Perhaps few writers have so effortlessly woven the brutal history of warfare into the social, political and emotional fabric of contemporary times. The inevitability of war is encoded in our nature. It is a part of our world and the “envy of our time,” in Margaret MacMillan’s lyrical phrase. Indeed, last year alone the world experienced more armed conflicts than in the previous 30 years.
MacMillan’s astounding output of work as historian, biographer, novelist and essayist has brought to light the stories of 15th and 16th-century campaigns that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Europeans and an unknown number of conquered populations. War: How Conflict Shaped Us examines the international relations, politics and culture of the time in order to discover, as MacMillan puts it, “the micro-history of war.” She begins with the battlegrounds of Trafalgar and Waterloo, and explores the war theory of Machiavelli and the history of colonialism in East Africa. And from there, it is a tale of politics as the battleground.
MacMillan’s deep immersion in research and the literary research involved in this volume, one that included reading a thousand books, many of them, though not all, in German, gives War: How Conflict Shaped Us a certain authenticity. In carefully researched anecdotes, MacMillan traces how modern conflicts evolve with a renewed fervor and clarity in the years after a fight.
After Trafalgar, the British would send fleets of warships across the Atlantic Ocean to send a signal of reassurance to their erstwhile colonies who were now fighting to form independent states. For MacMillan, these examples represent the “new military conquest” and the “return of militarism.” Even as Britain’s rulers were sending their fleets across the Atlantic, in 1849, the British colony of Kenya gained its independence from British rule. MacMillan examines the fact that the entire geopolitical structure of the island was disrupted, the way in which British colonial forces took over Kenya and the rest of the region and turned it into an important political bargaining chip.
Given the scope of MacMillan’s research, and the several new wars she uncovers in the course of the book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us is a condensed history of large-scale warfare. “Over recent decades, despite many technological, social and political advances,” MacMillan writes, “the basic features of war have remained unchanged: desperate violence.”