War; How Conflict Shaped Us

Date Reviewed
November 6th 2021


Margaret MacMillan's “War; How Conflict Shaped Us” is an extraordinarily information dense 270 pages.

That wars are good for us is a more likely conclusion for this book than the hackneyed 'war is hell'. While the Canadian historian doesn't say it is more one than the other, she gives space to both, but seems to favour that it has ultimately been more beneficial, at least the way it has played out so far with the technology available.

Maybe not surprisingly women's role as warriors, workers, cheerleaders and victims gets more ink than one would have imagined with a male author.

The benefits of wars revolve around political, economic and social renewal and the spinoffs for peaceful civilian life than emanate from war oriented innovation.

The next to last chapter, 'War in our Imaginations and Memories' dealing with art and how it has been used to motivate patriotism, direct the thoughts of the populace and record the results of the war and is unexpected and revealing.

The 'Ways and Means' chapter has compelling detail on the evolution of strategy, weapons and values over millennia and across Eurasia. It has scrumptious details on such things as Archimedes 1800- pound-boulder-catapult, the obsolescence of the chariot and why, the Welsh longbow, the expensive in-demand Swiss mercenaries and the Kalashnikov rifle. As one first world war general commented “three men and a machine gun can stop a battalion of heroes.” Its 50 pages alone can make you feel educated on the subject.

While I am singularly impressed with the material and ideas brought forth, the book is divided into 30ish-page chapters without any subheads to break it up or give the reader a convenient place to stop reading, outside of chapter end. It is heavy reading and I consumed it at a slower than normal speed, even than other non-fiction.

The author has worldwide renown, although she is based in Europe, mainly England, and Canada, she does a commendable job making the book broadly international. Europe's, and classical Europe's trials, form the central examples. But information on the Asian perspective and history is thoughtful and revealing.

Her own political bias little intrudes on her presentation, nor is citing villainy and virtue.

There are a couple of significant sections of photographs and art, which add to the interest of the book.

She also deals with the political divide of war as evil and war as glorious, patriotic and necessary.

Some may be disconcerted that MacMillan uses labels like “left” and ”right”. Some of her views likely run contrary to the “woke” values in vogue recently.

A prescient concluding comment....Few of the 150 to 300 “wars” since 1945 have been between states. However, there is growing fuel for conflict from climate change, scarce resources, large scale movement of people, polarization between and within societies, intolerant nationalist populism and messianic and charismatic leaders willing to exploit these.



War, she says repeatedly changed histories by opening some pathways and closing others. In the case of western civilization, the 20th century wars led to increasing democracy, education and unemployment insurance as governments were forced to listen to their conscripts.

Governments, states and borders have risen and fallen through war and people have moved.

She says that wars have been the most organized of human activities and has stimulated further organization. As such, it has led to stronger governments with increase in law and order and government sponsored social benefits, education, health and medical.

“Violence becomes war when it is carried out in the name of a political unit against another political unit” is a concise and useful definition. By this definition, the absence of political units until 10,000 years ago makes 'war' relatively new in human behaviour.

Settled agriculture led to people having more worth defending or stealing. Although small local wars seem to be popping up everywhere in countries less economically developed, the trend suggests fewer but more deadly wars.

However, our propensity toward violence has been tamed and channeled as we “domesticated ourselves” along with animals, says MacMillan.

Wars of the 20th century prompted a search for tamer societies and becoming gentler ourselves.

Historically war has led to larger societies/countries leading to more peace. The state had increasing control over use of force and violence. States have used war against “enemies” as a way to legitimize and enhance their governmental authority. But ultimately government success depends on supplying “reasonably effective government”.

She briefly cites the Chinese change of dynasty as regimes' decay and in a similar literary breath briefly suggests that the U.S. dominance may be waning. She also points out that Europe has had fewer periods of unity than China and even that in recent centuries.

The “need to make war” and state development seem to go hand in hand, she says. In past centuries, spoils of war was a greater incentive and reward than it has become in recent decades, where spending to conduct a war is most notable. Wars now rely more on taxes to make them viable. Maintaining public support, even for autocratic states, has increased in importance, she adds. And sometimes that necessitated improving social and economic conditions for a broader segment of the population to the extent of narrowing wealth gaps in society.

War concentrates attention and emergencies prompt social actions that may be delayed or postponed in peace time.

She points out that while the trigger for a war often seems absurd or inconsequential it is often the culmination of greater quarrels and tensions. As an example the assassination of the Archduke of Ferdinand and his wife started the first world war, although they weren't popular or much important and were buried in “a mean and hasty funeral”.

MacMillan describes the second world war starting in Beijing, China when ostensibly a Japanese soldier was killed. There were hints that there was no soldier and a Chinese beggar was dressed up for the part. In any event, it was the pretence to the invasion of China, even though Manchuria and Korea had already been absorbed by the expanding Japanese empire.

Down through the centuries precipitates of war have included abductions, romances, religion, dynastic struggles, imperialism and fabrication, but also greed, self defence and emotions and ideas. Although it is the men who usually go to war, women have often been the excuse. And wars have been started through “trifles” where someone took exaggerated insult.

She points out that wars of ideology, whether religious or political are often the cruelest where ethereal or abstract goals may be paramount. Civil wars fit in here and have been increasing in recent years.

Limited vision, where the military had focus, but the government no plans for the outcome is more common, she says, than generally imagined. Those decision makers seem to think things “will work out”.

War has taken an inconvenient turn for those well prepared for war, when the strong force meets a weaker force in their own country with unconventional tactics. Notable are most of the recent wars the U.S. has been involved in. Much is made about underhanded dishonourable tactics. These wars have featured unfocussed political goals.

Where “honour” used to be a rallying cause. It may now be referred to as “prestige” or “credibility”, but more carefully determined to be “greed” or some other less appealing banner.

In past centuries, chivalry and knights brought an element of glamour and nobility to war, bolstering selfish ends and brutality.

Before that, Roman society was built on military and governance and owed a lot of its structure to military. Beginning at 16 years, military service took a large chunk of life before civil opportunities opened up.

While Rome bestowed great honour on military and soldiers, China reserved the highest praise for great bureaucrats, scholars, artists and thinkers. And one phrase summed that up “you don't use good iron to make a nail and you don't use a good man to make a soldier”. Armed force was the last resort after walls and bribes failed to keep the barbarians at bay.

The development of technology in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries gave those countries an advantage. The development of the machine gun and repeating rifle shifted armies to the defensive. It shifted back to offence with the tank, airplane and poisonous gas, she said.

The use of walls may have been pioneered in the 8th millennium in Jericho. In the distant past, warriors in chariots had the advantage until tactics using archers and foot soldiers advanced. Chariot advantage disappeared around 1,200 BC. Compound bows and better metals were all advances that came before the birth of Christ, with stirrups on saddles an advance after.

One especially interesting advancement, not followed up on, was a catapult designed by the Greek Archimedes that threw 1,800 pound boulders at Roman galleys. For several centuries galleys were the main naval force.

The 7th century B.C. Assyrian military empire stretching from Sudan to Turkey and the Mediterranean to Iran is little mentioned in western history.

She refers to expensive technology that could be destroyed by cheaper means......knights in heavy armour, battleships and aircraft carriers.

One innovation MacMillan doesn't mention are the offbeat turtle ships of Korea's Chosun dynasty that were sturdy and heavily armed used particularly against the Japanese.

MacMillan refers to how military officers often balked at new technology which took away from traditional military practices and values. One of the classic examples were guns and the Japanese Samurai warrior class. Another resistance was that of giving up horses in war.

She also mentions how few Spanish soldiers carrying lots of disease had a relatively easy time destroying indigenous people in central and South America.

In the 18th century, national patriotism of the solders, rather than fear of their officers jumped to the fore in motivation along with more violence, damage and death. Bolstering this was the industrial revolution and attendant urbanization, leading to social, political and intellectual changes.

Rather than the jousting of representative elites came the mass armies and accompanying greater demands on society's resources, best exemplified by World War 1. Defence was yielding to the offensive technology of war which put greater demand on supplies. Civilians and their morale became a target. Squabbling over whether civilians are legitimate targets or “innocents” has continued. Punishing civilians became a tactic to make the government sue for peace. Late Second World War allied bombing of Japan and Germany suggest this.

In the late 1790s, the French were the first to mobilize their population which took off with Napoleon. Rapid through-the-night marching added a new aspect to war. These things caught on quickly with others aroused by patriotism.

To meet the demand for “fit and healthy recruits” societies/governments had to improve public health, diet, living conditions and education. This also increased government control. The importance of science was enhanced by demands of war and MacMillan points out the Nazi downfall was partly the result of ignoring science and scientists, and its racial policies. Maybe they should have feted Albert Einstein and Wernher von Braun.

She points out how important access to resources and supplies is to the outcome of a war. Hence how important interrupting supply lines is.

Mobilization by governments led to taxes and efforts that persisted after the war ended.

MacMillan points to an interesting concern at one time. Conservatives resisted conscription as putting weapons in the hands of the lower classes who might become revolutionaries and city folk might not be tough enough to endure hardships.

Journalism and what was reported influenced support for and against wars and how that effected government decisions.

“The idea that war is not only natural but essential to society, a test of humans and their state has a long long history.” The idea that “survival of the fittest” was best tested in war persists today.

Until 1914, civilian leaders believed that modern societies would fall apart during a long war, so militaries planned for short ones.

She points out that fighting brings out the noblest and basest sides of humanity such that people are both fascinated and repulsed by war and those who fight them.

Over recent centuries, warriors have evolved from the upper classes and the need for nobility to the lower classes when more expendable bodies were required in the new wars. Skilled artisans and good farmers were avoided for this task.

This may have squared more with the long held Chinese perspective on soldiers. Now the ranks of poverty, often rural, are the places to find recruits wanting to escape their station.

Maybe ironically, being deployed in war provides the best and most interesting memories of some soldiers entire lives.

While it has been mostly men as soldiers, some of the nomadic horse riding soldiers have had higher percentages of woman, as did the Vikings.

The need for more bodies has provided more war opportunity for woman often used in non combat roles. The author says that the roles of women may be left out of the history books after the fighting is over. She points out that some feminists have been uncomfortable with the role of women fighting, preferring it be attributed to men. But women have often served the role of cheerleaders for war.

Mention, in passing, that women in war has met with resistance from men, is barely needed.

However much war may be deplored in some areas, it is often the source of heroes to inspire cultures around the world. “It promises glory and offers suffering and death.”

Armies have run on discipline and orders to instill uniform action, almost from the outset bolstered by threat of punishment with death the ultimate threat. Clear tasks also serve to reduce panic. This same instilled characteristic can be used to inflict torture on the helpless. They have been trained to overcome inhibitions against killing.

Those fighting the war were afraid of being killed or wounded, but also of not meeting the 'test of war' and giving way to panic and behaving badly. “They killed and died because they were embarrassed not to,” is the way one veteran put it.

Religion and ritual and superstition play a part in war. Drink and drugs has played a part going into battle and recovering from it, she says. But it is not all acute action and feeling. There is a lot of boredom and continual discomfort.

“War inverts what we think of as natural order and morality in society.” Inflicting damage, death and mayhem is necessary. Much of what goes on is so outside peaceful life.

And a strange phenomenon is that people farther from the war and destruction often harbour more hate and need for revenge against the enemy. In some ways, there was less hate of the enemy among those actually fighting the war. There was a comradeship of sharing the hardships of war with those on the other side.

For some who fought, there is some joy and good memories, that they may be careful revealing to civilians who are only married to the idea of the horror of war. Even more clandestine are feelings of joy over killing and destruction in some, she says.

Feelings that don't revolve around revulsion may have discouraged some post wartime publications.

She devotes a chapter to the plight of civilians, most acute for those in or near the battlefields. For those remote their may be sadness over loss and trials, but for some there are opportunities.

Targeting civilians was a strategy to reduce morale and the will to fight. The use of this strategy by the 'allies' conceivably led to “It was no oversight that mass bombings were not included in the Allied indictment of Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg trials”, says MacMillan.

Until relatively recently civilian support was not sought. It was an outgrowth of nationalism and the need for civilian support for the war effort in factories, hospitals and other services.

“War has a way of upending traditional roles and expectations,” she says. In North America it boosted women's role in the work force and what kind of jobs they could aspire to. The First World War also contributed to women getting the vote in many countries.

While participation in the work force increased women's role, they were also expected to do the other traditional tasks that society has assigned to them.

The end of the war brought the return of men, and women were discarded as “temporary replacements”. There was also concern that the work role would change women in undesirable ways, according to men.

The war and recovery from the depression led governments, as advocated by John Maynard Keynes, to “by spending freely and abandoning the sacred cow of balanced budgets, governments got the economy going again.”

It also led to demand for better wages and working conditions.

MacMillan has a chapter on controlling war, the types of weapons used and other paradoxes that make it a difficult conundrum.

While we are now concerned about such weapons as nuclear bombs, and chemical poisons, in the days of ancient Greece close combat weapons were regarded as appropriate and those launched from a distance, disapproved.

There is a long history of trying to spare civilians, but we know that has receded... to deliberately targeting them.

Informal warriors who may be seen as guerillas were labelled “bandits and brigands”, now the in vogue term is “terrorist”. It also served as adequate excuse to punish civilians.

And an idea related to this “the west does have a long and shameful history of observing one set of rules for itself and another for those it considers less “civilized”.”

Often whatever conventions are made to limit actions in war, they are often ignored according to circumstances and interests.

She says the U.S. practice of holding prisoners around the world, unwillingness to join the International Criminal Court all suggest licence to others who might have followed the rules.

The increasing effectiveness of weapons to deliver death and damage does provide more incentive to put limitations on war.

“Can we appreciate a work of art if we disagree strongly with the views and purpose of the person who made it. Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite who wrote superb music and Leni Riefenstahl was a committed Nazi who made innovative and powerful films.”

MacMillan says that the Second World War is often cast as a ”clear cut struggle between good and evil”, despite the inclusion of the Russian tyranny, with the good. On the other hand, the First World War seems “morally ambiguous, foolish and futile”.

She cautions that while developed countries are not directly at war it is prudent to know the causes, how to avoid them and how to end them. On the psychological level we need awareness of emotions, ideas and capacity for both good and evil.