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