War is a not a word that communicates much. It wants to, but quickly the gruff sound deteriorates into an abstraction and nothing more. War. War. Like love, truth, or beauty, we say the word but cannot see it. The gut does not believe. To title a book War as Margaret MacMillan, the distinguished historian, has done, is to attempt to assert control over the very term itself. As a result, even before the prose begins, War: How Conflict Shaped Us promises to be a revelation: here, war will be understood at last. Such authoritativeness is a noble pursuit, and MacMillan joins others in recent years such as Sebastian Junger and Jeremy Black in a frantic effort to articulate a unified field theory of war before it is too late.¹ “We face the prospect of the end of humanity itself,” MacMillan concludes, if we fail to demystify war in our current moment. (289) That is the project, and given the book’s critical and popular praise from notable figures such as war journalist Dexter Filkins, former National Security Director H.R. McMaster, and former Secretary of State George Schultz, readers might feel it has done its work. I am not so sure, which is not a criticism of MacMillan’s book so much as it is a lament about the relentless inscrutability of war both as an object of academic study and as a lived experience that resists expression.
“We fight because we can,” a weary MacMillan concedes. And with no end in sight, that, it seems, is all there is to say.
As an academic study, War is expansive and floods the system with its historical references. Paragraphs, and sometimes sentences, dart from one century to the next and from one war to the next (mostly in the West, a bias that the conclusion acknowledges). Especially in the first half of the book, whose chapters such as “Reasons for War” and “Ways and Means” are concerned with the Big Questions of why and how, the volume of information is unconstrained and overwhelming. For those who come to War as a consumer of history, they will come away questioning if world history ever had time for anything else besides war. Maybe war is just history by another name. Cathy Caruth argued nearly thirty years ago that “history is precisely the way we are implicated in one another’s traumas,” and while I do not believe MacMillan set out specifically to theorize history (or trauma) in the book, her ambitious design echoes Caruth’s words as well as Frederic Jameson’s famous dictum that “history is what hurts.” There is no doubt that we keep hurting ourselves. There also is no doubt that we keep falling into history, learning—as if for the first time—the tremendous scale of our human record of organized violence. “We fight because we can,” a weary MacMillan concedes. (289) And with no end in sight, that, it seems, is all there is to say.
Except, of course, it is not. In any war book, there is an itch to appear wise. Tim O’Brien, the Vietnam War veteran and author who receives several nods from MacMillan in chapters such as “Fighting,” described the embarrassment in trying to infuse profundity into war. “And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh,’” he writes in The Things They Carried. Oh. Okay. “There it is,” Karl Marlantes has his Marines recite over and over in his novel Matterhorn—as if there were actually a significance lurking underneath “oh” and “it” at all. The harder we try to put war into words, the more diminished the language becomes. Similarly, War retreats from its subject at the same time it yearns to be near it. “Death in battle so often comes suddenly and randomly.” (171) “War changes and disrupts the patterns of everyday life.” (174) “Explaining what being in war is like is never easy. It is hard to find the words and images.” (177) Are these platitudes? Not exactly. They are earnest, and I do not think I could have written the sentences or the sentiments they seek out any better. Still, they are examples of how maddeningly difficult it is (for all of us) to say anything new or meaningful about the lived experience of war beyond maybe “oh.”
As a commentary on the experience of war, then, War often opts to be a distant ethnographer instead, as far removed from human beings themselves as a warden from his inmates. In discussing a World War I memoir, for example, MacMillan expresses dismay at the lack of contrition amongst those who fight. “One of the shocking things about [Ernst] Jünger’s memoir [Storm of Steel] is the way he lays out his feelings [about killing the enemy] without any apology or explanation.” (185) I concede that at first glance such a judgment seems reasonable. We are supposed to feel bad about killing other people (there is a platitude, to be sure). But what, exactly, does Jünger have to apologize for? What must he explain to anyone? He did not start the war. Others who claimed legal and moral authority did that. In return, he did what he was asked to do by his country, his community, and his family’s set of values and beliefs. While engaged, he killed and took pleasure in the killing. Maybe I would, too. Maybe we all would. That is not comfortable to say, but it is also not unfathomable. We are all Ernst Jünger given the right circumstances.
In any war book, there is an itch to appear wise. Tim O’Brien, the Vietnam War veteran and author who receives several nods from MacMillan in chapters such as “Fighting,” described the embarrassment in trying to infuse profundity into war.
The monstrosity inside human beings which war uncages is the third rail the book does not touch enough, preferring instead to quarantine our fears within conventional binaries. Take war and peace. Quoting Augustine, MacMillian insists that “peace, as has often been repeated, is the end of war.’” (224) I hope that is the case, but is it? Is peace the end of war, or—like history—is peace just war by other means? Forgive me a slight digression, but the text I teach in my American literature courses that tends to surprise students the most is Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, first published in 1855. The titular character is a Spanish captain in command of a becalmed slave ship, rescued at the outset by a chummy American commander named Amasa Delano. The slaves on board, who substantially outnumber their white enslavers, appear submissive. They also ominously polish their hatchets in the sun. Strange. Babo, who is Cereno’s valet, appears docile and happy in Delano’s eyes, but he also asserts control at times, such as when he nicks Cereno’s throat while shaving him lest the captain say too much to Delano. Even stranger.
What is going on here? Turns out the slaves have always been in charge and slaughtered the Spaniards before being boarded by the Americans. On the fly, Babo and the other slaves concocted an elaborate performance of servility—of peace—in order to perpetuate their insurrection. When the hoax is revealed—that is, when it turns out this was a violent war all along—justice is swift and peace is restored. But is it? The final paragraphs of Melville’s novella are chillingly unconvinced. Along the same lines, the American Civil War is said not to have started until April 1861 with the bombing of Fort Sumter. With my compliments to Billy Joel, however, my students start to see that maybe the fire had been burning since 1855 when Melville wrote. Or maybe Civil War embers were smoldering even earlier, maybe as far back as the U.S. Constitution, which legalized and extended the Atlantic slave trade. Maybe even earlier yet. Not to worry, however, for we find ourselves today in 2022, and enough time has passed that surely the world we inhabit now is not the same as Melville’s ambivalent America. Surely.
Right now, is the United States at war or at peace? Even before the more visible symptoms of our civilization’s discontent in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 and the widespread protests against institutional racism and police brutality in summer 2020, the answer has never been as clear as War presumes. Last year, Joe Biden launched his first (public) military operation as President against militias in Syria. Those bombings were short-lived, but was the United States at war with Syria? The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that has been in effect since September 18, 2001 authorizes the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those” who committed or aided the 9/11 attacks. That could include anyone, and it has. Look at Obama’s drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, or Trump’s assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. In law and in practice, the United States has been at war for the past 20 years with whomever the President at the time feels like. Biden’s immediate response to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine was almost one billion dollars of lethal aid in Ukraine’s defense, so does that mean the United States is at war with Russia? Perhaps we are in that unsettling Orwellian space that Roger J. Spiller termed “not war but like war,” which is to say a collective denial of how we know without ever saying that the fingers (always) already are on the nuclear buttons.
Am I being too cheeky and cynical? Maybe, but my posture brings into greater relief the hope driving War. In the chapter “Civilians,” MacMillan insists that “as peace comes and the painful memories of war start to recede, civilians too may experience the nostalgia that combatants can feel for the intensity of comradeship in war.” (216-17) Just as the book imagines war to be separate from peace, so combatants are distinct from noncombatants. Nostalgia and solidarity color both groups, and, I would argue, every page of War, whose entire drift is nostalgic and hopeful that war might end and we can return to a prelapsarian peace of former times. If we just study war enough, write about it enough, read about it enough, eventually war can be exterminated like a cancer cell or a coronavirus. That is the belief. In the chapter “War in Our Imaginations and Our Memories,” MacMillan worries about “the terrifying mystery of how we, who are good and moral people, could get involved in such a war [World War I for Europeans and the Vietnam War for Americans] and do such dreadful things.” (256) The emphasis on we is MacMillan’s, but I would have italicized it if she had not. We are a good and moral people (right?), and implicitly there is a They who must be bad and immoral. Yet her Other is not racial or religious or geographic; it is, once again, that unknown monstrosity within ourselves that does not make rational sense.
My point is not to out MacMillan or myself as naïve but rather to isolate yet another tension in the book’s understanding of war that cannot be so easily reconciled: either war and reason are mutually exclusive and struggle for supremacy over the other, or worse, war and reason enable one another.
How could we have done such a thing as the Battle of the Somme or the Massacre at Mỹ Lai, whose costs any rational actor would never accept? “Furthermore, we have come to believe, governments that resort to war ought to have reasonable grounds for thinking they will prevail.” (226) Agreed, but is war a reasonable activity? MacMillan wishes it would be, as when she acknowledges the more than one “billion small arms alone in the world” that do not even include larger firepower such as nuclear weapons. Can we reasonably expect to remove the world of one billion firearms? Probably not. “Yet so many of us, our leaders included, still talk of war as a reasonable and manageable tool.” (94) Is war a reasonable tool to achieve national self-interests? Depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, yes, as Carl von Clausewitz explains in On War, whose celebrated definition MacMillan underscores: “‘War is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.’” (17) Wanting to win sounds reasonable enough, except wait, violence is not supposed to be the answer to conflict. That is what rational adults tell young children, so why not politicians and generals? My point is not to out MacMillan or myself as naïve but rather to isolate yet another tension in the book’s understanding of war that cannot be so easily reconciled: either war and reason are mutually exclusive and struggle for supremacy over the other, or worse, war and reason enable one another.
For me, the true profit in the book is MacMillan’s subdued discussion of how war has disrupted ideas such as history, peace, and reason. The subtitle, however, suggests it will be something different, specifically How Conflict Shaped Us in social terms and structured civilization in imperceptible ways. There is some of that, such as how the modern census was a nineteenth-century invention after nation-states realized they had no idea how many fighting age males they had (113), or how militaries have regularized and organized sex work (146), but many pages do not address war’s specific effects on contemporary life per se. The ultimate concern here instead is the immeasurable record of war. MacMillan has spent a lifetime with war, and her questions are basic and heartbreaking because they have no satisfying answers. Look at all this, she is saying. How did we get here? How will it end?