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  • Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa by Scott Straus
  • Alex Alvarez
Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa, Scott Straus (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), 400 pp., hardcover, $79.97, paperback $26.95.

Why do some wars escalate into genocidal violence while apparently similar conflicts do not? In recent years, scholars have focused attention on explaining the nature and etiology of genocides and have shown that most occur either during or soon after some form of organized group violence such as a war, revolution, or insurgency. By their very nature wars tend to create conditions conducive to the development of genocidal practices and policies. Yet the overwhelming majority of armed conflicts, violent and destructive as they might be, do not result in attempts to eradicate entire population groups. Simply put, most wars don't become genocidal, even when they seem capable of doing so. Why? What allows some conflicts to devolve into genocide, and what prevents others? Scott Straus seeks to answer these questions.

Straus identifies specific conditions that allow some armed conflicts to intensify into genocide, and, most notably, uncovers others that prevent such escalation. This sets the present work apart from much of the work on genocide, too often focused on the precursors of genocide or the common qualities, characteristics, and dynamics that distinguish it from other forms of mass atrocity. As Straus himself notes, he is simply reversing the usual order of the questions. Instead of examining what propels a nation into genocide, he instead asks what checks such impulses.

The first half of the book explores and theorizes the underlying logic of genocide in order to assess the factors serving either to escalate or to restrain decisions leading to it. Crucially, Straus pinpoints a connection between perceptions of threat and preexisting belief systems. Arguing that ideology is central, Straus focuses on "founding narratives": systems of beliefs and ideas that define "the identity of a primary national political community and the core values and goals of the nation and state" (p. 63). These narratives help shape political, national, and cultural identities, and often guide decision-making processes. According to Straus, during times of conflict when perceptions of [End Page 133] threat and crisis are heightened, states that have a founding narrative defining an exclusionary national community are more likely to resort to mass categorical violence against outsider and minority groups. Conversely, in those locations where founding narratives are more inclusionary and tolerant, or where counter-narratives also hold sway, such exterminatory violence is much less likely. This compelling argument allows for the essential irrationality of many decisions, often by political, military, and social elites. We are often baffled by the counterproductive or blatantly false assumptions that underlie many political and social calculations, choices, and policies, including those leading to genocide. Straus's argument, in line with a growing body of research, asserts that we are not as logical as we often believe. Affective non-rational emotions and beliefs, and factors such as racism, intolerance, historic myths, and prejudice, are critical elements affecting decisions all too often assumed to be "rational." Often, such ideas are deeply embedded into founding narratives that form the focus of Straus's discussion.

To his credit, the author avoids the common tendency to oversimplify extremely complicated and highly conditional processes. Predicting violence is never easy, as the extensive criminological literature on lethality assessment indicates; it becomes even more difficult when we try to analyze large-scale processes such as genocide. Straus approaches this topic as rigorously as possible, and explicitly acknowledges the contingent nature of genocide by incorporating the evolutionary and often provisional nature of the antecedent decision-making. By integrating local and national decision makers, international attempts to intervene or influence, and economic costs (for example), the author ably illustrates the currents, countercurrents, and tensions that make predicting genocidal violence so difficult. His is a sophisticated and well thought-out analysis.

In the second half of Making and Unmaking Nations Straus presents a qualitative comparative analysis of actual African conflicts: in Rwanda and Sudan genocide did occur, while in Cote D'Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal events did not lead to genocide...


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pp. 133-134
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