War | Margaret MacMillan

Summary of: War: How Conflict Shaped Us
By: Margaret MacMillan


Embark on an intriguing journey to explore the human propensity for war and unravel the genetic codes that have made conflict a central component of our existence. The book summary of ‘War: How Conflict Shaped Us’ by Margaret MacMillan delves deep into the motivations behind our warring tendencies, from greed and self-defense to emotions and ideas. Discover the role of culture and society in crafting approaches to war and how the emergence of nationalism and the Industrial Revolution sculpted modern warfare. As you traverse this thought-provoking summary, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of the various factors that drive people to engage in battles and the devastating effects of war on both soldiers and civilians.

The Iceman and the Roots of War

Bolzano’s mummified body, known as Ötzi or the Iceman, revealed that organized, armed conflict has always been part of human history. Are we genetically programmed to fight?

Bolzano’s history is unique in that it houses the mummified corpse of Ötzi, the Iceman, who lived around 3300 BC. Initially, archaeologists believed that Ötzi died of hypothermia while lost in the Swiss mountains. However, upon closer inspection, the Iceman’s body had cuts and bruises all over, with an arrowhead found in his shoulder. It is now believed that he died in a fight, showing that humans have been wounding and killing each other since at least the later Stone Age.

For a long time, scientists believed that early humans lived peaceful lives, until researchers came to the conclusion that organized, armed conflict is an inherent part of our history. The question, then, remains: are we genetically programmed to fight? To answer this, scientists have studied our closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos. Chimpanzees can be incredibly violent, starting deadly conflicts with little or no provocation. In contrast, bonobos are peaceful, with initial encounters consisting of sharing food and embracing.

Ultimately, humans exhibit both extreme violence and far-reaching cooperation, driven by the same evolutionary forces that shaped our species at the dawn of humanity. While our desire for food can make us violent, we have also “domesticated” ourselves and can choose not to go to war or improve the world through more abstract causes like honor or religion.

The Iceman’s story reveals that organized violence has always been a part of our history, but the relative peacefulness or violence of our closest genetic relatives does not answer if we are inherently programmed to fight. Nonetheless, seeing as humans can neither avoid violence nor embrace pacifism completely, understanding why wars happen and appreciating the far-reaching damages of violent conflicts are vital for our society.

Motivations for War

Wars are motivated by greed, self-defense, emotions and ideas. These factors underpinned the decision of Britain to go to war with Spain in 1739, even though the pretext for the war, Captain Jenkins’ ear, was absurd. Greed is a common motivation behind wars: the Mongol Empire and Saddam Hussein were driven by the desire to plunder and loot. Wars are also fought in self-defense, such as Israel’s 1967 attack on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Fear is another motivation, demonstrated by Hitler’s unfounded belief that peace in Europe made Germans soft and weak. Finally, wars can arise from emotional factors such as personal glory and from ideas such as religion, politics, and nationalism. These motivations underpinned the decisions of leaders like Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Louis XIV, as well as countless ordinary individuals who fought for a cause they believed in. While the list of reasons for starting wars is long, they are typically underpinned by the same fundamental factors of greed, self-defense, emotions, and ideas.

War, Culture, and Influence

Wars are viewed and fought differently by societies depending on their institutions, values, and beliefs.

The culture of any society plays a crucial role in shaping its attitudes towards wars and conflicts. In the Middle Ages, wars were romanticized with tales of King Arthur and his Knights. The society believed that honor and virtue were the cornerstones of chivalry, and men were encouraged to prove their valor for the reward of a woman’s hand in marriage. However, reality was far from romantic, and the conflicts were brutal and violent.

Institutions, values, and beliefs can influence a society’s view of war. The Roman Republic venerated war, and being a soldier was a part of citizenship. Later, the idea of outsourcing military duties to mercenaries crept in, but war was still highly regarded. In contrast, Sunzi, a Chinese military general, promoted the idea of winning battles without bloodshed. This idea influenced several Chinese dynasties, where walls and bribery became the primary means of defense.

The technology of war is influenced by culture as well. Roman soldiers repurposed levers that peasants used for pressing grapes and olives to build ships and hurl stones at enemies. Such technologies and techniques can help a culture gain an advantage over another.

Culture can serve as a weapon in certain situations. The Spanish victory over the Inca is an example where they abducted the Incan emperor, violating Incan society’s rules, leaving the nation leaderless. In such a hierarchical society, it was a significant setback.

In conclusion, wars are viewed and fought differently across societies depending on their institutions, values, and beliefs. A culture’s influence is pervasive and can extend to the technology and strategy of wars. Understanding the role of culture in wars can help in comprehending negotiations, resolutions, and other aspects of war.

The Birth of Modern Warfare

The Battle of Valmy marked the beginning of nationalism, one of the three factors that shaped modern warfare. Nationalism brought citizens together to fight for a common goal and promoted the idea that it was a person’s duty to defend their nation. The Industrial Revolution also played a significant role in changing war through innovation, increased production capacity, and the rise of the middle and working classes. As a result, discussing conflict was no longer just for the elites. Modern war transformed into something all-consuming, which we now call total war. Armies now consist of millions of soldiers, and countries must harness their entire economic might to serve their war efforts, resulting in more suffering than people ever thought possible.

Reasons for Joining Wars

The Battle of Towton was the deadliest ever fought on English soil. This begs the question – why do people join wars? The answer is not always as simple as volunteering. In the eighteenth century, for instance, criminals were given the option to join the army or be executed. Poverty, cultural expectations of male role models, and traditions like uniforms also contribute to enlistment numbers. However, training and discipline are critical to maintaining troop numbers. Threats of execution are sometimes enforced to keep soldiers fighting. It’s not just soldiers who are affected by war though. The next part dives into the impact on society’s civilians.

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