War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan

If humans expect to make any sense of their past, Margaret MacMillan believes, studying war is a necessity. In War: How Conflict Shaped Us (Random House, 327 pp. $30, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle), she thoroughly analyzes the question, “Are war and humanity inextricably interwoven?”

Dating back to 1975, MacMillan’s academic achievements—she is emeritus professor of international history at the University of Oxford and professor of history at the University of Toronto—well qualify her as a leading thinker in modern history and international relations. Her six previous books have investigated an array of international problems.

Reading MacMillan is a delight. She presents her arguments in a conversational manner. Her ideas flow so logically that even when occasionally disagreeing with her, I look forward to her next point.

In determining war’s relationship with humankind, MacMillan excels in comparing the two by discussing the reasons for war, how wars have been fought, the making of warriors, the glory attached to combat, and civilian involvement. In each she delves to depths well beyond my expectations.  

MacMillan’s observations span events from an analysis of a mummified combatant from 3300 B.C. to Donald Trumps’ use of erroneous statements about war today. Similarly, she smoothly discusses Tito and Yugoslavia in the same paragraph with Samoans and New Guinea to make a point.

After convincingly analyzing the past, MacMillan describes her expectations about future warfare. She believes that war should not be a tool that “can rightfully and necessarily be used by states.” She sees future wars ascontinuations of conflicts inside states, often civil wars supported by outside powers.

Nurtured by greed, fear, and ideology, such wars are exceptionally complex and lengthy, she says. More so, they often are fought on two levels: one with professional forces and high technology, and the other with loosely organized forces using low-cost weapons. The two sorts of war overlap. Battlefields include urban settings.

MacMillan sees wars in cyberspace as the ultimate challenge for humankind. She warns that ultra-sophisticated technology promotes weaponry that offers “the prospect of the end of humanity itself.”

Nations might not desire war, she writes, but they cannot rule out the possibilities that others will. The prosecution of war is permanently ingrained into the human character, and we must not forget it.

The book provides no in-depth discussion of the American War in Vietnam. MacMillan briefly references actions from that war rather than discussing it in detail. Her most definitive conclusion about the war: “For the Americans, Vietnam did what the First World War did for the Europeans; it shook their confidence in themselves and their civilization.”

Margaret MacMillan

A bibliography handily divides MacMillan’s sources into nonfiction, memoirs and diaries, fiction, other, and websites. It then lists the works she particularly drew from for each chapter. Thirty well-chosen photographs with detailed captions, most of which were new to me, captured my full attention.

MacMillan’s approach to her question should fulfill the intellectual demands of readers from high schoolers to PhDs. I rank War alongside The Journalist by Jerry A. Rose and Lucy Rose Fischer and Ambush Valley by Eric Hammel (republished from 1990) as the most interesting books I’ve read this year.

—Henry Zeybel

Moment of Battle by James Lacey and Williamson Murray

Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World (Bantam, 478 pp., $30) immerses the reader into the epicenter of world-changing battles. Authors James Lacey and Williamson Murray are acclaimed military historians. Their attention to detail and flowing narration make the book both worthwhile and enjoyable. They are very clear in explaining how each battle affected world history.

All the battle descriptions depict the evolution of military tactics and equipment. The authors also show how human error and dumb luck often made the difference between victory and defeat. Wrong decisions were often based on incorrect information and sometimes decisions were just a matter of ego.

The book also reveals the evolution of military tactics. While some methods of combat might be practiced the same way for decades or even hundreds of years, successful leaders seem to be the ones who were able to change tactics in the midst of the fighting and to take advantage of the enemy’s weaknesses or mistakes.

Moment of Battle never drags. It’s more like twenty adrenaline rushes. I would suggest that the reader allow a bit of time between chapters and not read this book straight through. That way you can take time to appreciate the contributions made by so many. Having a global map at hand to identify locations as we know them today also would be helpful.

The book begins with the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Readers are caught up in a battle in which the victors overcame incredible odds that allowed democracy to maintain its foothold in the world. The screams of the wounded and dying can almost be heard emanating from the pages.

Cultural differences between Western and Eastern Europe still exist today due to the battle of the Teutonberger Wald in the first century A.D. In that battle the seemingly undefeatable Romans were stopped by a German army. The legacy of that fight would continue to play its part in two world wars and the Cold War in the 20th century.

Williamson Murray

England and Spain had their turn at being the most powerful nations on earth. The battles of Hastings in 1066, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 are vividly described here. It is not an exaggeration to say that blood flowed like water and the dead piled up in both engagements.

Lacey and Murray have us travel with Grant to Vicksburg in 1863 and into the Battle of the Marne to open World War I in 1914. We are invited to fly with the pilots in the Battle of Britain in 1940 and in the battle of Midway in the Pacific in1942.

While storming the beaches of Normandy in 1944, we relive the beginning of the end of the Nazi regime. Savagery, blunders, brilliance, heroism, and indescribable suffering are all part of all the fighting, regardless of the century.

France lost its colonies in Indochina to the Viet Minh in 1954. The reader witnesses the defeat of the French by the Viet Minh under Vo Nguyen Giap at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The authors do not discuss the American war in Vietnam. Perhaps not enough time has elapsed for historians to judge if the outcome of the Vietnam War made a big difference in the world. I believe that the Vietnam War has made a tremendous difference in the attitude of the American people toward their own government. It remains to be seen if that change makes a difference throughout the world.

The book concludes with the American military’s drive to Baghdad in 2003. Although this battle took place relatively recently, the authors make predictions of the world-wide effects of the Iraqi defeat and their that nation’s attempt at democracy.

Col. Marcone of the 69th Armor Battalion could be speaking for most Americans who fought in that war.  “They kept coming, rolling over their own dead,” he said of the Iraqi army troops. “They should have learned. Fighting for us was easy. Killing at close range, though, is very hard and unforgettable I am still dealing with having to kill so many people. Destroying the 10th brigade still bothers me.”

—Joseph Reitz