War: How Conflict Shaped Us (2020) by Margaret MacMillan – Nonfiction
One of my favorite college classes was a class on WWII. Prior to college, my history classes in high school and middle school consisted of cursory glances over this time period. It was always very formulaic : a general idea of what started the war + a description of both sides + D-Day + a sampling of important names and figures + the Holocaust = WWII.
It wasn’t until this esoteric class that I really was introduced to the mechanics of war. Supply lines, troop movements, strategic choices. We are conditioned to think of war like we do in the movies: bombs exploding, soldiers firing and jumping, running for their lives. Mass chaos. And that does happen.
But war is often uneventful. Dunkirk, the movie by Christopher Nolan, encompasses the monotony and building of tension perfectly. War is many times soldiers waiting in trenches or water or fields, while generals and commanders look at maps and read missives on the enemy, calculating what to do next.
Margaret MacMillan’s War: How Conflict Shaped Us is a concise musing of what war is, who it effects, how we civilians portray it, and why we do it. It is astounding the amount of ideas and questions she poses in 272 pages. It took me longer than I imagined to read it because I kept pausing to think about her words. MacMillan is my favorite historian. She is able to delve into the weeds about the machinations of war without overwhelming the casual reader.
War of ideology, whether religious or political, are often the cruelest of all because the kingdom of heaven or some form of earthly paradise justifies all that is done in its name, including removing human obstacles. Those who hold the wrong ideas or beliefs deserve to die much as disease ought to be stamped out, or they are simply the necessary sacrifices on the way to achieving a dream which will benefit all of humanity.
My favorite chapter is MacMillan’s discussion on controlling the uncontrollable. We humans have tried, some countries and individuals more than others, to control war. To make it civilized somehow. We ban weapons and we codify treaties and disarmament declarations and codes for humane treatment of prisoners of war. But in a way, isn’t it pointless to try and make something like war civilized?
It seems to me a funny thing to make rules about war. It is not a game. What is the difference between civilized war and any other kind of war? – Pancho Villa
War is a great book for those who have any fascination with war and history. MacMillan enhances all her ideas with real life examples in history, from the Roman Empire battles to the war in Afghanistan. MacMillan perfectly explains that war is not a foreign idea or an anomaly, it is a natural state that humans choose to be in at times.
Margaret MacMillan is emeritus professor of international history at the University of Oxford and professor of history at the University of Toronto. Her previous books include, Paris 1919, The War That Ended Peace, Nixon and Mao, Dangerous Games, and Women of the Raj.
Lover of the written word.