Liberia's cross-dressing soldiers.

A cheat sheet for the news.
Aug. 1 2003 12:56 PM

Scare Tactics

Why are Liberian soldiers wearing fright wigs?

Liberian fighter in wig
Bewigged fighter sends otherworldly message

Few things exemplify the chaos of Liberia more than the sight of doped-up, AK-47-wielding 15-year-olds roaming the streets decked out in fright wigs and tattered wedding gowns. Indeed, some of the more fully accessorized soldiers in Charles Taylor's militia even tote dainty purses and don feather boas. Why did this practice begin and what is the logic behind it?

The cross-dressing combatants blipped onto the Western press's radar screen right around the time the Liberian Civil War started on Christmas Eve in 1989. During Taylor's rebel siege on Monrovia in the '90s, his band of dolled-up marauders—aka the National Patriotic Front of Liberia—put on one of the most disturbing horror shows the planet has ever seen. Between 1989 and 1997, 150,000 Liberians were murdered, countless others were mutilated, and 25,000 women and girls were raped. The NPFL's shock-and-awe antics were apparent from the very start of the conflict. In an essay in Liberian Studies Journal, an administrator at Cuttington University College tells a story of Taylor's forces storming the rural campus during the initial stages of the war in "wedding [dresses], wigs, commencement gowns from high schools and several forms of 'voodoo' regalia. … [They] believed they could not be killed in battle."

According to the soldiers themselves, cross-dressing is a military mind game, a tactic that instills fear in their rivals. It also makes the soldiers feel more invincible. This belief is founded on a regional superstition which holds that soldiers can "confuse the enemy's bullets" by assuming two identities simultaneously. Though the accoutrements and garb look bizarre to Western eyes, they are, in a sense, variations on the camouflage uniforms and face paint American soldiers use to bolster their sense of invisibility (and, therefore, immunity) during combat. Since flak jackets or infrared goggles aren't available to the destitute Liberian fighters, they opt for evening gowns and frilly blouses.

The cross-dressing "dual identity" isn't just a source of battlefield bravado, though. Cross-dressing has deep historical roots in West African rites-of-passage rituals involving "medicine men" who would recommend wearing masks, talismans, and bush attire as a means of obtaining mystical powers. Rebels dressed in gowns and wigs and adorned with bones, leaves, and other "forest culture" trappings are practicing a modern variation on this technique of using symbolic "clothing" to access sources of power far stronger than their own. And in common Liberian initiation rituals—which exist in memory throughout the country, if not always in practice—a boy's passage to adulthood is symbolically represented by the donning of female garb. He must first pass through a dangerous indeterminate zone between male and female identity before finally becoming a man. A soldier dressed in women's clothes—or Halloween masks, or shower caps, etc.—on the battlefield is essentially asserting that he's in a volatile in-between state. The message it sends to other soldiers is, "Don't mess with me, I'm dangerous."

Liberia's adult warlords appropriated and updated these rites-of-passage rituals in order to form tight-knit proxy fighting forces. The strongmen persuaded impoverished youths to join their battalion by offering them the chance to be part of a secret society and attain supernatural powers. In a country where the young had few if any options, this was seen as an opportunity to "be somebody."

After Charles Taylor's Cuttington University attack, other offshoot Liberian militias vying to control the country embarked upon similar gender-bending rampages. One of the more notorious henchmen of the era was Joshua Milton Blahyi, a commander whose nom de guerre was "General Butt Naked." Hired for his ferocity by rebel leader and Taylor contemporary Roosevelt Johnson, his "Butt Naked Battalion" consisted of drug-fueled teens who went into battle in flowing dresses and colorful wigs. The general himself reportedly wore only laced-up boots and his weapon.

Not surprisingly, these troops became poster children for the war. Dressed in gowns and shower caps and "fortified by amphetamines, marijuana and palm wine [they] sashayed irresistibly for photographers," writes Bill Berkely in The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa. "Liberia's fifteen minutes of infamy seemed to spring full-blown out of the most sensational Western images of Darkest Africa."

Today, some 14 years after Taylor's troops first began their march toward Monrovia, Blahyi has put his clothes back on and supposedly found God. Prince Y. Johnson *, who tortured former Liberian president Samuel K. Doe to death in 1990 and recorded it on video, is talking about returning from exile in Nigeria with a promise to solve problems with "elections, not guns" once Taylor is gone. And Taylor himself is sitting in his Monrovian compound being shelled by new bands of rebels wearing bathrobes.

Correction, Aug. 4, 2003: This article originally misstated the name of the man who tortured and killed former Liberian President Samuel K. Doe. It was Prince Y. Johnson who tortured and killed Doe, not Roosevelt Johnson.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 2 2014 9:19 AM Alibaba’s Founder on Why His Company Is Killing It in China
  Life
Quora
Oct. 2 2014 8:27 AM How Do Teachers Kill the Joy of Reading for Students?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Culturebox
Oct. 2 2014 9:08 AM Demons Are Real A horror movie goes behind the scenes on an Intervention-like reality show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 2 2014 7:30 AM What Put the Man in the Moon in the Moon?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?