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Staff Pick: War: How Conflict Shaped Us

Name: Muizzuddin Munir
Book: War: How Conflict Shaped Us
Author: Margaret MacMillan
Publisher: Random House (2020)
Language: English
Year: 2020

War: How Conflict Shaped Us, by Margaret MacMillan

Book Synopsis:
Is peace an aberration? 

The bestselling author of Paris 1919 offers a provocative view of war as an essential component of humanity.

The instinct to fight may be innate in human nature, but war—organised violence—comes with organised society. War has shaped humanity’s history, its social and political institutions, its values and ideas. Our very language, our public spaces, our private memories, and some of our greatest cultural treasures reflect the glory and the misery of war. War is an uncomfortable and challenging subject not least because it brings out both the vilest and the noblest aspects of humanity.

Margaret MacMillan looks at the ways in which war has influenced human society and how, in turn, changes in political organisation, technology, or ideologies have affected how and why we fight. War: How Conflict Shaped Us explores such much-debated and controversial questions as: When did war first start? Does human nature doom us to fight one another? Why has war been described as the most organized of all human activities? Why are warriors almost always men? Is war ever within our control?

Drawing on lessons from wars throughout the past, from classical history to the present day, MacMillan reveals the many faces of war—the way it has determined our past, our future, our views of the world, and our very conception of ourselves.

Margaret MacMillan’s excellent book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, explores how war has impacted contemporary human systems, such as politics, economy, social interactions, and so forth. Wars have influenced many of the ideologies, political structures, and political systems that exist today. Our modern civilisation is the result of a long history of mobilisation for conflict and the slow progress for greater citizen’s rights and subsequent development. In fact, welfare, voting rights, and other instituted rights were installed primarily as a means of appeasing war veterans who risk their lives for their country.

According to statistics, more people died from war in the 20th century than in any other century. Take Malaysia as an example. Although we gained our Independence peacefully, we had to contend with the communist insurgency which resulted in many casualties. The 21st century is so far looking good, but there is still warfare, despite the moral and ethical systems that humans have developed. We declare that we detest violence, and fighting is no longer considered a legitimate means of advancing international relations, but there are still conflicts all over the world, the latest of which is in Ukraine. How this conflict will impact Russia, Ukraine, Europe and the rest of the world remains to be seen though the effects are already reverberating through the economies of the world. 

The writing is clear and fast-paced throughout the book. The topic is presented in broad strokes and is probably familiar to most history or political students. However, the book is a great way to refresh readers’ memory on the subject and offers an intriguing but simple hypothesis about how battles affect social structures and human systems. 

Perhaps wisely, MacMillan resists the impulse to speculate about the form of future warfare, aware that most prior military experts have been spectacularly wrong in their forecasts. She does, however, make the argument that the rapid advancement of technology, which has brought the fight into cyberspace and outer space, could further undermine the global order.

“With new and terrifying weapons, the growing importance of artificial intelligence, automated killing machines and cyber war, we face the prospect of the end of humanity itself,” she writes. “It is not the time to avert our eyes from something we may find abhorrent. We must, more than ever, think about war.”

A book definitely worth reading.

Our intern, Muiz, posing with the book

“One of the many paradoxes of war is that humans got good at it when they created organized societies. Indeed, the two developments have evolved together. War-organised, purposeful violence between two political units became more elaborate when we developed organised sedentary societies and it helped to make those societies more organised and powerful.” Chapter 1: Humanity, Society and War, page 7

Bored Gods decide to play with humans and set in motion a train of events so that a man steals another man’s wife; kings fall out over a piece of territory or succession to a throne; a British sea captain loses an ear; am emperor’s representatives are pitched out of a window in Prague; an American battleship explodes in Havana harbor; monks fight in shine in Jerusalem; an archduke is killed in Sarajevo; or Japanese soldiers are fired on near an ancient bridge in Beijing, and so there is war. Soldiers die, ships sink, cities and towns are sacked and civilians, always, suffer.”- Chapter 2: Reasons for War, page 30

‘’In such societies–and they have existed in all times and in many different places–young men, and they are almost invariably men, are brought up by their elders to value such qualities as discipline, bravery and a willingness to die. And the epics they hear, the books they read, the songs they sing or the paintings or sculpture they see, hold them the examples of great warriors.’’Chapter 3: Ways and Means, page 51

This book is available at the Perdana Library. If you are interested in reading or borrowing the book, please visit our Library in Putrajaya, or contact us at 03-8885 8961 (Library Counter).