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.

When she writes of the West, her primary focus throughout the book, Macmillan asserts that “we may have moved beyond war.” Russia and Turkey, given their ongoing operations in Syria and Libya, or for that matter, France and the United States, which continue to conduct low level but nevertheless lethal operations in Africa’s Sahel, belie her observation. Macmillan does concede that major wars cannot be ruled out in the future, for which reason military planners will continue to have job opportunities for years to come.

It is unfortunate that Macmillan’s book lacks notes; it is the volume’s most serious shortcoming. She merely provides brief bibliographies for each of the book’s chapters, but these do not help the reader if the text itself does not cite a specific author. In addition, when a quotation is not attributed to any particular individual, one is left to puzzle where exactly to find it and, equally important, its context.

That Macmillan on occasion fumbles her facts is a lesser concern, and perhaps not surprising, in a book that is so far-ranging. She can be pardoned for mistakenly assuming that Maimonides “laid down rules that banned the wasteful destruction of, for example, fruit trees” when it is explicitly mandated in Deuteronomy. More surprisingly, she includes Douglas MacArthur among the pantheon of generals who “had the ability of great actors to reach out and make their men feel that their commanders knew them, cared about them, and were speaking directly to them.” That characterization applies far more to Omar Bradley, the “soldiers’ general” who rose from poverty to become the Allies’ field commander on D-Day and later the first chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, than to the imperious MacArthur, the privileged son of another senior general. These and other minor glitches that occasionally appear throughout the book should not detract from its value as an investigation into how men and women think about war. Stephen Pinker may be right in arguing that total deaths from wars have been on the decline. Nevertheless, wars continue to erupt—between states, and within them. As long as they do, they must be studied and understood, for otherwise it is far less likely that can truly ever be controlled.

Dov S. Zakheim served as the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) and Chief Financial Officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Planning and Resources) from 1985–1987. He also served as the dod’s civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is Vice Chairman of the Center for the National Interest.

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