War! What Is It Good For?

A professor at Oxford and Toronto, Margaret MacMillan is a prominent Canadian historian and author of many books. Her most recent, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, is named as one of the top 10 books of 2020 by the New York Times Book Review. It barrels along with hundreds of notable data points about war, but Law & Liberty readers likely will be left frustrated.

It is also likely that MacMillan took flak for writing the book. She points out that universities largely ignore the subject and stick those interested in war studies in niche programs, like international relations. She relays that in preparing to write the book she wanted to teach a course “War and Society” only to be told at scheduling a better focus might be “A History of Peace.” The primary institution in our civilization devoted to deep study of what most concerns our species barely touches the subject of war and resists financing research upon it, even though everyone knows war has transformed ideas, science, technology, medicine, poetry, populations, and geography. War is embedded in the way we speak, in phrases like “flash in the pan,” “three sheets to the wind,” “Dutch courage,” “the war on drugs,” “the war room,” “media blackout,” etc. In 2020 western polities were roiled by street demonstrations, oftentimes with war memorials at the center of controversy.

The West’s universities do not prepare citizenries to assess the place of war and its memory, yet, as MacMillan points out, the public appetite for books and films about war is insatiable. Lust for Lord of the Rings type books and TV cuts across the right/left divide: hipsters across America piled into bars to watch together the latest installment of Game of Thrones. A vividly violent portrayal of medieval dynastic wars, Game of Thrones held audiences across the globe captive for eight years. Penned by George R.R. Martin, the books and TV show earned him around $100 million a year.   

Big Themes

MacMillan organizes her history around big themes, like reasons for war, soldiering, and memorialization. Her themes work well for a survey stuffed with nuggets. Discussing causes, she eschews reductive explanations, like economics or Geist, and instead argues the reasons for war are various: resentments, trifles, dynastic rivalries, property disputes, divine mission, ideology. Befitting this pluralism, MacMillan cites Colonel Louis de Grandmaison’s observation: “the human heart is the starting point in all questions of war.”

About soldiering, she finds a common theme down the ages. The Greeks thought overly emotional men did not make good soldiers. The Prussian Junkers concurred, and veterans recollect that Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, VC, flew under fire in World War II with utter calmness. He was highly admired: nervous pilot chatter could unsettle bomber crews. As a British observer at the dropping of the atomic bomb, Cheshire saw little because the American pilot flew far too high during the attack. This led Cheshire to comment, perhaps chillingly given the historical significance of the event, that observation was impaired because the pilot was “overwrought.” Yet Cheshire was not an unfeeling man: after the war, he devoted his life to serving the disabled and dying. Against a current trend to think of combat as suffering, MacMillan explains men like Cheshire, and many more, relished war. Gleaned from their letters and testimonies, MacMillan reveals how soldiers enjoyed their camaraderie, and even saw combat as a personal test of courage. Underestimating the extent of the satisfaction war gives can lead to terrible strategic error. A member of the German high command warned his peers about the Schlieffen Plan—the German concept for a knockout blow against France at the start of World War I—that “You cannot carry away the armed strength of a Great Power like a cat in a bag.” As Napoleon learned in Spain, and a lesson the US had to learn again in Iraq, even if its army is defeated, a war-minded population can drain even the greatest of armies.

War, contends MacMillan, is paradoxical. It has brought peace and progress, and being better at war appears to make peoples nicer. The legitimization of the state’s monopoly and expertise in violence has lowered conflict.

The book includes pictures, excellent choices of war art, and these compliment MacMillan’s discussion of the role of music in war. Camille Saint-Saëns sought a ban on the playing of German music in France during World War I. Distraught, he asked: “After the massacres of women and children, how can the French listen to Wagner?” Hardly comparable to cancel culture today, MacMillan does nonetheless survey changes in fashion about war. The Left in Australia had been moaning about Anzac Day as no more than a celebration of war and empire, and a massive consumption of beer. They pointed to years when a mere 2,000 people showed up for the morning remembrance service, but by 2019 that figure had jumped to 35,000.

One of the staples of our perception of WW I is the idiocy of generals. Chief amongst the culprits is Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, a man viewed today as a “cold-hearted butcher,” yet at his funeral in 1928 thousands of vets turned out to pay final respects. War poet Wilfred Owen was barely known at all before 1945. Robert Graves’s classic World War I novel, Goodbye to All That, is seen today as anti-war but was no such thing according to its author’s own testimony. It would be a minefield, of course, but I wish MacMillan had not side-stepped the issue of how nations memorialize civil war, and the long-simmering controversies about Confederate symbols and statues. MacMillan does talk about the few cases of women soldiers, but repeatedly stresses that history shows war is the preserve of men. She hints at, but again side-steps, the significance of this for the recent diversity recruitment by Western militaries.  


War, contends MacMillan, is paradoxical. It has brought peace and progress, and being better at war appears to make peoples nicer. The legitimization of the state’s monopoly and expertise in violence has lowered conflict. She cites a cheeky, but insightful, Croat living in multi-ethnic Yugoslavia under Marshall Tito: “every hundred yards we had a policeman to make sure we loved each other very much.” One way to characterize modernity, thinks MacMillan, is the state organizing for war. The multi-talented seventeenth-century bureaucrat, Samuel Pepys built a framework for the consistent production of materiel that prepared England for the long years of war against France and the ultimate defeat of the military colossus, Napoleon. Pepys was a dramatic intensification of earlier efforts in the Middle Ages, when the English Crown prepared for war by passing laws banning soccer and instead mandating archery practice.

Refinements in bureaucracy, she argues, enabled the total wars of the modern age. For example, the census today corrects a war-making deficiency of earlier centuries. As late as the nineteenth century, national governments had little idea who lived in their countries, and so had no clear grasp of manpower or tax base to sustain military endeavor. The bureaucrat fusion of state and population has grown the possibility for war and problematized its control. The rise of liberal democratic nations has obscured the distinction between combatant and non-combatant. According to MacMillan, “Nationalism provided the passion for war, the Industrial Revolution the tools.” People having a sense of the ownership of government has meant popular passions drive critical political decisions. It was populism that forced the hand of successive British Prime Ministers to avenge the eccentric General Gordon (those passions still resonate in the 1966 film Khartoum, starring Charlton Heston as Gordon). Destroying the Mahdi army left England administering the Sudan, which they never wanted. The 1898 Sudan campaign saw Churchill participate in the last massed ranks cavalry charge in British history. A brilliant writer, Churchill describes in the autobiography of his early life the close-quarter combat and how the British horse was massively outnumbered and swamped foot soldiers in a lethal melee.   

This modern fusion of the state and its population mobilized for war has also fostered atrocities. Utterly confounded at Sedan, the French army sparked a partisan war against the German military in 1870-71. Partisans, hiding amongst the population, led to summary executions and reprisals, and set a model for German conduct towards civilians in World War I—a model, once hitched to Nazi racialism, that led to an exponential rise in atrocities in World War II. Interestingly, MacMillan points out that fusion has not led to a confusion of ranks in the modern military. Conservatives worried that conscription would dilute the aristocratic ethos of regiments as middle-class men joined the officer corps. Hierarchy was not diluted, however, and the bourgeoisie was more than happy to model itself upon the militant ethos of the nobility.


Veterans of the history aisles at the public library or local book shop will be frustrated with MacMillan’s book. There is not much new here, but nor does the volume pretend otherwise. It is a survey, but it comes across as a bit of a smorgasbord. There are literally hundreds of data points and so the flow of the book is not particularly good. Opening the book at random, one discovers in just two pages the dates of military events: 1813, 1937, 1675, 1914, 1941, 1856, and 1907.

There are some inaccuracies. MacMillan does not hide the fact her story is told using the research of others. It is an absolute requirement of such a book, but it does mean she has to repeat things likely untrue. She relays that Welsh archers made the core of the English line at Crécy in 1346. This is a segue into a story about the Welsh developing the longbow. The six-foot bows were a seismic technological innovation, quashing the European belief in the invincibility of armored knights on horseback. MacMillan repeats the claim the bow was a Welsh innovation, but it almost surely was a weapon conceived and refined by the English. At Crécy, the bow was backed by English muscle; the Welsh, who were mercenaries, comprised 2,000 of the 7,000 bowmen. It is sure that the development of its use as a battlefield weapon was under the supervision of the English Crown, with battle commanders directed to experiment with tactics. The bow took a decade to master: archeology shows bowmen had markedly asymmetric bone structure. Its battle deployment also required prodigious materiel: about half a million arrows were loosed at Crécy.

Libertarians also will feel aggrieved. MacMillan argues that Victorian Social Darwinism cast war as an important part of progress. However, Herbert Spencer, the libertarian who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” was anti-war and argued that commercial growth would make militarism obsolete. The conservative German theorist Max Scheler criticizes Spencer’s commercialism precisely on the grounds that the risk aversion of business will mean a dilution of the aristocratic ethos which joyfully wastes the body in the play of war.


But it is lack of theory that frustrates most. The book desperately needs a “big take” on war and politics. This lack means MacMillan does not always deliver on her own arguments. Expounding the statement “war raises fundamental questions about what it is to be human,” MacMillan slightly favors the idea that war is an abiding, non-contingent aspect of our nature. It is not a point easy to adjudicate, she says, since primatology finds amongst our nearest biological ancestors two possibilities. Frans de Waal has shown that chimps are extraordinarily violent towards out-group collectives of monkeys, but bonobos far less so. MacMillan does not record that de Waal’s work on bonobos in captivity has been corrected by observations from the wild. Bonobos do hunt other monkey species and eat their babies. It is also worth noting that bonobos only live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is a politically violent region, making university research hard. It is a place where mining corporations hire private military contractors to organize security. MacMillan might have made use of one of the very best comprehensive books about war, Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization which established the fact of fortifications around Neolithic camps.

Under theorization reduces the impact of one of the best parts of the book, an account of the mass rapes by Russians conquering Hitler’s Germany. The number of rapes is estimated at 2 million. For balance, MacMillan says, “even the military from good democratic regimes with strong liberal values are capable of committing atrocities,” and, of course, cites the American killings at My Lai. But no effort is made to explore why the American, British, and French troops did not engage in mass rape at the end of World War II. She documents that rapes did happen in the Allied zone but nothing remotely approximating the depravity of what happened in the Russian sector. Some political theory might have helped here and maybe dipping into earlier history, too. During Sherman’s drive to the sea, there were no mass rapes. Did the idea of an underlying shared identity prevent it? As evidence of the absence of mass rape, John Marszalek’s Sherman’s March to the Sea cites a finding that Sherman’s army averaged 15 cases of venereal disease per10,000 soldiers, four times lower than the rest of the Union army. Might it be that the Western Allies also saw the Germans as belonging to a common civilizational heritage whilst the Communists, nurtured on the radical rejection of inheritance, were already morally hollowed out?



A 20th-Century Tolstoy?

Grossman is especially concerned to recreate wartime experience in its entirety, from the separation of loved ones to heroism, cowardice, and death.