A Historian Explains What Civilization Owes to War

How Conflict Shaped Us
By Margaret MacMillan

After the Napoleonic Wars ended on the fields of France, in 1814, many British took to wearing dentures that had been pried from the dead on the battlefield — “Waterloo teeth,” they were called. Scavengers scoured the same fields for bones, of both men and animals, and shipped millions of bushels to Yorkshire, where they were ground into dust and used for fertilizer.

So recounts Margaret MacMillan, the Canadian historian, in “War: How Conflict Shaped Us,” her richly eclectic discussion of how culture and society have been molded by warfare throughout history. As the above anecdotes suggest, MacMillan argues that war — fighting and killing — is so intimately bound up with what it means to be human that viewing it as an aberration misses the point; it’s in our bones. “War is waged by men; not beasts, or by gods,” MacMillan writes, quoting Frederic Manning, a poet and novelist of World War I. “To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance.”

“War” is not a long book, only 272 pages of text, but it’s as colorful and tightly woven as a Persian carpet, showing us not just the many ways that men and women make war, but how war makes women and men. In another scholar’s hands, “War” might come across as a work of dry political theory, but as anyone who has read “Paris 1919” — her vivid account of the Versailles Conference at the end of World War I — can attest, MacMillan writes with enormous ease, and practically every page of this book is interesting, even entertaining.

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of October. See the full list. ]

“War” opens with the story of Ötzi, the prehistoric man whose body was discovered by two hikers in the Italian Alps in 1991. Ötzi died more than 5,000 years ago, but his body, long encased in glacial ice, was remarkably well preserved; his last meal, of dried meat, fruit and possibly bread, was still in his stomach, and his leather cap and cloak of woven grass were still on his body. While scientists initially speculated that Ötzi had died alone, having lost his way, further investigation revealed an arrowhead embedded in his shoulder and contusions on his skull. Ötzi was murdered, it appears, and he may have even fought with his killer. (Blood was found on his knife.) “Ötzi is by no means the only piece of evidence we have that early humans, certainly by the time of the late Stone Age, made weapons, ganged up on each other and did their best to finish each other off,” MacMillan writes.

[ Read an excerpt from “War.” ]

And so it has been ever since. MacMillan shows how the need to protect oneself — or one’s tribe or nation — has influenced nearly every aspect of human history. To explain this, she lays out a series of historical paradoxes: In ancient times, people’s need for safety and security led them to organize themselves, eventually, into states — but the state is nothing if not a highly efficient apparatus for making war. And yet if powerful states are good at making war, weaker ones are even more dangerous: Civilians who live under failed states — think Afghanistan or Yemen today — suffer the most. “Mere existence does not entitle a nation to political independence: only the force to assert itself as a state among others,” said a member of the Frankfurt Parliament in 1848.

War has always been cruel and squalid, but it’s the modern world that has made it so fantastically bloody. The Industrial Revolution gave states the ability to manufacture ever more lethal weapons on ever greater scales, and nationalism turned populations into armies, blurring the distinction between soldiers and civilians. “Nationalism provided the motivation in the powder keg and the Industrial Revolution the means,” MacMillan writes.

But war is not merely a negative force; it’s an engine of change and creativity. It helped create the modern bureaucracy, and it made rulers more democratic because they needed healthy, educated people to fight. War helped liberate women, not just on the home front but even on the battlefield, where increasingly they fought; and war forced artists — like the Cubists and the Vorticists — to look at the world in new ways.

The greatest pleasures of this book are the historical anecdotes, moments and quotations that MacMillan marshals on nearly every page to illustrate her points. They are bold, arresting and various, and they make the book come alive. Here’s a small sample:

*When the United States and Britain undertook the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan in World War I, they often deliberately aimed to terrorize civilian populations. In 1945, Americans flying over Tokyo dropped incendiary bombs, a weapon chosen deliberately because so many homes were built of wood; the raid killed as many as 100,000 civilians and left a million homeless. In the words of Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, who oversaw the campaign, the Japanese were “scorched and boiled and baked to death.” MacMillan notes: “It was no oversight that mass bombings were not included in the Allied indictment of Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg trials.”

*Here is the French general Dominque Joseph René Vandamme, a hardened officer, on Napoleon Bonaparte’s overwhelming charisma: “So it is that I, who fear neither God nor the Devil, am ready to tremble like a child when I approach him.” Napoleon’s mere presence on the battlefield, his great adversary the Duke of Wellington noted, “was worth 40,000 men.”

*During the Algerian war for independence, a French commando leader told his men: “You are allowed to rape, but do it discreetly.” Rape is a constant in war, through the ages; in Germany in 1945, an estimated two million women were raped by Soviet soldiers, some of them by several men, in a short period of time. And when the Nazis were defeated, MacMillan notes, it was seen by some German women “as a defeat for the male sex.”

*Beginning in the late 19th century, Western diplomats tried to devise legal regimes to limit brutality and the ends for which wars could be legitimately waged; we know these rules as the Hague and Geneva Conventions. The men and women who created these rules did not, MacMillan writes, regard them as applicable in their wars with non-Westerners, whom they regarded as “uncivilized.” The Japanese were the first to be granted such coverage, once they had created their own highly lethal army and navy. As a Japanese diplomat wryly told his Western counterparts: “We show ourselves at least your equals in scientific butchery and are at once admitted to your council tables as civilized men.”

Finally, one of the most interesting stretches of MacMillan’s book is the section where she discusses war’s impact on art, and the struggles of artists, throughout history, to convey the inexplicable. In a letter to his mother, Wilfred Owen, the great poet of World War I, tried to describe the “very strange look” on the faces of fellow British soldiers he’d seen at a base in France, “an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England. … It was not despair or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look, without expression, like a dead rabbit’s. It will never be painted, and no actor will ever seize it. And to describe it, I think I must go back and be with them.”

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