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War: How Conflict Shaped Us

by Margaret MacMillan

War has been, and continues to be, a key element of human history. There is archaeological evidence that we have always used violence both to make gains and defend ourselves. In her new book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, award-winning historian Margaret MacMillan argues that the history of any society at any time must include an understanding of the role conflict played in its development. In fact, “war’s effects have been so profound that to leave it out is to ignore one of the great forces … which have shaped human development and changed history.”

MacMillan argues that it doesn’t matter whether we support the use of force or fervently hope it is a tool of the past – we still need to study war because of how “deeply intertwined war and human society are.” If we do not include war in the study of history, we will not understand how something as critical as the census had its origin during wartime, when states needed accurate data on the number and health of their soldiers. The expectation that the state will represent and support its citizens has shaped how wars are fought; whether through taxes, moral support, or lives, citizens sacrifice for their state on the assumption that it will fight in their interest. When war is omitted from the study of a society’s development, as MacMillan says is increasingly the case in Western university curricula, we gain only a partial understanding of the factors that led to our current reality.

With this basic understanding in place, each chapter in War focuses on one topic, such as the justifications for war, the commemoration of war, and its impact on people (including soldiers, civilians, and artists). As her readers have come to expect, MacMillan seamlessly weaves small details into broad topics as she moves from early settled societies to the 20th century. This allows her to make her point on the centrality of war in society as she illustrates how specific aspects of military intervention have evolved and also how little the big picture has changed.

One of the most obvious changes in warfare is in weaponry. Each new weapon begets the creation of another new weapon to defend against it. The development of bigger ships led to the invention of landmines, which led to the development of airplanes, which radically changed the face of war. The status of soldiers has also changed dramatically, from professional armies or paid mercenaries to civilians defending their nation in times of crisis.

And yet, despite these changes, many aspects of war have remained fundamentally unchanged over millennia. MacMillan provides an incredible number of examples of conflict – from ancient Greece through the Second World War – and yet is able to isolate three common categories for war’s justification: greed, self-defence, and emotions and ideas. She demonstrates the consistently horrible impact of war on civilians, who have not always been deliberately targeted but who have always suffered from some form of deprivation. Particularly powerful is MacMillan’s portrait of war’s impact on women: whether as civilians or as soldiers themselves, women face violence on an unmatched scale and are consistently perceived as being worth less than men.

MacMillan is clear that her area of study in War is the West, with a particular focus on Europe. While it is understandable that she would need to limit herself, the book does feel like only one part of a much bigger story. She mentions that, unlike in the West, Chinese society in some periods did not “value such qualities as discipline, bravery and a willingness to die.” But why not? It is a tantalizing question, particularly when pondered through the lens of conflict as inextricable from a society’s development. In addition, as MacMillan acknowledges, major conflicts following the Second World War have rarely taken place in the West, although many are the direct result of either overt or hidden Western interference. As a result, MacMillan’s discussion of how war has evolved feels incomplete, stopping as it does after 1945.

If war has fundamentally shaped us, why we have moved away from its study? Perhaps the way war has been taught is another factor in this neglect. A field that consistently uses “the language of castration or emasculation” and relies heavily on an “othering” mentality will surely alienate certain groups. If “war raises fundamental questions about what it is to be human and about the essence of human society,” this issue must be confronted if we hope to reverse the tendency to see conflict as something that happens to others.

War makes it very clear that “we fight because we can.” And as the potential grows for war to be increasingly catastrophic, it behooves all people to study it. We need to understand how we have been and continue to be influenced by it – and what changes need to be made if we ever hope to reduce its prevalence in the future.


Reviewer: Megan Moore Burns

Publisher: Allen Lane Canada


Price: $35

Page Count: 336 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-0-73523-802-2

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: January 2021

Categories: History, Reviews