The meaning of war

November 2018

After the war

The meaning of war

Margaret MacMillan challenges us to understand the persistent presence of violent conflict.

Margaret MacMillan

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This summer, Margaret MacMillan, a professor of international history at Oxford University, recorded The Mark of Cain, her Reith Lectures on war and its changing, knotted role in society.

Coming from the author of The War That Ended Peace, a magisterial tracing of the political, cultural, military and personal forces that culminated in the Great War, not to mention someone who has written and researched widely on the history of war, MacMillan predictably avoids the pat and the trite. War is not ‘an aberration’, she argues. It is not simply what happens when peace is interrupted. Rather, it is woven into the fabric of history and society. That’s why we need to face war, understand it, grasp its changing nature, and our changing attitudes to those who fight.

But The Mark of Cain raises questions, too. What is our relationship to war, and how is it changing? How has the role of, and society’s attitude to, the soldier developed? And is a just war possible? Ella Whelan spoke to MacMillan to find out more.

Ella Whelan: You’ve said that we need to know what war means – is that because you feel we have forgotten what it means?

Margaret MacMillan: We see movies about war, or play video games about war, and there’s a danger of us glamourising it. I think people don’t realise it means people getting hurt, people being blown to pieces and houses being destroyed. Somehow we have to understand those things, because we can be too casual in our thinking about war. When our politicians say ‘we’ve got to get tough’, we’ve got to know what that can actually mean.

I also think there is a tendency to see war as something which is increasingly hi-tech and distant. So you have someone sitting somewhere in Arizona directing drones in Afghanistan or Somalia or wherever. But there is another side to war, which is still very much with us. There are an awful lot of wars still being fought like wars were always fought – with people actually going at each other. A lot of the weapons being used in places like Yemen, the Great Lakes region in Africa or in Syria are actually pretty low-tech. Sometimes they’re still using weapons as rudimentary as a machete. So we have different types of war – the important thing is that they’re both still with us.

Whelan: Can we or should we talk about the unintended benefits of war? The wars of the 20th century advanced science and technology, prompted social change and in some cases helped to better organise society…

MacMillan: Unintended consequences of war can bring about beneficial change, but if we’re thinking about how to make change we wouldn’t choose to have a war to do it. It’s a paradox – war isn’t a good thing, but it can have an efficient result. The changes in positions of certain groups in society have often been sped up by war. So after the First World War, women and also the working classes benefited. The Representation of the People Act in the UK in January 1918 gave women over the age of 30 the vote, but it also gave all men over 21 the vote – up to that point there had been property qualifications for voting. So wars can show that previously marginalised groups are valuable to society in the war effort and make them more part of society. And wars will often speed up scientific advances because suddenly money becomes available for things that weren’t possible in peacetime.

Nobody starts a war to try to do those sorts of things, but sometimes those are the unintended consequences.

Whelan: Let’s talk about women. On the face of it, you might think that women were fairly passive in wartime – dealing with the clean-up, away from the fighting, unable to influence the outcome – but you argue that there is a case for seeing women as more active. Do we tend to whitewash women’s role in war?

MacMillan: Because women are childbearing, there is a tendency to see them as caring more about life than men do, and, perhaps, being more opposed to war. And I think, as always with human beings, the picture is much more mixed. There are plenty of examples of women encouraging the men to go off to war, and being very belligerent. In the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) you had the wives of German generals saying, I’d like to kill every French person down to the little babies. These are not peace-loving women by any means.

And remember, too, that the main Suffragette movement under the Pankhursts after 1914 vehemently supported the war. A lot of their energies went towards encouraging men to enlist to go and fight. However, there were also women who opposed war (including Sylvia Pankhurst), women who didn’t want their sons and their husbands to go. Women have always been very prominent in peace movements. So it’s really a mixed picture.

But often, when I was giving the Reith lectures, I would get the question: ‘Wouldn’t the world be a better place if women were in charge?’ And my short answer to all of that was ‘What, like Margaret Thatcher? Or Indira Gandhi? Or Catherine the Great?’ Women can be just as ready to resort to war as men can be.

Whelan: Or Hillary Clinton… Do you think there might be something in the argument that in fact women in power are more keen to use militaristic methods than men?

MacMillan: Perhaps it’s because they feel like they have something to prove? It was always the case in US politics during the Cold War that the Democrats were obliged to be tougher on the Soviets than the Republicans because they were always being accused of being wishy washy liberals. And so women, likewise, may feel they have something more to prove.

But what is also interesting about women in war is that they are often the ones who pick up the pieces – they are the ones who keep things going, they’re the ones who come out and begin cleaning things up. And sometimes it’s the men who can’t cope with defeat, whereas women tend to get on with it.

Whelan: In one of your Reith lectures you talk about the changing nature of what it was and is to be a soldier. Could you talk a bit about the sense of duty that emerged among soldiers of the past, and where that came from — because, as you explain, it was quite a specific historic change.

MacMillan: Certainly in the West, from where I drew most of my examples (but I think it was probably true around the world), up until really the 18th century, officers came from the upper classes and they were expected to be brave and to fight. That was simply part of the ethos. But ordinary people didn’t want to go into the army and, in fact, governments didn’t want to take hard-working, productive people like farmers or artisans and put them in the armies because it would be a waste. The nature of warfare depended very much on drills and unthinking obedience, and so ordinary soldiers often came from the parts of society that people thought weren’t much use. Often criminals, for example, would be given a choice of going to jail or being transported or joining the army.

Studying war does not make you a warmonger. It has so permeated our history and development that we need to try to understand it

What changed is that with the French Revolution, people began to take a greater interest in their own government and began to feel that they had a share in it. In a sense, they owned it. So people move from being subjects of a ruler to citizens of something called the nation. And if you’re a citizen, the nation belongs to you. But you, in a sense, also belong to it – you now have an obligation to it. What the French Revolution did was call on all French people – including women, young and old – to come to the defence of the revolution because it was their revolution. And so you get a very different type of soldier appearing.

The Industrial Revolution also makes it possible to have much bigger armies. What the military and governments need is manpower – they need lots and lots of men. And so they have to train the sorts of people they wouldn’t have looked at earlier on. They begin to use conscription (not the British but the continental armies) to train working people who are productive members of society. And so conscription becomes a very important part of building the relationship between individuals and their own countries.

Whelan: Do you think that is partly why the First World War plays such a significant role still, particularly for the UK? Because of that sense that people were sacrificing themselves for something bigger than the individual?

MacMillan: The First World War touched far more people than, say, the Napoleonic Wars would have done. Even though the Napoleonic Wars lasted much longer and were a tremendous struggle for Britain, an awful lot of people weren’t affected in the same way. If you read Jane Austen novels, which are written at the same time as the Napoleonic Wars, you get a few fleeting references, but that’s all. For most people, life goes on and the war is something that is happening elsewhere. But with the First World War, virtually everyone would have known someone – either a relative or a friend or someone from the same village or office – who was in the war. And, of course, the death toll was very high, so lots of people would have known someone who died.

British memories of the First World War have fluctuated and changed over time. And the commemoration now is much greater than it was in the 1970s or 1980s. In fact, there was even talk a few decades ago of cancelling the Remembrance Day and armistice services, because it was felt that not enough people were turning up. There’s been a resurgence of interest, and it’s interesting why this should be so. It’s not true of all countries, but it’s certainly true of the UK and Australia (and less true of Canada and the US).

Whelan: Why do you think that is?

The French Revolution, by calling on all French people to come to the defence of the revolution because it was their revolution, created a different type of soldier

I think it’s partly to do with what’s happening in the present. It’s partly to do also with organised groups like the Western Front Association, which have been very effective lobby groups, pushing government and others to do commemorative things. But I sometimes wonder. We are currently in a moment when the British are wondering who they are, and it’s partly to do with immigration, changes in British society, the European Union and all the debates around that. And possibly people are looking back to the First World War for answers, because then we did know who we were, and then we were united, and then we counted. I think there are various reasons why the war is being commemorated now perhaps more than when it was 20 or 30 years ago.

Whelan: How did people at the time see the war – how did it shape the British political identity?

MacMillan: Right after the war, it was seen as a necessary war. Just take a look at the monuments that were put up. They say things like, ‘To our dead heroes’. People like Field Marshal Haig, who is now vilified as someone who didn’t manage the war well and wasted lots of lives, was seen as a national hero. And there were things on the gravestones like, ‘They did not die in vain’. And if you look at a lot of the literature published in the immediate postwar period, much of it was actually commemorating the war, and not particularly critically. It was only towards the end of the 1920s, when the work of Siegfried Sassoon or Robert Graves began to be published, that a more critical picture of the war emerges. And critical perspective has tended to grow ever since.

I think the Second World War also affected the significance of the First. The Second World War was seen as a very clear-cut and necessary war, and that cast a shadow over the First World War, which began to be seen as messier and more morally compromised. So the First began to be compared unfavourably to the Second, even though the Second itself was morally ambiguous, because the Allies were allied with one of the greatest tyrannies in the world in the shape of the Soviet Union. We tend to overlook that — we tend to see it as a struggle between good and evil.

Whelan: The poppy debate has really fired some people up in the UK, so there seems to be a lot of emotion surrounding the First World War. How should we remember it?

MacMillan: I don’t know why people are so emotional about it 100 years later. Many would never have known anyone in the war. I’m of the generation who are disappearing from the scene, but we actually knew people who were in the First World War. Anyone under 65 would probably not have known anyone who fought. I find it interesting that people are so emotional about it in ways they don’t seem to be about the Second World War. And whether or not that’s about some loss or some change, it seems to be broader than individual responses.

I don’t like any official history that tries to impose a view. There have been very good commissioned histories by governments. Some of the histories of British military in the Second World War are actually very fair-minded and objective. But when a government says there is only one view of the past, I get very apprehensive because it usually has a purpose in doing so. It is trying to construct a narrative that usually justifies government policies.

Women can be just as ready to resort to war as men

All you can do with history is say to people that there are many questions and it is all right to ask them. But the more you know, the better. And I think there is a tendency, certainly in North American and UK universities, to say that war is an unpleasant subject, something we don’t want to think about, and therefore we don’t want to study it and anyone who does is a warmonger. But war has so permeated our history and development that we need to try to understand it. And we need to understand why it happens, why it goes on in certain ways, what it means for those who fight and for civilians. I don’t think we should turn our gaze away because there are wars, and the danger is if we don’t properly look at it, we forget how dangerous and uncontrollable war can be. Once a war starts you never know where it’s going to go.

Whelan: Today, many talk fearfully of the rise of nationalism and patriotism. Some even seem to believe that we could be heading towards another war. Could we ever be, as some fear we might, back in the same situation we were in 100 years ago?

MacMillan: It depends so much on the circumstances. Before 1914, there were many people who were very critical of the government and its policies – they said we won’t fight if we go to war, but then war started and suddenly things looked different. I think it’s very hard to predict how we respond. I’m a Canadian. If I thought Canada was under threat, I might well respond in ways that would surprise me.

Just to give you a very small example – Canadians tend to be very peaceful and we know we have to get on with the US. But there is a level of anger in this country about the way that President Trump has treated Canadians and has labelled us a security threat to the US. And I’ve been quite surprised by the reaction of Canadians; a lot are saying they won’t visit the US now. So you just don’t know. I also think societies change over time. You get societies that have been intensely nationalistic and militaristic, and 200 years later they’re quite different. In the 17th century, the Swedes were the terror of Europe – they were awful, brutal and very efficient in warfare. Today, Sweden is a peaceful country. Nothing is forever in history.

Whelan: Is there such a thing as a just war? Is it too subjective, and therefore impossible, to think about a ‘right’ reason to go to war?

MacMillan: I think we have to keep trying to deal with war, and unless you’re an outright pacifist who believes war can be eradicated completely, most of us accept that war is going to be around. So the question is how do we at least try and give it some shape and control.

The just war argument goes back a long way – to St Augustine and, even before that, to the Romans. Attempting to say to people, look, it’s okay to fight in this circumstance but not that one, may seem futile but I think we have to keep trying to do it. We have to limit what we can do in war, we have to say you really cannot go to war and kill civilians. Again, we don’t always do it, but I think we keep trying. Wars of aggression – when someone wants to seize his or her neighbour’s property – well, we’ve always tended to disapprove of those. We say there has to be a good reason for going to war, and the best reason is to defend yourself. So perhaps looking at a ‘just war’ is our attempt to deal with the phenomenon of war.

We have come some way in saying that aggressive war is not approved of. We’ve had very few wars since 1945 where people have simply said I want to take over that bit of land. When they have, there has been general condemnation. When Iraq under Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait in 1990, there was a very strong reaction both in public opinion and among world powers. And I think that has made a difference.

Nations will do a lot to each other, but we haven’t had outright wars of aggression (or, at least, not too many) for many decades, which, on balance, is to be considered an advance.

Margaret MacMillan is the former warden of St Antony’s College, and a professor of international history at the University of Oxford. She is the author of many books, including The Uses and Abuses of History and The War that Ended Peace.

Ella Whelan is a spiked columnist and the author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.

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