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book review

Canadian historian and author Margaret MacMillan.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

  • Title: War: How Conflict Shaped Us
  • Author: Margaret MacMillan
  • Genre: Military History
  • Publisher: Allen Lane
  • Pages: 336

Three years ago, Penguin Random House released an edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace that roared through 1,440 pages. This month, the publishing house released Margaret MacMillan’s meditation on half that subject in a quarter of those pages.

The appearance of War: How Conflict Shaped Us is a publishing event not merely because the volume, at 336 pages, is a brisk but comprehensive look at military conflict and its implications on the broader society. MacMillan – who taught at Ryerson before becoming a professor and Provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto and then, from 2007 to 2017, Warden of St Antony’s College at Oxford University – is a giant on the Canadian literary scene and a Brobdingnagian character among historians worldwide.

This volume will only add to her lustre. It is a tour d’horizon of war that is a tour de force of historical achievement, and in its pages is the product of a master of history at work. It is not the chronicle of any one conflict but the distillation of many. It offers not one lesson of strategy or statecraft but the lessons of scores of attempts to prevent, to prosecute or to prevail in war. She tells us that war “should be abhorrent but it is so often alluring and its values seductive,” adding, "It promises glory and offers suffering and death.''

The writing about war in history is sometimes formidable but forbidding (Homer), sometimes rambling but romantic (Churchill), sometimes searching but searing (Erich Maria Remarque). It seldom is energetic and engaging. This book is.

And its range is wide. Here are lessons from Alexander the Great, the Roman emperor Pertinax, the Mongol warriors, the great Carthaginian general Hamilcar, the Roman general Fabius Maximus, Louis XIV, Louis XVI, Martin Luther, Napoleon, Napoleon III, Lenin, Tojo, Stalin, Hitler and Tito. She sweeps though the Trojan war, the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, the Battle of Kosovo of 1389, the 100 Years War, the British wars against the Maori in New Zealand, the Boxer Rebellion, the Franco-Prussian War, the Spanish-American War, the two world wars, the Six-Day War and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. She quotes the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, Shakespeare and Leonard Bernstein.

And more. Whew.

In all that, she does not improve much on – indeed no one, including Tolstoy, can improve much on – the German theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who taught that “war is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will," a notion she introduces to us as early as page six. But tucked in unobtrusively at the bottom of a paragraph on page 124 is a sentence freighted with wisdom and perspective about military conflict: “One of war’s many ironies is that the things worth living for can also be worth dying for.”

MacMillan seasons this book with multiple spicy elements. She says that “growing state power and the emergence of bigger states … are often the result of war but that in turn can produce peace.” She asserts that “Great powers are not necessarily nice ones – why should they be? – but they do provide a minimum of security and stability for their own people.”'

She offers the view that war “brings both destruction and creation,” citing penicillin, blood transfusions, jet engines, transistors and computers. And she reminds us of the uncomfortable truth that “war brings benefits and can help to build stronger, even fairer, societies.”

Plus this: The great Swedish military leader Gustavus Adolphus instituted among his forces compulsory prayer. Mongol warriors wore silk undershirts that made it easier to remove enemy arrows from a soldier and cut the risk of infection. The composite bows that replaced wooden ones added force and distance to archers' arrows in ancient times. The symbol of the Red Cross organization was deliberately chosen as an inversion of the Swiss flag.

In looking back at wars and their rationales, she has some wisdom, particularly appropriate for our modern-day views of the First World War: "We should be careful about condescending to those who lived in the past. The dead had ideas and beliefs just as we do. We may not agree with them, but we should respect them.''

She points out that the Canadian war memorial at Vimy Ridge has stone figures representing the values that animated those who died: faith, justice, peace, honour, charity, truth, knowledge and hope.

In the end, MacMillan argues that “the factors that produce war – greed, fear, ideology – will continue to work among us as they always have.” But she predicts that the future of war will have two components: high-tech conflicts involving professional forces and conflicts involving what she describes as “loosely organized forces using low-cost weapons." She warns that the two could converge. “An enemy without uniforms or even bases, whose members often recruit themselves on the internet,” she writes, "cannot be defeated by expensive jet fighters, tanks or aircraft carriers.''

We know that from the newspapers. But we may not know nor want to believe this: We cannot eliminate the possibility that nation states will again take up arms against each other. War, the lesson here, is like the poor. Much as we might wish otherwise, as Deuteronomy counsels us, we will have war with us always.

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