Margaret MacMillan's new book examines the paradoxes inherent in violent conflictby Piers Brendon / October 6, 2020 / Leave a comment
The historian Margaret MacMillan justifies her book on the grounds that war is one of the great forces in history and that its study is essential if we are to make sense of our past. To be sure, we are war-making animals. And all too often, as Orwell said, war is peace. During the so-called “long peace” since 1945, over 50m people have been killed in conflicts around the globe.
But if MacMillan is hardly original (except perhaps in describing Thomas Hobbes as an 18th-century thinker), she offers a useful survey of war in all its aspects. She analyses its causes—usually greed, fear or ideology—and its effects, which are not exclusively malign. She anatomises the experience of fighting—the horror, excitement and boredom. Atrocities, leadership, comradeship, weapons, strategy, remembrance of the dead, cyber-wars—all are grist to her mill.
Nor, in discussing the tragedy of war, does she forget the comedy. During the First World War the British eliminated the breast pocket on women’s uniforms in case it drew unseemly attention. When the destroyer Antrim was hit during the Falklands War, a stoker transfixed crewmen by pointing down a passageway and shouting, “Zulus! Thousands of them!”
MacMillan also examines the familiar paradoxes of war. It brings out both the best and the bestial in humanity, inspiring glorious deeds and licensing unspeakable cruelties. It reveals that things worth living for can be worth dying for. It is creative as well as destructive, accelerating technological innovation (computers, jets, penicillin) and social advancement (work and votes for women).
Thus generalisations are almost invariably subject to qualification or contradiction. MacMillan herself explores war but cannot explain it. She concludes with the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich: “War remains, as it always has been, one of the chief human mysteries.”
War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan (Profile, £20)