Alan Krueger’s book tests the popular story that poverty is the root cause of terrorism. Macedonia: What Does It Take to Stop a War? focuses on a similarly popular “root cause” of war: ethnic tension and mistrust. This autobiographical graphic novel begins with a great dialogue between a Peace and Conflict Studies student at UC Berkeley, and a poli sci prof she meets in the cafeteria:

Poli Sci Prof: So what brought you to PACS instead of a real major?

PACS Student: Excuse me?

Poli Sci Prof: Peace studies is a ridiculous field… It’s all ideology and Gandhian propaganda… Everyone knows that war can’t be prevented. It’s human nature…

The conversation turns to international peace-keeping efforts.

Poli Sci Prof: Listen, look at every conflict we’ve had over the past decade and how the so-called international community has intervened. Please! Look at Bosnia. Look at Rwanda. If anything, trying to prevent wars only prolongs them.

PACS Student: In both cases, no one in the West really tried to stop the killing. They pretended to be taken by surprise and then it was too late.

Poli Sci Prof: Hmph!

PACS Student: You can’t prove a policy is doomed to fail by using examples of how it is not used… And isn’t it interesting that if you stop a war from occuring there is no way to prove it?… Maybe we’ve already prevented wars and don’t know. Remember a couple years ago, after the Kosovo conflict, when the papers said that Macedonia was the next to go?

Poli Sci Prof: Mm-hmm…

PACS Student: But then NATO went in and disarmed the Albanian fighters and the rebels were given amnesty. And I think a lot of their claims were addressed.

Poli Sci Prof: Well… that war was prevented. It was an exception.

PACS Student: I wonder why the story disappeared.

This conversation inspires the student to journey to Macedonia. When she gets there, she meets lots of Macedonians, ethnic Albanians, ex-pats, international aid workers, local politicians and policemen. She goes to the places people tell her not to go, and meets people she’s advised to avoid.

You could definitely say that the PACS student leads her witnesses. Here’s a typical example of how she breaks the ice with a new acquaintance: “[I]t seems that one of the reasons people took up arms in 2001 was that they didn’t have another way to solve their problems… And your office helps people navigate the legal system and makes it more accountable – a system people turn to for justice.” Nevertheless, plenty of the people she meets admit that various reforms haven’t been very effective, or just became an excuse for corruption.

The diverse set of interviews in Macedonia strongly confirm the view that ethnic Albanians were fighting because they felt that their group was being mistreated. Furthermore, while the book isn’t explicit about it, it’s also pretty clear that most of the Macedonians were fighting because they felt that their group was being mistreated, too. What Albanians saw as mistreatment, Macedonians saw as fair enforcement of national laws.

If there was any lingering doubt, Macedonia shows that (unlike “poverty”) group tension and mutual mistrust really are important causes of war. Unfortunately, the PACS student doesn’t really discover anything special about Macedonia that shows how conflicts elsewhere in the world can be avoided. Even she doesn’t leave the country thinking, “Now, we just have to export Macedonian institutions to Israel and Palestine.”

If anything, the most plausible explanation for why Macedonia avoided war was that the groups’ mutual hatred was relatively moderate to begin with. It was easier to keep violence from spiraling out of control because there wasn’t enough inter-group hate to fuel the conflict.

In short, the cynical poli sci prof who inspired the book could easily read it and harumph all over again. “So hate is the cause of conflict? Did you really need to fly to the Balkans to figure that out?” But if hate really is a major cause of conflict, it’s hard to see why the cynical prof was so quick to sneer at “Gandhian propaganda.” Yes, telling people to stop hating each other usually fails. But unlike a lot of solutions to the problem of war, at least Gandhian philosophy would often work if people listened.