Book Review: War: How Conflict Shaped Us


by Margaret MacMillan

London: Profile Books, / New York: Random House, 2020. Pp xiv, 314. Illus., biblio., index. $30.00. ISBN: 1984856138

"A Mystery, and a Terrifying One"

Based on a set of 2018 radio talks for the wider public, this is not a book designed for readers of this journal, which, unsurprisingly, does not feature in the bibliography because presumably it is neither useful nor helpful to those who wish to explore the subject further. Instead, the International Feminist Journal of Politics and the New York Times are among the periodicals cited; and there is a good discussion of the implications of war for women and for civilians in general. It would be an easy task to set a student to cover what has been left out (very little on Africa for example, or a serious underplaying of naval warfare, and so on), and indeed the many clichés and examples that are polished anew. Having noted the pluses (a good use of literary material and some arresting illustrations), however, it is more helpful to consider the problems posed by the author: how did conflict shape us, and what do we mean by conflict?

MacMillan proposes that “War is a mystery, and a terrifying one” (p. xxii), but, as she notes, it is not difficult to define, and also inherent to the species. Indeed, she argues, “human beings, as far back as we can tell, have had a propensity to attack each other in organised ways” (p. 5). We therefore are in anthropological and sociological territory, and valuably so, with some discussion of cultures of war and of the willingness to cause, and experience, risk and chaos. The excitement of war is one of her themes and, linked to that, the willingness to cause wars. The 1913 observation of Pancho Villa on the 1907 Hague conference thus falls into place: “It seems to me a funny thing to make rules about war. It is not a game. What is the difference between civilised war and any other kind of war?” (p. 203).

MacMillan focuses on the experience of war, which offers an interesting account. Less positively, however, there is an often-facile juxtaposition of examples from wildly different settings, and with no real consideration of context or source accuracy. This is very much the fashionable approach de notre jours, but diachronic history can be hopelessly glib. A more grounded account, in terms both of particular geographical environments, both human and physical, and specific chronological contexts, would be far more appropriate.

Wars today can be far shorter than the time it takes to write a chapter, let alone a book, and yet there is no shortage of lengthy books that, if dropped from any height, might well be fatal to a pedestrian on the ground. A short book, however, risks simplifying the nature of war in order to provide a clear account and use a clear causal narrative to explain developments. All then falls into a pat analysis, with technological proficiency in weaponry generally the measure of proficiency, and the sorcerer’s apprentice of steadily more frenetic conflict. MacMillan more helpfully addresses causes and experience.

In the context of today, however, it may well be that war is rather a medium of questions than the message of an easy answer. There is no clear hierarchy of military capabilities, but rather challenges and responses set by very different taskings and environments, both physical and human. The key divide is that of wars between states and conflict within them. It is only if both the latter, and also the non-West, are given sufficient attention that a sounder understanding of war can develop. A discussion of military history ought to be as helpful for and from Madagascar and Paraguay as Germany and the United States, and, to that end, a certain amount of scattergun face- and impact-of-battle quotations can be left out. Moreover, it is only if this sounder understanding is pursued that Western powers will adequately understand the non-Western environments in which they might seek to operate.


This review originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of The Journal of Military History, and is used with the kind permission of Prof. Black and The JMH.

Our Reviewer: Jeremy Black, Professor of history the University of Exeter, is also a Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of America and the West at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of an impressive number of works in history and international affairs, frequently demonstrating unique interactions and trends among events, including The Great War and the Making of the Modern World, C




Note: War: How Conflict Shaped Us is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium (

Reviewer: Prof. Jeremy Black   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close