by Edith Cody-Rice
When Margaret MacMillan’s new book on war recently hit the bookshelves, I rushed out to buy it at Mill Street Books. This is Ms. McMillan’s third book on the subject and she has delved into it with all the acuity and depth of a first rate historian. The book that catapulted her to international fame is Paris 1919, an in depth exploration of the Paris Peace Conference that followed World War I, or the Great War, as it was known at the time, and that carved up the planet into areas of influence and new nations that endured at least until Hitler began his march across Europe, and largely, to this day. She followed this with The War that Ended Peace, another excellent look at the history leading up to the first World War, when intelligent, well intentioned leaders led their nations into the abyss. To a degree, European leaders sleep walked into a war that shattered a peace, which in Britain had endured despite some skirmishes since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 and in France had lasted since the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. It was the near accidental assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in a side street in Sarajevo that lit the conflagration that killed 15-20 million and wounded 25 million soldiers.
That war alone, and the great tragedy of World War II, makes war in general a worthy subject for investigation and Margaret MacMillan in her new book raises the essential questions – why do people go to war, is it an essential part of human behaviour and how has war shaped history. She has a gift for the anecdote and a very readable style. Did you know, for example, that Mongol warriors wore silk undershirts, so that if they were hit by an arrow the silk wrapped around its head. It was not only easier to get the arrow out, the risk of infection was much less. It takes pretty deep scholarship to come across that tidbit.
Ms. MacMillan explores the reasons for war, the ways and means of war, modern war, what makes a warrior fight, what is the civilian experience of war, and how do we control the uncontrollable that is war. Most people, when each of the two great wars started, thought they would be short. Pétain made a peace with Hitler by which all French soldiers were to become prisoners of war on the assumption that Britain would shortly be conquered and the war would end. It lasted 5 more years, condemning 1.8 million soldiers to a life in stalags or working in German agriculture and factories. War is easy to start and devilishly difficult to finish.
Ms MacMillan also examines the benefits war has brought us where urgency has sparked new discoveries and treatments. Canadian doctor Norman Bethune pioneered mobile blood transfusions on the battlefield during the Spanish Civil war and advances in burn treatments and prosthetics were stimulated by wounded soldiers, just two examples among thousands.
Ms. MacMillan does not provide answers, rather she delves into lived experience. And she acknowledges that victory is not inevitable for one side or the other. What a different world it would be if Genghis Khan had penetrated deep into Europe or if Hitler had defeated Britain.
She laments that universities do not include courses on the investigation of war. It is an area much neglected in her view. Some think that investigating war leads to war, while others, of which she is one, are of the view that it is such an important part of human history it is a subject worth treating all on its own and perhaps we can find a way to end war, although the current prospect does not look promising.
Whatever your view, this is a very interesting read. Ms. MacMillan’s knowledge is encyclopaedic, from the prehistoric wars to the Iliad to the Peloponnesian wars to medieval and modern warfare.