War: How Conflict Shaped Us

by Margaret MacMillan

Hardcover, 2020


Random House (2020), 336 pages


"War, the instinct to fight, is inherent in human nature; peace is the aberration in history. War has shaped humanity, its institutions, its states, its values and ideas. Our very language, our public spaces, our private memories, some of our greatest cultural treasures reflect the glory and the misery of war. War is an uncomfortable and challenging subject not least because it brings out the most vile and the noblest aspects of humanity. Margaret MacMillan looks at the ways in which war has shaped human history and how, in turn, changes in political organization, technology, or ideologies have affected how and why we fight. The book considers such much-debated and controversial issues as when war first started; whether human nature dooms us to fight each other; why war has been described as the most organized of all human activities and how it has forced us to become still more organized; how warriors are made and why are they almost always men; and how we try to control war. Drawing on lessons from a sweep of history, from classical history to modern warfare, and from all parts of the globe, MacMillan reveals the many faces of war--the way it shapes our past, our future, our views of the world, and our very conception of ourselves"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member ronploude
This book is more about the effects of war than it is about its endorsement or condemnation. Margaret MacMillan addresses the political mistakes that led to war over the years and postulates that its main cause may simply be due to human nature. War, according to her research, seems to have
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historically manifested itself about the time that agricultural societies developed. Those societies warred against others as a means of protecting their resources. Before this, there were only small hunter/gatherer groups that simply moved on when competing groups arrived at their favored hunting grounds.

Most of the book is devoted to the historical period starting in the 1700s through to, and including, the second world war; I surmise the reason for this focus being that this is the period which was better documented and reported upon in historical records. Before this period, history was recorded and embellished by the victors of wars; thus, making themselves appear heroic and just.

With detailed evidence from this period, MacMillan was able to describe the effects of war on soldiers, civilians, and future events. Soldiers for the most part in the middle ages came from the lower classes who were told that it was their duty to fight for their king or to protect their lands and way of life. Often, these soldiers had no idea why they fought or how the war came about. Starting in the 21st century, soldiers were required to have some education and reading skills so that they could be counted on to follow written orders.
Typically, wars started when a leader considered a demonized opponent to have committed some slight or when there was a need to protect homeland territory from invasion. Wars in ancient to modern times resulted in the deaths of thousands of combatants before one of the warring factions sued for peace. Modern-day citizens of western countries are less tolerant of the loss of their soldiers’ lives. This aversion to risk of human loss is leading to mechanized wars with smart tech being remotely utilized to inflict damage on an enemy’s infrastructure.

Citizens have historically faired the worse from wars. Victorious soldiers pillaged the defeated country’s wealth, revengefully killed its noncombatants, and raped or enslaved its women. These actions were seen as a reward for a soldier’s service. Even today, such conduct takes place in the middle east by ISIS combatants who fight in the name of religion. This kind of behavior may not be condoned by modern western societies but it occurs and is often overlooked by military leaders. The Mi Lai massacre only came to light because of the freedom of movement mistakenly afforded to the American journalist. Such freedom was given with the thought that it would lead to greater civilian support for the ongoing war effort. Having learned their lesson, modern-day media is only allowed in certain militarily approved areas of combat, supposedly for their “protection”. Modern-day atrocities are not spoken of, are denied with brought to light, and are only investigated when the evidence of them becomes overwhelming.

Despite its atrocities, war does provide an impetus for innovation. Atomic energy got little funding before the second world war. The same can be said for aeronautics before the first world war. The American civil war brought about greater armament development in the form of smokeless powder, firepower, and accuracy. Mass armament production became possible during the late 20th to early 21st centuries as a result of the industrial revolution. All these advancements were hastened by war.

Margaret MacMillan doesn’t forecast what lies in our future because civilian acceptance of war is changing. Despite war terminology being part of our vocabulary, “the need to establish a beachhead”, “shock and awe”, or “wipe out the competition”, war is no longer looked at as an opportunity for heroism. Since the second world war, have attempted to use world organizations as arbitrators to political differences. In my opinion, that movement is presently being challenged as the greatest western power is making moves to abandon those world institutions. The United States is currently working to demonize China; it will only take a slight or a mistake by either side to escalate matters beyond political restraint and to war.
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LibraryThing member BrianEWilliams
This is a comprehensive collection of scholarly essays on the topic of war and its effect on the world and the people who inhabit it. The essays are derived from the author's 2018 series of lectures entitled "The Mark of Cain", presented by the BBC. The book is meant for a general audience.

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message: War is simply a part of human nature.

The history of war is presented from early times, brought forward to the present day , e.g. the current conflicts in Iraq and Libya are in the narrative. Each of the book's chapters is more or less a standalone essay, some of which are more analytical than others. I was expecting a survey of selected battles in history and discussion of the place of war on the continuum of conflict as portrayed in dispute resolution literature. I was therefore pleased to see instead an analytical and thoughtful approach to such things as the role of civilians in war, preparing soldiers for war and the public perceptions of war.

For Professor Macmillan, it is essential to study war in order to make sense of the past. This reminded me of the saying "War is the locomotive of history" which is attributed to Trotsky. In this book the approach taken is that war is "not an aberration" and it is more than the absence of peace. Its study is necessary to develop an understanding of our world and how we have reached this point in history.

What stands out is that each of the essays is presented as a story, not written in an academic lecture-like style. While I read the eBook and enjoyed it, I think an audio version would be fantastic, especially if it were to be read by Professor MacMillan.

I requested and received a complementary eBook from the publisher via Netgalley. The comments are my own.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
Margaret MacMillan is the great granddaughter of David Lloyd George. In her latest book, War, she paints with a very broad brush many of the principles she iterated first in her more specific books about World War I, Paris 1919 and The War that Ended Peace. She asserts that war is a natural form of
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behavior for man; it is in our bones. She argues that the desire to protect oneself — or one’s tribe or nation — has dominated human history. [She could have added, but did not, that a study of primate groups reveals much the same bellicose tendencies, making the argument that war is not only in our bones, but in our DNA.]. Although her generalizations are sweeping, she illustrates most of them with piquant specifics that make the book easy reading, or in my case, listening.

MacMillan treats many aspects of war in interesting and often original ways. She makes trenchant observations on how war has affected technology, women’s rights, logistics, and the arts. She argues, as have other historians, that war has acted as a catalyst of change and invention - one need only consider the drive to develop and refine penicillin during WWII as just one example of creative advancement driven by the needs of war.

In one respect, however, she gives short shrift to one aspect of war writing that others have done better in the past. Rather than actually describe combat or provide a realistic depiction of the conduct of war, she quotes other writers who bemoan how difficult it is to do so. For those interested in such description, I recommend any of the many books by John Keegan, particularly The Face of Battle.

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LibraryThing member texasstorm
The concluding paragraph is good. Other than that, this is one of the more forgettable books you’ll ever read. Anecdotal stories are grouped together in themes by chapter, but many oppose each other, so they don’t lead anywhere. Some parts are interesting enough I suppose.
LibraryThing member annbury
Having read and very much admired Ms. MacMillan's "The War That Ended Peace", I eagerly awaited this book, and bought it as soon as it came out. It is indeed a very interesting book, and also a readable one. It also stresses some ideas that bear notice -- that war and the nation state are
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interdependent, that the general view on any given war can change drastically over time, and that art and war have a strong and shifting relationship. But, for me, it doesn't answer some essential questions. Is war innate in human nature? What is war like for the warrior? The only conclusion presented on the second issue is that war is a mystery. This isn't proposed as an answer to the first, but it was the answer the book created for me. A more direct approach would have been welcome -- if perhaps impossible.
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LibraryThing member swmproblems
This book was really incredible. I've always been fascinated with war and consumed many books and movies about it but at the same time war disgusts me and I can't think of too many times when it is necessary...this book really shines a light on a lot of war, anti-war controversial issues. I give it
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to this author because by drawing on world history and conflict, she's gotta know a lot of shit about a lot of shit. 5 stars for sure and this is one of the many books that I think people should be required to read. I love her style of writing too. She's written another book called "Paris 1919" and I'm probably going to read that one too eventually just because this one was so awesome.
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LibraryThing member Arkrayder
This was well written and researched. It had some information that I had not heard of before, but it tended to wander from one topic to the next and felt disjointed. Each topic could have been a book in itself. If you’re interested in war it’s a book you should read.
LibraryThing member markm2315
This is a sweeping but superficial and often hackneyed survey of various aspects of war. The best parts are the occasional points of history or quotations that I didn't know or had forgotten.


Arthur Ross Book Award (Shortlist — 2021)
Lionel Gelber Prize (Shortlist — 2021)
Globe and Mail Top 100 Book (Nonfiction — 2020)

Original publication date



1984856138 / 9781984856135
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