What Does Civilization Owe to War? More Than We’d Think

What Does Civilization Owe to War? More Than We’d Think

Margaret Macmillan’s War: How Conflict Shaped Us delivers a valuable investigation into how men and women think about war.

Wars may until recently have been a male preserve, yet non-combatant women, like the media, have long affected national attitudes to conflict. As Macmillan points out, “women have opposed war, sometimes on the grounds that they create life and do not take it away, but they have also been its cheerleaders.” Indeed, from the Biblical Sisera’s mother (“Are they not finding, are they not dividing the spoil? A damsel, two damsels to every man”) whom Macmillan does not mention, to those she does—like the mothers of Spartan troops, the Prussian women who raised funds for battleships, and the British women who handed out white feathers to men who had not donned the uniform to fight in the trenches of World War I—“women have urged men to fight and shamed them for refusing.”

“WAR IS a mystery,” writes Macmillan, “and it is a troubling and unsettling mystery. It should be abhorrent, but it is so often alluring and its values seductive.” How true: hanging on the wall alongside the main staircase from the Pentagon’s River Entrance to the secretary of defense’s office is a painting of a family kneeling in church. The husband is wearing a military uniform, and the caption reads “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us.” The words that precede this passage from Isaiah 6:8 state “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying…” The message is clear: we fight for God and country (or where monarchs still rule, “God, king/queen, and country).

Macmillan goes on to demonstrate how difficult it has been to grasp the “complex essence” of war, though throughout the millennia men and women have tried to do so through the arts, memoirs, and letters, and more recently the cinema and television as well. She points out that in the past it was the educated, invariably those who commanded troops and who came from the upper classes, whose letters, memoirs, and literature were the primary source of wartime recollection. That is no longer the case today. Emails and social media have enabled men and women of every military rank and social background to portray the circumstances in which they operate, and often to do so in real-time. 

Similarly, Macmillan’s observation that most efforts to recreate battles for those who do not fight them come mainly from land fighting, because “we the bystanders find it harder to put ourselves in the shoes of aviators and sailors” has not been the case for some time. A United States Marine officer once told me that Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance was the best book on war, whether fiction or non-fiction, that he ever had read. (Wouk had served in the Pacific theatre during World War II.) The marine spoke with some authority. He had been the recipient of two Navy Crosses in Vietnam (only one other man had achieved this distinction) and later rose to the rank of lieutenant general. The Hunt for Red October, based on the best-selling book that was published by the prestigious United States Naval Institute, portrayed the all-too-tense military environment that characterized the Cold War. And Top Gun, based on the very real experiences at the Navy’s eponymous training center, offered an exceedingly realistic portrayal of training for air combat. Snoopy and the Red Baron it was not.

Movies about land fighting have also become more realistic; not all of them are Chuck Norris or Rambo thrillers. Steven Spielberg’s World War II film Saving Private Ryan and Michael Cimino’s Vietnam classic The Deer Hunter both evoked the realities of war. So too did Blackhawk Down, about the attack on American forces in Somalia. I viewed the film with a senior Pentagon official who had been involved in the policy decision that led to that disaster; he broke down in tears as he watched the action unfold and had to leave the theater before the film ended.

Macmillan’s primary target audience is, as she puts it, “those of us who are on the sidelines.” Yet it offers much to the specialist as well, particularly military analysts and policymakers who do not have, but should have, a greater understanding of the sociology that underpins policy decisions to go to war, and the behavior of those who are doing the fighting.

Later in her book, Macmillan returns to her theme of “war in our imaginations and our memories.” As she has throughout the volume, Macmillan once again draws heavily on the classics, Shakespeare, and the poets, artists, and writers, notably Erich Maria Remarque, who fought, depicted, wrote about, or remembered World War I. She contrasts the artistic output resulting from the First World War with that of the Second: “It is hard to think of a comparable outpouring from the Second World War,” she writes. There may be fewer great novels about World War II, but Herman Wouk’s classic The Caine Mutiny together with his War and Remembrance and The Winds of War, as well as The Diary of Anne Frank, certainly should meet Macmillan’s standard. World War II also inspired a host of films, though not all necessarily in its immediate aftermath nor all, in the spirit of Remarque’s novel, depicting the horrors of war. World War II films continue to appear, many to popular acclaim. They have ranged from thrillers produced in the 1960s like The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarone to depictions of the Holocaust, notably Shoah and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as well as Saving Private Ryan and, more recently, Dunkirk

The public may love war movies, but the reality of war has had devastating effects on non-combatants, who, as Macmillan demonstrates, are far too often termed “collateral damage.” The brutal disregard for human life that marked the wars of the distant past, or even the two world wars, has not diminished in any way. It would have been helpful, however, if she had spent more time writing about the atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. She only mentions Syria, as well as Iraq, in the context of discussing the highly controversial doctrine that emerged in the 1990s called Responsibility to Protect or R2P (she calls it Right to Protect) and that refers to the need to intervene against governments brutalizing their own people.

Macmillan shows that ever since medieval times there have been, and continue to be, strenuous efforts to control both arms and the manner in which they are employed. The Washington Naval Treaties, the Kellogg-Briand Pact that sought to abolish war entirely, the various agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) to limit nuclear arms, conventions to ban chemical and biological weapons, as well as the deployment of United Nations or NATO peacekeeping forces all reflect the desire to draw at least some boundaries around war and limit its recurrence.

When it comes to punishing war criminals, however, Macmillan has little good to say about the United States. 

When the most powerful country in the world holds prisoners illegally in sites around the world or does not accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court [ICC]—which was set up to punish unjust wars, among other crimes against humanity—others will be tempted to follow its example.

Leave aside the fact that those who violate international norms, such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in ordering the use of chemical weapons against his civilian population, or Saddam doing the same against Iraqi Kurds, are unlikely to pay much attention to the ICC. Can Macmillan seriously allege that the United States committed crimes against humanity, a term first used in the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals? If America’s enemies had their way, President George W. Bush and Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could be tried as war criminals for attacking Saddam’s Iraq. Not everyone would agree to such trials, and there is good reason why the United States refuses to join what it views as a highly politicized institution.

Throughout the ages, civilians have resented foreign occupation. Perhaps because so many civilians have suffered at the hands of occupying forces, many have taken up arms to resist as best they could, in whatever way they could, As Macmillan points out, “Resistance in the Second World War was picking up a gun or blowing up railways, but it was also listening to the nightly news bulletins on the BBC… even though that was punishable by death.” She might have added another form of resistance: those who knew they were doomed, like the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, but nevertheless preferred to go down fighting against overwhelmingly greater and more powerful Nazi forces.

MACMILLAN CONCLUDES her volume with an all-too-brief update on war’s latest frontiers—space and cyber—and the new technologies that will become increasingly important in future conflicts. She also offers some observations that simply are not accurate. Contrary to her assertion that “except among a small subgroup of military families, the military is no longer seen as a desirable career,” in the United States at least, recruitment and retention among both the officer corps and enlisted personnel have a far wider catchment area than just the children of military families. Volunteers have many reasons for joining the military. They include not merely the fact that “daddy or grandpa served,” but also patriotism, a wanderlust for travel, love of flying or sailing the seas, long-term career prospects, and for some, pay and benefits.