War: How Conflict Shaped Us, by Margaret MacMillan

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Margaret MacMillan, and Random House for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

War gets a bad rap, according to historian Margaret MacMillan. In this piece, she effectively argues that war is about more than bloodshed and body counts, but serves as a significant influence on society. This quasi-academic piece presents arguments in a clear and somewhat concise manner, permitting the reader to see substantiation of her thesis before coming to a conclusion for themselves. Perusing many blatant, but oft forgotten, aspects of war, MacMillan is able to tie things all together in a riveting conclusion at a time when the next great battle seems only a tweet away!

While MacMillan does concede that wars can be horrific events where large losses of life negatively impact families, she offers the flip side and explores how this spurs the economic engine to begin production. With war comes the need for more supplies and additional armaments, production ramps up, and money flows freely. This includes the development of new weapons and technologies, which may not have been available during past battles. MacMillan explores this at length and shares how some technology is better suited to certain regions than others. Tied to the economy is the addition to the labour market, which means more work for citizens. Unemployment numbers fall and people find themselves more productive, which can also lead to a stronger citizen core. With higher employment comes less gender disparity in the workforce, at least when MacMillan looks to past conflicts. The Great War (and Second World War) opened the workforce up to women, permitting them to play a significant role in adding to the burgeoning economy.

Financial benefits are but one richness that people feel when it comes to war. There is a stronger sense of nationalism during wartime, no matter which country a person calls home. MacMillan explores the strong sense of connection that war brought to people around the world. While not entirely positive, German sentiment during the Second World War was high as the Nazis espoused their form of nationalism. Many of the Western countries went into the Great War with a strong sense of nationalism and sought to strengthen that as they fought to bring about the glory from past victories. MacMillan presents countless examples of this, both on the battlefield and at home. Newspapers sought to drum up support for ‘the boys’ as families waited at home. There is no doubt that nationalism comes into play when war rages on. This may be a temporary bump, but it serves as something to unite people around a common cause. Tied to nationalism is the boost that artistic expression gets with war. MacMillan dedicates an entire chapter on this, but it is worth noting not only that a country’s victories can be exemplified through the arts, but that there is open interpretation when it comes to war, as with many pieces of art in any medium.

MacMillan offers an interesting perspective about how wars are seen through the eyes of the soldier—on the battlefield with bullets sailing all around them—and the individual at home. While there are countless examples, one might best focus on the Vietnam War for this topic, where MacMillan hints that the sentiment of soldiers who were fighting for freedom felt strongly in the jungles of Asia, while general sentiment at home was completely opposite. The distance from the frontline and the synthesising of truths through media representation changes things quite substantially. MacMillan offers this up in two contrasting chapters, almost begging the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters in the book is the discussion surrounding rules of war. MacMillan looks at how there have long been ‘agreed sentiments’ when in battle, but these gentleman’s agreements began not to be enough. Around the early part of the American Civil War, documented rules for how prisoners ought to be treated and negotiated ceasefires came into place. This led to a number of key agreements into the 20th century, which were finalised in the Geneva Convention after the Second World War. While these agreements hold no real punitive countermeasure in the moment, there are strong and strict parameters that most nation-states will follow. Into the 21st century, the world has seen that grey area when enemy combatants are not aligned with a recognised nation, though MacMillan and the courts have begun addressing these at some length.

While this is only a small segment of MacMillan’s entire argument, the book is full of so many perspectives sure to pique the interest of the curious reader. MacMillan has used much of her academic life exploring war and the history surrounding regions in conflict, with a number of well-documented books. Her arguments are made in a clear and effective manner, providing proof to support what she presents to the reader. While war is generally seen as a battle of blood and gore, MacMillan tries to show the other perspectives that may be evident, but receive little mention during the most heated moments. In a book broken down into nine chapters, MacMillan is able to effectively prove her thesis and educate the reader at the same time, providing the reader with the most information possible, without inundating them at any point. The book is fairly digestible, though there is no doubt that it has an academic flavour to it. This provides much needed mental stimulation for those who are tired of reading newspaper articles or pieces aimed at the general public. I found this more than refreshing and cannot wait to see what else Margaret MacMillan has to say in the years to come!

Kudos, Madam MacMillan, for another stunning tome. You make Canada proud and are surely one of the best when it comes to war history.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, by Margaret MacMillan

Nine stars

What a fantastic read! I learned so much from MacMillan’s intricate account of the time after the Great War. Relying on many historical facts and documents, MacMillan offers up not only a depiction of the world in the months after the Armistice had been signed, but how the world changed dramatically. I knew little of the fallout of the Great War, save that there was a Treaty of Versailles. I knew the German reaction to the Treaty and Peace led to the fuelling of animosity and, eventually, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. MacMillan disputes that this narrow view was the main and sole weakness of the Conference, as will be discussed below.

When the Peace Conference was convened, its chosen heads—America, Great Britain, France, and Italy—took it upon themselves not only to negotiate a lasting peace, but to solve many of the geographic disputes of small nations or cultural groups. The only caveat required to present a plea the ‘Big Four’ was that a group must justify how they were supporters of the victors throughout the Great War. Ostensibly led by American President Woodrow Wilson, the Big Four sought to re-draw the world in such a way as to create calmness and ensure the vanquished were left with little. MacMillan weaves an extremely detailed explanation of how the world changed and what the Big Four did by slashing a pen across a map they could not bother to examine. It is clear that Wilson wanted a League of Nations—a world parliament of sorts—drawn-up along the lines of his key Fourteen Points to save the world. While noble, the attentive reader can see that even a century ago, American leaders were big on the ‘my plan only’ mindset, even if it did not take into account many of the world’s nuances. Still, as MacMillan argues, Wilson saw benefit in reshaping the world, as it was surely ‘broken’ and needed injection of new perspectives. This idea permeates throughout the book as MacMillan shows how, over a six-month period, many of the world’s disputes were heard and ruled upon, though not always in a way that would foster lasting peace. The Middle East was doled out like the spoils of a poker game, decided and bid on by the Big Four, but forgetting history or ethnicity. The Ottoman Empire, as well as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were picked apart, leaving a carcass unrecognisable by geography or ethnicity. Like putting bees in a jar and hope they will learn to be amicable.

MacMillan pulls no punches in her book. None of the Big Four are safe from her harsh criticism at one point or another. She lays out her facts (I am not naive enough to think that she is not writing from her own angle) and then lets the reader see the fallout. Telling not only of the presentations by delegations, but also the inner fighting between the US, UK, France, and Italy, MacMillan shows how decisions were not simply agreed upon over a bottle or two of wine. Peering into the lives of these four men and their apparent infallibility, we see just how human they are.

MacMillan does a masterful job presenting the history in this piece. She weaves together a ton of information and organises it so that the reader can readily understand what is going on. With brief, but poignant, biographies of the Big Four leaders, she sets the scene before offering up some chronological narratives about the goings-on in Paris. Giving each country their own chapter, MacMillan thoroughly explores their plights, asks, and the eventual decision reached, which can sometimes pave the way for the cognizant reader to see the modern reverberations of these actions. A thorough tome if ever there was one, MacMillan is a master at telling her story and uses a preponderance of evidence to back up the claims she makes throughout, leaving the reader to decide how closely they align with her arguments. While hindsight is always crystal clear, I can see the glaring errors that have come from these decisions in the winter and spring of 1919. Shattered states that I grew up seeing dissolve were born in the geographic biology labs of Paris in 1919. Imagine such a Conference now and how truly impossible it would be. Six months with the major leaders sitting down, mostly uninterrupted, and hashing something out as thoroughly and intricately as the re-organisation of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. I cannot fathom this ever happening again. But, perhaps this is why it was such a tragedy at the time and that history has shown the disaster it became. MacMillan does not try to soften the blow, as the world has surely become more chaotic because of the Paris Peace Conference. I just wonder if we’d have been better off without any attempts at gluing the world together in 1919 and what it would look like a century later.

Splendid job, Ms. MacMillan. Great to see a Canadian present such a fabulous piece of analysis as it relates to a profound bit of world history. Kudos and much praise.

This book fulfils Topic #3: A Tragic Tome, part of the Equinox #5 Reading Challenge.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons