The Transformative Power of War


Review of War: How Conflict Shaped Us, by Margaret MacMillan 

New York: Penguin, 2020


Is it morally condemnable to propose the beneficial—as well as the damaging— repercussions of war? This is the question that Margaret MacMillan encourages us to ask as she introduces this series of essays, expanded from her 2018 BBC Reith Lectures. MacMillan does not think so, positing that we should see “war and society as partners, locked into a dangerous but also productive relationship” (2). As MacMillan’s book shows, war has contributed to a dizzyingly diverse set of changes upon human, animal, and environmental societies, both shaping us and being shaped by our needs. However, despite this impact, she argues that post-war Western societies have become detached from the experiences of warfare, ignorant to its destruction but also its overwhelming power to alter our lives. “Wars have repeatedly changed the course of human history, opening up pathways into the future and closing down others,” MacMillan hypothesizes through a series of counterfactual thought experiments (3). Rather than as an exclusively regressive, “destructive, cruel, and wasteful” event, MacMillan suggests that we conceive of war as a transformative process, capable of inspiring technological innovation and political revolution as well as violent aggression (2). 

Thematically approaching the topic of war, MacMillan touches on important moments in global history to explore how both informal forms of intra-group violence and formalized inter-state conflict have driven technological advancements, political change, and improvements to quality of life. Guiding the reader by anecdotal titbits and references to mythology, it would be impossible not to be impressed by the temporal breadth of the book, spanning from Greco-Persian battles in 5th century BC to the Second World War. However, this thematic methodological approach makes the chronology of MacMillan’s chapters difficult to navigate. In one instance, a paragraph on French troops and Nazi propaganda shifts suddenly to a sidenote about Thucydides’ reflections on Spartan defence strategy (47). Before returning to the Second World War, we even touch on Israel’s motivations before the Six-Day War in 1967, further disconnecting the reader from context-focused analysis or argument. 

As fascinating as these individual revelations are, their brevity and disjointed sequence limit our ability to meaningfully engage with the context and those affected by it. Instead, the necessary vagueness of these short, simplified anecdotes, disconnects us from a more complex understanding of each of her chosen examples. MacMillan’s choice to emphasize the most absurd or shocking snippets of conflict through these anecdotes flattens her analysis and prevents her readers from making sensible, academic comparisons of the different contexts presented in this book. Perhaps these historical sidenotes would have been more evocative in a lecture setting, but on the page, they sit awkwardly among the rest of the narrative, making each chapter difficult to follow and chronologically choppy.

MacMillan’s descriptions of power and powerful actors in conflict also simplify our understanding of the complex exercise of individual agency in violent contexts, thus concealing dynamic decision-making processes. By focusing largely on well-known European conflicts, drifting occasionally across the Atlantic to consider North America, MacMillan’s definition of war—and those who wage it—are largely restricted to white male experiences from the European trenches of the World Wars, on ships with Napoleon, or those seeking revenge on the beaches at Troy. 

War is presented as an exclusively masculine and often imperialistic practice, fuelled by natural, biological, and instinctual motivations for greed and extraction: “Although war has normally been seen as a sphere for men, woman can be its excuse” (46). Women captured as war brides or slaves following war fit neatly into this patriarchal paradigm as not only objects, but, in the case of Helen of Troy, also as scapegoats for the violence required for their own acquisition. This narrative blames them for their own enslavement, imposing them with guilt for the value put on them by enemy forces. Thus, for MacMillan, women’s roles in conflict are limited to their physical dominion by victorious men “for servitude or procreation” (46); women are listed alongside natural resources, food, and territory rather than as agents of influence and change. She argues that women are, historically, victims of men’s greed and subsequent violence, rather than acknowledging that women have both shaped and been shaped by processes of war in complex and conflicting ways. Women’s bodies have been simultaneously battlegrounds and sites of regeneration, agents of violence, and voices for peace. Scholarship by Rebekah Lee, Stephanie McCurry, and Linda Connolly has helped to illuminate the diverse and active roles played by women in war, challenging the characterisation of women and girls as subservient, passive figures in contexts of violence or oppression.

MacMillan adopts highly limited conceptions of peace and conflict, encouraging us to associate the absence of organised, militarised violence with peace. She argues, “War is not an aberration, best forgotten as quickly as possible. Nor is it simply an absence of peace which is really the normal state of affairs” (2). In simpler terms, she conceives of conflict through a very limited, formal definition, aligning herself with Hedley Bull’s explanation of war: “violence carried out in the name of a political unit is not war unless it is directed against another political unit” (17). MacMillan’s conceptions of conflict also obscure alternative forms of inter- and intra-state violence, as identified by colonial and military historians, such as political oppression, psychological violence, and structural systems of racial discrimination. For instance, Stuart Schrader’s important work has demonstrated how the militarisation of domestic US policing was integral to the evolution of global counterinsurgency and regime change during the twentieth century. Therefore, for Macmillan, peace is the absence of a “clash between two organised societies which command the adherence of their members and have existed over considerable time, usually in their own territory” (17). Essentially, MacMillan deems conflict to be strategic violence between two state armies, or “stable political and social units,” thus excluding non-state political formations such as national liberation forces and ethnic minority communities (17). 

MacMillan’s conclusions about the required organization of non-state political units reveal an instinct to delegitimize the claims, experiences, and political legitimacy of actors on the periphery of the international order. The implications of defining “war” so narrowly are intellectually and legally significant. In international humanitarian law, the distinction between civilian and combatant remains a crucial source of debate; recognising a violent conflict as a war as opposed to an emergency or revolt (and thus belligerents as lawful) provides important protections to prisoners of war and limits the conduct of war. 

This specific definition of war also has implications for MacMillan’s conception of peace. For instance, in an early section about a fraudulent anthropologist in Samoa, MacMillan argues that it was “only with the coming of imperialism, in this case in the shape of the Americans and the Germans, then later the British, that peace came to Samoa” (25). In an interesting choice of passive voice, MacMillan determines that peace was brought to Samoa by colonial forces, rather than oppression. She contextualises this by asserting that “earlier visitors” to Samoa, such as missionaries and sailors, had confirmed that inter-communal violence on the island had been unrelenting before the benevolent imperial forces invaded. In an unambiguous show of support for the civilizing mission, MacMillan uncritically characterizes the local Samoan community and their conflicts as barbarous, inter-tribal scuffles. Without a trace of irony, she posits that the Samoan population had spent much of their history “busily engaged in fighting one another” in a book that is largely dedicated to detailing the inter-state conflicts waged by European nations, from Athens to Arnhem (25). 

Despite these framing issues, one may need to ask: is her argument about the need for histories that reflect on the beneficial repercussions of conflict necessary? MacMillan positions herself as striding out on her own into the neglected and allegedly underfunded field of conflict studies. She argues: 

Yet in the majority of Western universities the study of war is largely ignored, perhaps because we fear that the mere act of researching and thinking about it means approval. International historians, diplomatic historians and military historians all complain about the lack of interest in their fields, and of jobs too. War or strategic studies are relegated, when they exist, to their own small enclosures where those called military historians can roam away, digging up their unsavoury titbits and constructing their unedifying stories, and not bother anyone else. (5)

This difficult life might be true for scholars retaining a traditional approach to these fields, focusing uncritically on strategy and military aggression, but histories of war are far from marginalized in the spectrum of humanities and social science disciplines.

In response to MacMillan’s plea for more histories of war, there is good news. Learning from and collaborating with scholars of colonialism, race, and gender have inspired seismic shifts in how historians conceive of conflict and its repercussions. Only by challenging foundational assumptions within traditional military and international histories have recent scholars begun to revise and reinvent narratives of international conflict, freeing their work to discover non-traditional definitions of war and peace. Erasing these assumptions has also facilitated the exploration of different experiences in warfare, such as those of colonial forces during the first and second world war, and expanding our methods, for example to work with oral histories. These interdisciplinary studies have revitalized existing narratives and complicated existing understandings of warfare. Recent conflict histories have helped to communicate how non-European populations shaped and were shaped by conflict, investigating pre-colonial political dynasties and non-European imperial practices, as well as enslavement, indenture, and colonization. Taking an anti-colonial approach to the scholarship has meant recognizing the racist and imperialistic assumptions built into the foundations of fields like military history, international history, and international relations more broadly. 

Moreover, histories from multiple fields and niches have directly contributed to this question of conflict as a destructive and productive process for a variety of actors. The impacts and thus innovations of warfare have rarely been limited to the battlefield alone, as transformed soldiers, nurses, and humanitarians returned home to transformed home societies. Indeed, it was the traumatic experience of witnessing the carnage at the Battle of Solferino in the mid-nineteenth century that provoked businessman Henri Dunant to pen the book which would inspire the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

In this vein, scholars of the laws of war have long argued that the prohibitions and limits on the conduct of belligerents have been largely reactive to the experiences on the ground. The violence of the Holocaust directly led to the development and inclusion of international charges of genocide and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Trials, as Phillipe Sands revealed in detail in his famed book East West Street. The particular type of violence experienced during the Holocaust encouraged novel legal inventions in response to the international crimes of Axis forces. The international convention for genocide remains inherently bound to this historical moment, encouraging unhelpful comparison and the construction of a hierarchy of harm. Beneficial transformations of warfare, however positive they first appear, can also incite future damage or injury, despite their original logic.

Similarly, historians of humanitarianism have highlighted how organisational politics was directly influenced by experiences in conflict. Most famously, the Nigeria-Biafra war inspired the establishment of the French NGO, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), as doctors deployed by the Red Cross struggled with the restriction of the ICRC’s organisational principles in practice. MSF’s origin emerged from the ethical dilemmas in the field and contributed to the future care of thousands of civilians trapped and harmed by future conflicts —a beneficial transformation of the horrors of war, many would argue. This scholarship has not shied away from emphasising the complicated yet entangled relationship between humanitarian operations and violent conflict. 

Questions of war and society have been expanded by environmental historians who have studied the Anthropocene and the impact of human activity on the landscape. John Wills (2001), for instance, has demonstrated that sites of conflict or disaster can lead to processes of rewilding in spaces that humans would avoid or conceive as damaged. Wills’ contribution reveals the creative approach of non-human histories and their analytical use for examining the transformational impact of war. Remaking both the ecological landscape and human restrictions of accessibility, environments such as nuclear test facilities, nuclear parks and other abandoned conflict architecture (such as Chernobyl) can become “unnaturally natural” as animals and plants reclaim the space for their own use (449). Wills wrote that atomic ‘Buffer zones, as no-mans-land, had served as enigmatic wildlife refuges. Rather than national parks, nuclear parks boasted the human-less “frozen wilderness” (463). Expanding beyond MacMillan’s concept of ‘conflict’ that focuses on organised, militarised violence, work by scholars such as Wills’ uncovers how preparatory or experimental activities for war on home territory can also provide important insight into the ways in which war and society are intertwined and complicating the binary of war and peace further. 

How we narrativize war and peace inherently affects how we conceive of other populations and ourselves; it encourages us to make moral judgements about human nature and legitimises assessments over how others have acted and whether they were “right.” Histories, like MacMillan’s, place belligerents on a hierarchy of civilized conduct based upon traditional conceptions of honor, marked against Western cultural ideals. Positing that it would be “unsavoury” to study war as a potentially transformative and beneficial event, MacMillan excludes the nuance encouraged by recent literature (5). Although she has written a book filled with important reflections, her analytical approach to power in settings of conflict jars with recent historiographies of race and gender as well as peace and conflict. From a scholar with an immense experience and knowledge of the field, these thoughts would have worked far more successfully alongside one another if they had remained in lecture format.



Posted on 21 May 2021

MARGOT TUDOR is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow for the project “Warnings from the Archive: A Century of British Intervention in the Middle East” at the University of Exeter.