Bill Berkeley begins with an interesting idea social scientists have mined deeply: that politics--most frequently of the exploitative tyrannical stripe--and "ethnic competition" provide a far more compelling explanation of ethnic violence than threadbare notions of "primordial conflict"--"that's just the way those people have always been"--which constitute the conventional wisdom underlying most accounts of of ethnic strife in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Berkeley expressly criticizes popular writers like Robert Kaplan for keeping the conventional--and easily controvertible--wisdom in circulation. In doing so, and in writing to correct the record, Berkeley deserves a pat on the back.
After these introductory passages, the book heads for mostly well worked territory in accounts of African ethnic conflicts Berkeley has, at some point, covered as a reporter (for Atlantic Monthly and other publications). He does this through the lens of six "types"--"the rebel," "the collaborator," "the assistant secretary"--each with its own chapter, some of which work better than others (such as the ones on Chester Crocker, Assistant Secretary of State for African for the entire Reagan Administration and errant practioner of Kissingerian realpolitik, and Gatsho Buthelezi, the Zulu leader who collaborated with South Africa's White Apartheid regime against the Mandela's African National Congress). In other chapters, however, Berkeley is hard-pressed to maintain this focus, especially since he seems determined to cut or stretch his material to give roughly equal attention to each conflict. Still, Berkeley provides reliable, informed overviews, filled out by personal anecdotes, interview material, and occasional gleanings from other scholarly or popular writers.
Some things irritate: I found his use of "tribe" and "tribalism" to be inconsistent, at times diffuse, first criticizing these terms as Western categories imposed on subservient peoples, and later using them conventionally (and, I would add, insensitively), without any suggestion that such usage may be in any way objectionable (at a time when "tribe" has been widely abandoned among Africanists in favor of, say, "people" or "ethnic group"). From time to time the text repeats itself, and Berkeley often returns to home themes artlessly (a problem of structure: if each of your chapters has the same basic point, you'll tend to repeat your punchlines unless you factor them into a common front end or conclusion). And Berkeley is at times too much the "new journalist," gratingly front and center of his own narrative, wearing his progressive credentials and editorial opinions (he's now an editorial writer at the NY Times) on his sleeve, hatband, shoulderbag, and anywhere else he can hang them.
This is nevertheless a book that, apart from its other merits, gets its big concerns right, and for that reason alone I would recommend it as a corrective to a lot of the nonsense on ethnic strife now in circulation.