The book ends on a sombre note. Wars are not part of our past: they are ongoing and are very likely to shape our future. Yet despite this note of caution, the book is delightfully readable. The author wears the immense scholarship underpinning the book lightly. Her writing style is crisp and there is an enviable clarity of thought. This should come as no surprise. MacMillan’s previous books, notably Peacemakers, her magisterial account of the 1919 Versailles conference, are critically acclaimed and have won several important awards.
War captures the excitement and allure that battle has long exercised for many men keen to escape the dull routine of their lives and prove their virility. As the Confederate general Robert E Lee said: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” But women, too, have on occasion been among the most enthusiastic warmongers. Their enlistment in factories, farms and even front lines during the terrible wars of the 20th century also helped transform societies, leading to irresistible pressure in many countries to extend the franchise, open up educational and career opportunities and expand the welfare state.
In some ways MacMillan’s book is a high-class version of the bestselling Falloutvideo games, which always open with the lines: “War. War never changes.” Time and again, she argues, people fight for the same reasons: greed, territory, fear, honour, a vision of a better world. They also make the same mistakes, born of hubris and self-delusion. She tells a lovely story about a huge Pentagon war game in 2002, just before the invasion of Iraq. The American side had better technology, firepower, manpower, the lot.
This is a work that transcends the radio format, a lively piece of non-academic writing that brings a sense of urgency to the study of war and society. It reads, though, as if spoken. History-telling, above all the history of battle, is an oral tradition, and MacMillan is its master. The book is full of the kind of detail designed not only to make a point, but also to keep the listener alert. She might just as well have been telling these stories and their curiosities across a campfire before battle.