Is war an inherent part of human nature?
The new book War by Canadian historian Margaret McMillan explores this question as well as looking into the links between technological, economic and social progress and armed conflict.
The core of McMillan’s book is built on the following proposition:
War is part of almost everything around us
McMillan is one of the world’s most respected historians, and her book on War came with great expectations.
She convincingly argues that war is part of almost everything around us and is intrinsically linked to technological progress and cultural change.
Going over the basic transitions from stone age weapons to bronze, iron and steel and to horse warfare, gunpowder and artillery, McMillan shows how intertwined inventions are with the desire of nations and tribes (and sometimes individuals) to destroy other nations, tribes and individuals.
Even the invention of stirrups for riding horses, for example, was a huge leap forward in the ability of heavily-armored knights to wage war, and later for Genghis Khan to sweep across Central Asia and Eurasia and take over much of the known world.
McMillan also goes over how almost every culture from ancient Japan to European tribes to many indigenous, Latin American, Indian, Central Asian, Arabian and African peoples have looked up to warriors and placed them in a revered hierarchy in society.
This idealization has the rare exception of several peaceful tribes and the Chinese who historically saw war and soldering as the breakdown of intelligence and negotiation and as a dirty necessity at best and something not to be admired.
Most well known for her 2001 book Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War, in this new book McMillan doesn’t stick to just one conflict or focus on one era of history.
She jumps all over the place to show how much of our modern life was created and invented because of war, and how many new innovations and ideas created outside of the military were then translated into martial use and waging war.
War starts with a look at the prehistoric human Ötzi who whose corpse was stumbled on in the 1990s stuck in a glacier ice formation in the mountains of Italy. Ötzi lived over five thousand years ago and researchers were able to look at what he’d eaten and his clothes.
The first theories were that this early human got lost in the cold of the high mountains and perished, but later detailed forensic investigation revealed he’d been shot with arrows and bashed in the head. A knife he was carrying had blood on it as well, indicating he’d fought back.
McMillan’s point? War is far from a modern invention and even prehistoric men in the late Stone Age were bludgeoning and shooting each other in the mountains.
War, what is it good for?
War is a fairly short book but jam-packed full of details and historical examples from the Opium Wars and American Civil War to the French war in Vietnam and colonial wars in Africa.
Over nine chapters McMillan traces the centralization of states and how they began forming professional armies paid salaries by the state to enforce royal will and eventually the “democratic” decisions of the people’s representatives.
She looks at the many reasons nations and groups go to war, from economic motivation to personal conflicts and ethnic animosity or religious fervor. In many cases war has also been truly defensive and come about from the desire to protect social and economic security in a territory from outside marauders or tribes.
Her central premise in the book is that if we don’t admit the deep human, or at least masculine, propensity for armed conflict, we won’t ever be able to transcend it.
War is far more than just people losing control or being manipulated into violence, and it’s difficult to untangle it from society itself and the technologies we use everyday.
Even the tank tracks of modern warfare, for example, were adapted from the tracks of farm tractor technology.
The modern British socialized health service emerged after the London Blitz and the trauma of World War Two, which helped crystallize the national identity and a sense of solidarity and interconnectedness to the wellbeing of other citizens.
In a somewhat similar vein to war journalist Sebastian Junger’s 2016 book Tribe, McMillan probes the question of how we can achieve some of the solidarity and progress of war without having to go through its horrors, abuses and tragedies.
As Junger notes in Tribe:
“What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss.”
Can we transcend war?
War has influenced all of human history and continues to this day across the globe in Ukraine and Sudan, Congo and Yemen. Drug wars, civil wars, clashes with militants, conventional wars and armed insurgencies dot the landscape, even in nations like Mexico.
While some are relaxing on the beach at resorts, other areas of the country are ruled by narcoterrorist gangs, holding families hostage and profiting from drugs, sex slavery and murder.
Instead of progress and the Enlightenment ending war, or the lessening of religious extremism leading to peace, it’s only led to more efficient killing and changes in the way war is waged.
With the growth of nationalism in the 19th Century and the coinciding of mechanization and the Industrial Revolution, war grew. A more literate and empowered middle class made war into a nation-wide affair rather than simply the province of professional armies run for the sake of the aristocracy.
As McMillan notes:
“Nationalism provided the motivation in the powder keg and the Industrial Revolution the means.”
War has only widened out since then, to the point in World War Two and after when “total war” took place and spread across all areas of civilian society and production.
So much of what we have comes from war, and so much of what we’ve lost from family unity to social and ideological certainty also comes from war. The horrors of the world wars made generations question the meaning of life, God and morality.
The bloodshed of Vietnam turned a whole generation of hippies against the idea of established families, economies and roles, since they had seen how social order and convention made it easier, in their view, for humans to be slotted into a war machine.
Attempts to bring international law to bear against the brutality of modern war have been fleeting and selective at best. There’s a reason the atomic bombing of Japan wasn’t included in war crimes trials but Nazi atrocities were.
There’s a reason our media is outraged about the war crimes of our adversaries but turns a blind eye to the war crimes of our allies and partners. This is war, too, the information war.
The winner doesn’t only write history, he or she also prosecutes and adjudicates it.
At most, McMillan’s book offers an interesting look at how outer progress and conflict are linked and how war appears to have deep links to human psychology, social formation and meaning.
At worst, this book is scattered and confusing because it jumps around historical eras so much. It also makes some sweeping generalizations which have to be bought as true without doing significant background research.
There is no definitive answer here for how we can transcend war, because the book shows how things like cyberwar and new forms of conflict are evolving, while also demonstrating that even greater centralization and peace won’t necessarily sate the appetite and frustration of people for conflict, resource competition and ideological supremacy.
The best part about books like this is the valuable discussions they bring up about alternatives to conflict, new ways of fighting, the potential dangers of technology and the value of life.
Sometimes the questions are just as important as the answers.