Book Review: WAR – How Conflict Shaped Us

WAR – How Conflict Shaped Us, by Margaret MacMillan, Profile Books, 2020, 328 pages, €26.00

‘How can a planet live at peace?’ … ‘Would ­– would you mind telling me –’ he said to the guide, much deflated, ‘what was so stupid about that? ‘We know how the Universe ends –,’ said the guide, and Earth has nothing to do with it, except that it gets wiped out, too.’ ‘How – how does the Universe end? said Billy. ‘We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers. A Tralfamadorian test pilot presses a starter button, and the whole Universe disappears.’ So it goes.  –Kurt Vonnegut, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE

War is being waged today in just about every corner of our planet, as it will be waged tomorrow, and as it has been waged since human beings went from solitary hunter-gatherers to organizing into groups, forming societies, and forging nations. If human history has taught us anything about war, it is that with scientific progress, the human species has spared no efforts and has lacked no imagination in finding new, better, more efficient, and less costly ways to wage war. Never tiring of waging war, we can safely conclude that war, in all its forms (and those yet to be imagined), is here to stay. This is the reality.

Since war is an inevitability, it is not a matter of if, but of when, where, and how. As for the why of a given instance (here I am limiting myself to a specific conflict), its relevance seems more dependent on and proportionate to the amount of good will and rational thinking, if any, among the concerned parties to resolving their conflicts by other means than war. Carl von Clausewitz’s words ring true today as they did when he wrote ON WAR: “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried out by other means.

As war gets more complex, more inventive, and more deadly, should we not be contemplating how, to the extent possible, to abate future wars and the misery they cause? But if we are to do so, should we not examine the topic of war for what it is and how it has influenced states, societies, cultures, and individuals? The highly acclaimed Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan thinks so.

It’s been 20 years since I read Margaret MacMillan’s award-winning PEACEMAKERS: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its attempt to End War, and yet I vividly recall it as if it were yesterday. Since then, she has written other impressive books, including this last one: WAR – How Conflict Shaped Us. It is an impressive, informative, and important treatment on war.

No, this is not a book about the theory or science, legality or morality, or even necessity of war. MacMillan does not concern herself with the issues of when war is just, how it should be fought, how prisoners should be treated or civilians protected, under what circumstances attacks can be carried out, issues of proportionality and targeted killings, how to respond to cyber-attacks, and so on. Such issues are not the focal point of her book, though there is more than a whiff of their presence as part of the subtext to her overarching aim – to make us better informed of how war in the historical context shapes human society.

From a bird’s eye view with a panoramic lens, MacMillan provides a holistic appreciation of how war has shaped human society and how it will continue to do so, only perhaps in more unpredictable ways with more devastating consequences. In this tour d’horizon on war, she illustrates in an array of nine intersecting topics how war influences and informs the human story from humanity and society to reasons for going to war, to ways and means, to modern warfare, to making the warriors, to fighting in wars, to the role played by and impact on civilians, to trying to control the uncontrollable, and finally, to thinking of war in our imagination and memories.

Seeing war as neither an “aberration” nor “simply an absence of peace which is really the normal state of affairs,” MacMillan wants us to grasp the nettles of war – that human society and war are “deeply intertwined,” so much so, that “we cannot say that one predominates over or causes the other.” So, if we are to understand our world and how we have gotten to where we are, “we cannot ignore war and how it has impacted (and will continue to impact) on the development of human society.”

Effectively, MacMillan is issuing a clarion call:  if we do not understand war, and if we are not mindful about preventing war, we may end up wiping ourselves out. She is right. And it may occur from some accident or stupidity – something as silly as Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional Tralfamadorian test pilot pressing a starter button and wiping out the universe.

Observing the proclivity of human beings for killing each other in an organized fashion, if we are to have any hope of avoiding future wars, MacMillan argues we need to understand why. To do so – among other things – she points to two paradoxes of war.

First, humans became good at war when they organized into societies. “War – organized, purposeful violence between two political units – became more elaborate when we developed organized sedentary societies and it helped to make those societies more organized and powerful.”

Second, the growth of state power and the growth of a state’s power are often the result of war, which in turn can be instrumental in producing peace. Ironically, while war may bring human misery, it is the most organized of all human activities, stimulating social organization, and catalyzing significant scientific breakthroughs inuring enormous benefits for peace-time usage – which, save for war, might not have occurred.

Margaret MacMillan

MacMillan invites us to consider the human nature for organized killings by engaging in conflicts and waging war by examining the writings of two of Europe’s great political philosophers: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. 

Of the two, Rousseau had the more optimistic view on human nature. Violence was not inherent in the human genome, but when the state of human nature went from solitary hunter-gatherers to settling down, farming, and organizing into societies, they were corrupted. Hobbes takes an opposite view. In the state of nature, humans struggled against each other to survive, as life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Thus, it was organized society that brought violence under control. The better organized by adopting laws, imposing taxes, and providing security, the more powerful they became, which, inevitably, would result in conflicts with other states. Neither novel nor settled, the Rousseau-Hobbes debate merits consideration in understanding the why.

With the need to go to war (whether as the aggressor or defender), states were driven to become more developed, which in turn resulted in progressive social changes, fostering the state’s ability to improve its military capacity. And so the cycle goes, and war evolves. Perceptively, MacMillan notes:

If belligerent nations could not harness their economies to the war effort, they could not fight on. As a result the line between legitimate and illegitimate targets in war blurred until it was nearly erased altogether. Bombing or shelling such things as railways lines, fuel depots, munitions factories and dams were after all ways of undermining the enemy’s capacity to fight in the field.

Operation Instant Thunder (1990), during the First Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), serves as a fine example. The US bombed “dual-use” targets in Iraq, such as telephone lines, bridges, and electricity generating facilities, in part to destroy the resolve of Iraqi civilians. Whether it was legally valid to deliberately target large segments of the civilian population to psychologically traumatize them – which, incidentally, also resulted in many post-war deaths due to injuries and diseases attributable to the bombing of Iraq’s electricity-producing infrastructure – is questionable. But it does illustrate MacMillan’s point.

Why humans fight and will keep fighting is a question worth asking. MacMillan does not provide a definitive answer, (not that it is possible in my opinion), though she astutely provides sage advice:

We fight because we have needs, because we want to protect what we hold dear or because we can imagine making different worlds. We fight because we can. But that long intertwining of war and society may be coming to an end or ought to – not because we have changed but because technology has. With new and terrifying weapons, the growing importance of artificial intelligence, automatic killing machines and cyberwar, we face the prospect of the end of humanity itself. It is not the time to avert our eyes from something we find abhorrent. We must, more than ever, think about war.

In highly recommending WAR, I return to MacMillan’s overarching thesis: “in understanding war we understand something about being human, our ability to organize ourselves, our emotions and our ideas, and our capacity for cruelty as well as for good.


Some fifty years ago I picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. I recall liking it for its quirkiness, but for the most part, I was way too unsophisticated to appreciate the genius of the plot or the moral of the story. Vonnegut was an American writer of German descent, who fought in WWII, captured by the Germans, and as prisoner of war was taken to Dresden, where he was put in a prison facility a short time before the US and UK indiscriminately bombed Dresden from 13 to 15 February 1954, causing massive loss of life and the utter destruction of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.

Decades after, having survived the horrors of the Dresden bombings, Vonnegut decided it was time to write of this experience during the height of the Vietnam War. The plot is of a writer, who, having given much thought of his war experiences, and having struggled with starts and fits to write a book about the war and the bombing of Dresden, finally takes a go at it by writing an anti-war book. I won’t give away anything of the plot, which, in my opinion, is absolutely brilliant. But here is an exchange of our protagonist writer which came to mind when I read Margaret MacMillan’s WAR:

Over the years, people I’ve met often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, ‘Is it an anti-war book?

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess.’

‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’

‘No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?’

‘I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”’

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.

Some of you may find Margaret MacMillan’s WAR a bit too heavy or dry for the beach, or while chilling in the shade in a hammock with a book in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other. So, if you are interested in an entertaining novel, consider Kurt Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. And might I also recommend you get the 50th anniversary edition by Vintage Classics. It has some interesting notes from Vonnegut’s original manuscripts and other material.

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Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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