denominations and teachings competed for influence and adherents, and regional tensions existed between coastal and highlands Angola, all of which could also have influenced ideas about masculinity. The author does acknowledge this fact and defends his approach well. Even so, while reading, I wondered how much influence these other ideas had.

Spall’s work places a human face on the Cold War. Focusing on how ideas of masculinity were challenged and modified by the Angolan Civil War illustrates the confluence of ideology and social change in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In addition, Spall’s research demonstrates the continual, at least for most veterans, struggle to not only succeed in life but also succeed via expectations regarding how a successful man in post-civil war Angola should live his life.

Citation: Javan D. Frazier. Review of Spall, John, Manhood, Morality and the Transformation of Angolan Society: MPLA Veterans and Post-war Dynamics. H-War, H-Net Reviews. January, 2022. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.