What’s it about?

War (2020) is a philosophical inquiry into the nature of the human conflict. It considers war from different angles, examining what causes it, how we think about it, and how it affects us. By making an effort to understand war, we become better prepared to avoid it.

About the author

Margaret MacMillan is a historian, professor emerita of international history at Oxford University, and professor emerita of history at the University of Toronto. In 2018, she was the Reith lecturer, giving talks in five major cities on the subject of war. She is also a fellow of the Royal Society for Literature and the best-selling author of Paris 1919, which won numerous awards, and The War That Ended Peace, which was named a New York Times Notable Book.


Humans have always waged war, and we may be genetically predisposed to do so:

Bolzano is a charming town nestled in the Swiss Alps. Tzi, also known as the Iceman, is one of the main attractions. Tzi is the mummified body of a man who lived circa 3300 BC, long before Egypt’s Great Pyramids or Stonehenge in ancient Britain were erected.

What caused Tzi’s death? Archaeologists initially assumed he’d become lost in the mountains and died of exposure. Tzi’s body was covered with scratches and bruises, and an arrowhead protruded from his shoulder, but they eventually uncovered something completely different. His knife and arrowheads were stained with blood. So it appears that Tzi died in a brawl.

According to his story, since at least the late Stone Age, humans have been injuring and killing each other. But why is that?

Scientists have long assumed that early people lived peaceful, nomadic hunter-gatherer existence. But, according to academics, organized, violent combat has always been a component of our existence.

Is this to say that war is hardwired into our DNA? Do we have an innate predisposition to fight? Scientists researched chimps and bonobos, humans’ closest genetic relatives, to find an answer to that issue.

Unfortunately, what they’ve discovered is inconclusive. On the one hand, chimps have a reputation for being aggressive. They initiate violent battles without warning or provocation. The bonobos, on the other hand, appear to be much calmer. When two bonobos meet for the first time, they gaze at each other, share food, and embrace instead of attacking.

So, which of the two is the most like us? The answer may be neither. This is because, as history has demonstrated, humans are capable of both extreme violence and broad cooperation.

The evolutionary forces that molded our species at the birth of humanity are still at work in us. Some of them, such as the desire for food, have the potential to make us violent. We have, nonetheless, domesticated ourselves in some ways. We can either choose not to go to war or go to war for the sake of more abstract concepts such as honor or religion.

Let’s take a closer look at the reasons for conflict.


Greed, self-defense, emotions, and ideas all drive wars: 

Captain Jenkins, a British seafarer, lost his ear in 1731. He stated that Spanish sailors chopped it off after they accused him of smuggling. Jenkins complained to the English king, but nothing happened for seven years. The captain eventually presented what he claimed were the remains of his ear. Britain went to war with Spain the following year, in 1739.

Of course, Jenkins’ ear was just a pretext for starting the war. Britain was motivated by other factors, such as expanding its lucrative trade with the West Indies and Spanish America. The Spanish, on the other hand, desired to keep their monopoly in the territory.

The reasons for war can sometimes seem ludicrous, as with Jenkins’ ear. More significant tensions, on the other hand, usually simmer beneath the surface.

  There are numerous motivations, ranging from assassinations to empire, romance to religion. Even so, there are a few common threads that run through most wars: greed, self-defense, emotions, and ideas.

Let’s begin with greed. Take the Mongols, for example, whose kingdom spanned Eurasia between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The urge to steal and loot drove their conflicts. Take, for example, Saddam Hussein, who tried to annex Kuwait in the 1990s due to the country’s oil wealth.

Humans have also gone to battle over emotions and ideologies. Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Louis XIV all put personal glory over societal advancement. It’s not just about the leaders, either. Countless ordinary men and women have been moved to battle death by religion, politics, and nationalism.


Institutions, values, and beliefs all have an impact on how society views and fights wars:

If you know anything about the European Middle Ages, you’ve probably heard of King Arthur and the Holy Grail.

Stories like this were heard and retold by generations of young men during the medieval period. They admired knights like Launcelot and Galahad for their nobility and virtue, as well as their combat prowess. The concept of becoming a hero was central to chivalry, a culture that encouraged men to demonstrate their bravery. Typically, the reward was a woman’s hand in marriage.

Of course, this was a romanticized image of the battle. The conflict was bloody, violent, and brutal in reality. But, as it has done in the past, culture reframed reality in the Middle Ages. 

Many cultures throughout history have revered war. Take the Roman Republic, for example. Male citizens were required to serve in the military for sixteen years and at least ten years before occupying the political office. Some of the fightings were later outsourced to mercenaries in the Republic, but violence was still ingrained in the society. Consider the elaborate triumphs and festivities that victorious generals prepared for the entire city when they returned to Rome with war booty.

Cultures might revere specific types of fighting tactics or methods in addition to celebrating war itself.

Sunzi, a military leader and philosopher in sixth-century China, advocated for conflicts to be won without bloodshed. Following Chinese dynasties frequently employed fortifications and bribery to keep invaders out. Armed troops were only used as a last resort.

Even battle technology is influenced by culture.

Return with me to ancient Rome as an example. For millennia, its peasants pressed grapes for wine and olives for oil with levers. Roman soldiers reused the same levers to build ships and fortifications and throw stones at opponents.

These kinds of technologies can aid one civilization against another. There are also times when the culture itself can be used as a weapon. For example, the Spanish defeated the Incas in part because they could kidnap the Incan emperor. This was against the Incan society’s rules, and the nation was left without a leader. It was a significant setback for such a hierarchical state.


Modern warfare was shaped by nationalism, the Industrial Revolution, and cultural shifts:

The year was 1792, and the date was September 20th. Valmy, a little village in eastern France, was the setting.

The poorly equipped and poorly organized French army is pitted against the highly disciplined Prussians. The French take more casualties, while the Prussian men are suffering from dysentery. The Prussians eventually decided to withdraw.

Neither side has a legitimate claim to victory. Nonetheless, Goethe says that the conflict has ushered in “a new era in world history.”

This was not an exaggeration. The battle of Valmy marked the birth of what we now call nationalism: a phenomenon that unites individuals from a specific geographic area together and motivates them to self-identify as a group. Today, we’d refer to this group as a nation.

One of three causes of the modern conflict so violent, lethal, and devastating is nationalism.

The French fighting style startled Prussians and other observers: they sang songs during fights and battled ferociously to the end. Unlike the Prussians, who were motivated by the dread of their superiors, they were an army of ordinary citizens inspired by a strong belief in their country’s cause.

Citizens were brought together by nationalism to fight for a shared objective. It also propagated the idea that it was a citizen’s responsibility to defend his country. As a result, it encouraged people to participate in wars that would otherwise have been unimportant to them.

Another force influencing the face of battle in the early nineteenth century was the Industrial Revolution. It resulted in a boom of the invention as well as a significant rise in production capacity. The military was naturally affected by these impacts.

The Industrial Revolution resulted in more than simply stronger weaponry. It also boosted the size of the middle and working classes, as well as their purchasing power. As a result, the masses began to believe that they, too, had the right to express their opinions on the war. The elites were no longer the only ones who talked about conflict.

When these forces were united, contemporary war became all-consuming — what we now call total war.

It exists on a hitherto unfathomable magnitude. Armies currently have millions of soldiers, which is an order of magnitude higher than in the past. To support war activities, countries must use all of their economic might.

And, as the military’s resources have increased, so has the armies’ ability for killing and destruction. In today’s world, conflict causes more pain than anyone could have imagined.


For a variety of reasons, people can be persuaded – or compelled – to engage in battles:

The Battle of Towton was fought on March 29th, 1461, between two English royal houses, the Yorks and the Lancasters. It was the bloodiest conflict ever fought on English soil, and it still is. A total of 50,000 men took part, with up to 28,000 of them dying. The level of bloodshed was so shocking that the battlefield became known as the Bloody Meadow.

Wars are, without a doubt, a bloodbath. Despite this, men, and occasionally women, have always been drawn to battle in them. Why?

People haven’t always gone to war voluntarily. Criminals in eighteenth-century Europe, for example, had two options: be executed or join the military.

However, not everyone must be conscripted into the army. There are numerous reasons why people opt to participate in a battle actively. Poverty is one among them. Today, the US military frequently concentrates its recruitment efforts in poorer communities, where individuals are in severe need of regular pay and, in some cases, food. The Armed Forces can provide both.

Culture is another factor that can either encourage or dissuade people from joining the military. Young boys are expected to demonstrate warrior-like skills in many countries before they can be considered men. This naturally pushes many people to join the military.

On the other hand, culture does not always properly prepare young people to serve in the military. Other customs aid in distinguishing between civilian and military life. This is where uniforms and required crew cuts came from. Standards – bronze or silver eagles – were employed in Roman legions to promote a shared identity among the soldiers.

Of all, joining the military is only the beginning of a person’s journey. The new soldier must then be taught to fight even though the natural reaction is to escape. Threats are frequently used to enforce discipline. Commissars in Trotsky’s Red Army – the Soviet Army of the early twentieth century – utilized battlefield executions to deter soldiers from fleeing. Bravery and courage aren’t the only qualities that motivate a soldier to fight.

We frequently think of troops and those who fight on the front lines when we think of war. However, we often overlook another group that performs a different but equally important role: civilians.


Civilians profit from conflict, yet they are also subjected to some of the worst aspects of it:

During the conflict, civilians constitute a distinct group of people, and many rules have attempted to specify how they should be handled. Typically, these guidelines state that no harm should be done to civilians or their property. Regulations, on the other hand, tend to be forgotten in the heat of combat.

Civilians are sometimes referred to as “collateral damage” in the age of contemporary conflict by military strategists. Civilians may be killed, enslaved, or deported if their side is defeated. However, conflict isn’t always awful for them; it can occasionally give perks, such as opportunities to earn money. Civilians aren’t usually oblivious bystanders, either. They, like the troops, frequently have a strong desire to fight.

The main message is that while conflict might help civilians, it can also expose them to some of its worst atrocities.

Female civilians have been exposed to a particular form of torture – rape. For example, during World War II, Stalin protected Soviet forces who raped civilians in cities recaptured by the Nazis. In Germany alone, the Soviets have raped as many as two million women in a single year.

On the other hand, conflicts have resulted in significant achievements for women in terms of rights, education, and professional opportunities. Women made up 23% of the British industry and transportation workforce at the outset of World War I. By 1918, women were filling in for men who had gone off to fight, and the figure had risen to 34%. Then there were other challenges, including unequal pay and maltreatment by male coworkers. In one case, some male employees at Birmingham manufacturing purposefully destroyed machinery to slow down their female coworkers.

While civilians are often affected by the economic effects of conflict today, they can also become targets in combat as strategists look for ways to weaken the opponent. General Sherman, for example, targeted civilians during the American Civil War by torching homes, seizing farm animals, and damaging crops. He was sure that the opposing Confederate side would lose a vital source of support by doing so.

Civilians are unable to choose whether or not to join in the war. Their importance has only grown as contemporary warfare has progressed. After all, just as much as troops who can fire bullets, war needs individuals who can create bullets.


Humanity has sought to build laws around organized conflict on numerous occasions:

In 1913, a young Harvard graduate named John Reed went to Mexico. He joined Pancho Villa, a Mexican insurgent leader, for four months. Reed showed Villa a strange booklet one day. It described the new rules of war that were adopted in 1907 at the Hague Conference.

Villa was enthralled by the leaflet and spent hours poring over it. But he couldn’t fathom why someone would want to make laws about war. “This isn’t a game,” he stated emphatically. “What makes a civilized conflict different from any other form of war?”

Villa’s question eloquently encapsulates one of the war’s ironies. If we accept that war is all about violence and dominance, how can we reasonably strive to regulate or govern it?

Aggressors frequently invoke rules to legitimize the act of going to war in the first place.

Take, for example, the duke of Chou’s invasion of the Chinese realm of Shang in 1122 BC. The duke said that the Shang ruler’s mandate had been canceled by heaven since he was a drinker and tyrant. Heaven, it turned out, had handed that command to the duke of Chou instead.

Instead of religion, we now utilize a system of laws, ethics, and morality to establish norms for war. The belief that self-defense is a viable basis for war is one of the less contentious. However, even this criterion begs the question of whether societies are justified in beginning preventative wars in the first place. What if you’re just afraid you’re going to be attacked? Should you go for the kill first?

And it’s not just wars that we’re attempting to regulate. The employment of specific forms of weaponry has also been disputed around the world. Chemical poisons and biological agents are no longer considered acceptable in the twenty-first century.

There have also been attempts to introduce regulations governing military tactics. The Declaration of Paris, for example, set guidelines for naval blockades in 1856. As a result, they were limited to seizing commodities from the enemy or neutral ships.

As a result, laws govern the conduct of modern warfare. From written international accords to unwritten practices, there is now a complex web of rules. However, these laws only apply until conflict breaks out — after that, it’s total mayhem.


The experience of war, as well as how it is depicted in art, is vast:

Fighting is characterized by what sensations, scents, sights, and emotions? There isn’t a single correct solution.

The ancient Greeks, for example, described battles in a somewhat detached manner. Wounds were recorded: a spear piercing the crotch here, an arrow piercing the eye there.

Death was a natural and expected outcome for a fighter.

However, there is now a lot of debate regarding how to portray conflict. Artists such as painters, writers, and filmmakers all have different artistic priorities. Soldiers, on the other hand, can depict conflict in a very different way.

Soldiers have described a wide range of battlefield experiences across history and location. For example, one Soviet female fighter recalls a lot of terror. Her heartfelt like it was going to burst in her first combat, and her skin was “ready to break,” she adds. A Canadian general, on the other hand, describes the terrifying exhilaration of battle. This adrenaline rush was heightened for him by the thought that he could die at any time.

Battles are shown in art in a wide variety of ways. Some depict the awful beauty of combat, such as the opening scene of Apocalypse Now, a film about the Vietnam War. Other artwork, such as Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War, displays a colorless setting to emphasize the devastation and destruction caused by war.

When it comes to conflict, we tend to remember events selectively. The events that follow a dispute have a big influence on how we think about them. Consider how differently we view the two twentieth-century world wars, for example. World War II is portrayed as a clear fight between good and evil. And that perspective casts a pall over our opinions about World War I, which appears dumb and wicked in comparison.

We forget that many of the troops who fought in World War I thought they were fighting for a good cause. They were battling for the safety of their loved ones if nothing else.

All of these variations teach us something important. We must be cautious in how we portray conflict and how we think about it. We ignore the complexity of conflicts if we paint them with a wire brush. However, we must remember that conflict may involve many emotions, including beauty and horror, wickedness and nobility, devastation and invention.