War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan (Non-fiction History)

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 6th, 2020.

This is a surprisingly engaging study of War as a human activity throughout history — rather than the more commonplace in-depth study of a particular conflict. With tight (read non-meandering, non-dry, non-dull) prose, MacMillan studies War from its evolution across the ages: how the ability to make war and changes in human society progress inextricably; the evolution of war across changes in society and technical advancement; the shift from King and Country to nationalism and our view of warriors; what induces people to fight, the role of civilians, and the efforts to control and regulate something as completely uncontrollable as the license to slaughter other human beings. Drawing on a wide variety of examples — from the Peloppenesian and Punic wars to more modern conflicts and everything in between — she brings this uniquely human activity into a sobering perspective.

Like most historians, MacMillan provides an impressive array of sources at the end — what I particularly appreciated is that a significant portion of those referred to individual accounts — diaries, letters, etc. This gave her narrative the perspective of the individual as well as the big picture trends. Her attention to detail pervades from the high-level machinations of governments, kings, and rebels down to the experiences of individual foot soldiers, civilians, prisoners, and diplomats.

Here are some parts that stuck with me for a variety of reasons:

• For much of history the records were made and kept by that minority who could read and write. WWI was groundbreaking in that the majority of combatants were literate.
• We have an antipathy to war that makes us avoid its study and understanding.
• A paradox of war: growing state power and the emergence of larger states are the result of war but can also then bring peace. A strong state keeps a monopoly on force and violence but keeps things peaceful within. For example, Tito kept Yugoslavia together — once he toppled all the ethnic groups within started killing each other. Similarly, the Chinese Qin empire in 221 BC was run by a ruthless tyrant but was remembered with gratitude as the ruler who brought peace and order to China.
• After Waterloo, the British proudly wore dentures made from battlefield dead and used their skeletons as fertilizer.
• Men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to — many came to war to avoid shame, not for glory or duty.
• People at home hate the enemy more than the fighters do. The fighters have pity for each other and understand how similar they are. Those at home see the enemy as one anonymous “they”.
• The longer or costlier the siege, the worse the treatment of the citizens afterwards.
• In WWII, Germany followed International prisoner protocols as long as they considered the prisoners their racial equals — the French and British, not the Poles or Russians.
• The state of the British soldiers during the Boer war was so poor that society started a whole program to improve health of citizenry in order to have more fit soldiers.

While I thought I preferred her deep-dive books to this thematic one, I’ve found these concepts keep coming back into my brain. I’m realizing that it has shifted my way of thinking on the topic — which is exactly what happened to me with her book The War That Ended Peace (highly recommended — all about what led up to WWI). She has an ability to get to the heart of subjects, and her examples are illuminating because while I was aware of some before, I had not been aware of how they exemplified the theme.

Reading this book was both fascinating and depressing, though not in an emotionally wrenching way. While I was aware of all the conflicts she mentioned, the aggregation of violence and mass destruction through the ages makes it harder to ignore. Her concluding point is that we must keep thinking about War, despite our innate abhorrence of the topic, because it has reached a point (Total War, Modern War, high-tech weaponry) where we are threatening all of humanity.

A single quote: “War is a mystery both to those who fight and those of us who are on the sidelines. And it is a troubling and unsettling mystery. It should be abhorrent, but it is so often alluring and its values seductive. It promises glory and offers suffering and death. We who are non-combatants may fear the warriors, but we also admire, even love, them. And we cannot pretend we are not party of the same family, with the same potential for fighting.”

The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan (Non-fiction)

I was surprised at how much I loved this book. I’m a fiction reader and get easily bored (or horrified) by drawn out descriptions of battles, strategies, and political maneuvers. This book was fantastic because it focused on the “why.” The eponymous war (World War I) is literally the epilogue of this book. The first 600+ pages is on what happened in the 30+ years before that made the war possible … though not inevitable.

That is what really fascinated me about the story. MacMillan brings out the details of the individuals involved, the context of the time, the recent events, and the crises averted, to show that so many small things — had they gone just a little differently — might have averted the war that cost 8.5 million lives, with 8 million others missing, and 21 million wounded. Her style is ideal — every detail relevant, a cohesive structure that brings elements to light at the right time and a narrative style that brings the details together to make a coherent story. And no rambling! I don’t know why, but so many non-fiction writers seem to ramble endlessly!

In many places, the book read like a giant game of Risk. Large empires — some new (e.g. Germany had just unified in 1871), some dying (e.g. the Ottoman empire), some struggling to maintain the status quo (e.g. Austria Hungary) — each vying for status in the International community (largely by bickering over colonies and building up impressive militaries) while simultaneously dealing with internal strife in the form of nationalist movements from conquered peoples and new socialist / workers parties demanding rights. Philosophically, social Darwinism concepts had been introduced. Conrad, Austria Hungary’s chief of staff had the core belief (as did many others) that “existence was about struggle and that nations rose and fell depending on their ability to adapt.” MacMillan presents in-depth and well-documented character studies of all the players from the volatile and unpredictable Kaiser Wilhelm II, to his cousins, Britain’s Edward VII and the weak and unprepared Tsar Nicholas II (and his wife Alexandra — “a will of iron linked to not much brain and no knowledge”) to the spartan Franz Joseph of Austria Hungary as well as a panoply of prime ministers, ambassadors, military personnel and socialist leaders.

But my favorite line of all: “Finally…we should never underestimate the part played in human affairs by mistakes, muddles, or simply poor timing.”

As I read I kept having what I call my Gone With the Wind moments — I knew what was going to happen but I somehow kept hoping it would work out differently. With only verified quotes and actual events as material, MacMillan manages to convey the absolute desperation of many as the world drew closer and closer to war and the slow unraveling of the Concert of Europe. The description of this was chilling — rail and telegraph lines were cut, bank reserves were frozen, currency exchange stopped, trade stopped. “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life.” (attributed to Sir Edward Grey, Britain Foreign Secretary in 1914). Although written in 2013 (pre-Trump), she often draws unnerving parallels between the situations in 1914 and those of our current time.

Some advice for reading — if you’re like me and find 600 pages of dense history overwhelming and off putting — read one chapter at a time and take as long as you like. The contents are so memorable that you can pick it up days later and not have forgotten a thing.