War: How Conflict Shaped Us, by Margaret MacMillan

Charlotte Cowell

Margaret MacMillan's latest book makes us ponder deeply war and its impact.
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The primary lesson of War is that it has shaped human history since the mark of Cain condemned us to endless cycles of conflict and the gods urged champions onto victory from the vantage point of Mount Olympus.  The tangled roots of warfare are so densely packed it’s difficult to avoid looking skyward, for if war is “not the fault of the gods, who started it?”

Margaret MacMillan is renowned for posing such questions but – whilst the quest for answers is profound – the subject can’t help but raise a series of imponderables, not least of all about human nature: Does mankind have greater kinship with warlike chimpanzees or loving bonobos, both close cousins on the evolutionary scale?

A strong case is made for belligerent chimps, but as the pages of War unfold it becomes tragically clear that organised societies invariably wage more systematic warfare. As individuals attempt to make sense of the horrors of war and to preserve the memories of their people, technocratic nations seek to overpower mankind with robots – fully autonomous weapons – and humanity is pushed back to the dark ages.

In a chapter on the Reasons for War, greed, self-defence, emotions and ideas are shown to have been paramount over millennia of conflict, whilst “honour and glory can matter more than life itself”. The ubiquitous assertion is acknowledged with a pithy observation that religion is “a most convenient excuse”. More convenient than the “singularly stupid mistake of going to Sarajevo” committed by the Austrian heir, on the Serbian National Day of June 28th 1914.

It is difficult, at such times, to escape the notion that it’s easier to blame the gods than to blame ourselves for such disasters.

Whilst conflicts between states have arguably decreased since 1945, civil wars fought with the fervour of Crusades have proliferated, resulting in deaths unknown. Remembrance of the incalculable human cost brings deepening pathos to MacMillan’s study, as higher powers become increasingly efficient and ruthless in their offerings of ever-greater human sacrifice. Her chapter on Modern Warfare is chilling in its technical specifications and ingenious methodologies, whilst state propaganda is recalled as that most cynical of weapons, deployed against friend and foe with impunity.

All this is set in poignant contrast with the personal bravery required of a warrior, who in the eyes of Pericles “best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and what is terrible”.

Civilians left at home are not forgotten, so often paying the heaviest penalties of defeat, even as they share the spoils of victory. The same defeats and victories are immortalised by monumental works of art and literature, which transport us back to the realm of gods and heroes. The tragedy is still real, but as war gives way to terrorism – and monuments to reportage – I can’t help thinking the glory days are long gone. Could war really be over if we want it to be?

Margaret MacMillan’s ability to make us ponder these questions deeply makes her book as moving as it is informative. Densely-packed with enthralling fragments gleaned from vast swathes of history – spanning the globe from her native Canada and the Commonwealth to China and Carthage – there is as much here to learn for the interested layman as there is for the politician.

Charlotte Cowell is a historian and author of The Solar Way, is an English translation of one of the only surviving works of White Russian Sister, Nina Roudnikova.

Aspects of History Issue 11 is out now.