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The time since the Second World War has been seen by some as the longest uninterrupted period of harmony in human history: the 'long peace', as Stephen Pinker called it. But despite this, there has been a military conflict ongoing every year since 1945. The same can be said for every century of recorded history. Is war, therefore, an essential part of being human?
In War, Professor Margaret MacMillan explores the deep links between society and war and the questions they raise. We learn when war began - whether among early homo sapiens or later, as we began to organise ourselves into tribes and settle in communities. We see the ways in which war reflects changing societies and how war has brought change - for better and worse.
Economies, science, technology, medicine, culture: all are instrumental in war and have been shaped by it - without conflict it we might not have had penicillin, female emancipation, radar or rockets. Throughout history, writers, artists, film-makers, playwrights, and composers have been inspired by war - whether to condemn, exalt or simply puzzle about it. If we are never to be rid of war, how should we think about it and what does that mean for peace?
University of Toronto historian MacMillan (History's People) examines "the deep impact of war on human affairs and vice versa" in this brisk and lucid survey of human history. Expanding on five BBC radio lectures she delivered in 2018, MacMillan links the origins of warfare to the advent of agriculture, and documents the various motivations for going to war, including fear, greed, ideology, and self-defense. In the Western tradition, MacMillan notes, the "search for the decisive military victory" has frequently resulted in defeat (e.g. Napoleon at Waterloo and Germany's Schlieffen Plan in WWI). She details the impact of technological innovations, including the crafting of metal weapons and the invention of gunpowder, on military strategy, and sketches the bloodiest battles fought in England (Towton, 1462) and America (Antietam, 1862). MacMillan also probes the difficulties of negotiating and maintaining peace, and in her discussion of war and culture, she ranges from Shakespeare to the WWI trench poets to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Though the threat of global conflict may seem diminished, MacMillan contends, advances in "artificial intelligence, automated killing machines and cyberwar" mean that "we must, more than ever, think about war." She laces her account with fascinating observations and examples, and provides an extensive and well-sourced bibliography for further reading. Military history buffs will be riveted.