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Review: ‘War: How Conflict Shaped Us’ at the Hay Festival

War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan was the book of choice for the Hay Festival’s annual talk in association with British Pugwash, an organization focusing on international relations and disarmament. This acclaimed account of the history of war is a surprising choice for a Pugwash event, because at its heart it states the belief that war and society are so intimately connected that peace itself is naturally out of character for humanity. Using a wealth of historical anecdotes, MacMillan argues that war has been a fundamental part of society for the simple reason that it has also helped to create it. 

Many readers will likely already be familiar with a lot of MacMillan’s talking points, from the impact the First World War had on women’s voting rights, to the stories of soldiers bonding in the trenches. At the same time, there were also plenty of moments, such as the birth of nationalism after the French Revolution, where I wished we could have paused for a moment and taken a closer look – but that’s by no means a flaw. The book is based on MacMillan’s 2018 Reith Lectures, a series of annual radio lectures commissioned by the BBC, so there’s plenty of further material for the curious to explore.

It was such a relief to see both the host, Nik Gowing, and the guest speaker in person, which was not possible for every Hay event. Professor MacMillan’s lecture was a perfect distillation of the book, however that also means it perhaps wasn’t necessary to read it beforehand. There was that same ease at relating gruesome details of history in such a way that you catch yourself being gripped. MacMillan’s authoritative delivery absolutely personified the self-assured tone that carries the book’s arguments. 

And yet it was the audience questions that were the true highlight. Often this would be the point where my attention would slip and I’d be ready to slap my laptop shut, yet the discussion of how MacMillan’s theories of war were compatible with the new age of cyber warfare was compelling. After much nitpicking from Gowing, the consensus seemed to be that despite its lack of armies, cyber warfare can still lead to loss of life, hurt, and a scale of instability no less devastating. Notably, she does not treat cyber warfare as symbolic violence, for at the core of her answers was a plea that her analysis of war not be tangled up with the metaphorical ‘war on drugs’, or ‘war on poverty’. 

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No book, lecture, or Q&A about war could possibly cover all facets of humanity’s long habit of besieging, murdering and invading each other, but for the lay historians out there, ‘War’ might be a good place to start. 

Image: Lianhao Qu via Unsplash