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