Book review: War: how conflict shaped us by Margaret MacMillan

Like me, you may have strolled around your local bookstore and seen the hefty tome bearing images of illustrious men with old-fashioned facial stylings and the ominous title: Paris 1919. And like me, you probably picked it up, read the back, made a mental note to read it someday, and put it back before you sprained your wrist.

Reading about war is tricky. It’s not a subject most of us are familiar enough with to hold a sophisticated conversation on, despite how much news we take in. What we see and read in the news are the actions and consequences of war. We’re not privy to the strategizing. We rarely learn of any philosophical or sociological perspectives on war unless we actively seek it out.

For example, I took a university history class on the Enlightenment, and through a circuitous train of thought, wrote an essay on Frederick the Great’s battles against Napoleon. I studied the battle plans, the characters, the outcomes with fascination. I was tickled at Fred’s daring (for the time) idea that everyone should be able to get to heaven in their own way. This exposure to Fred’s ideas was the start of my own personal enlightenment on science and religion, and I haven’t looked back since.

In War: how conflict shaped us, Margaret MacMillan gives us an easy-to-understand, gentle, thought-provoking foray into a study on war. The ‘how it shaped us’ bit refers to how war, from strategy, funding, tactics, recruitment, attitudes to civilians, and religious overtones, changes our lives in a multitude of ways. We, in turn, change how we wage war.

While I am not familiar with every war, leader, hero, battle, and account mentioned in this book, this was not an obstacle to understanding the point being made. Despite what I thought when I began the book, I could not stop listening to it. I even spent an hour shovelling snow I didn’t need to in order to find an excuse to keep listening.

Margaret not only writes a coherent, entertaining and informative book; she exudes a greatness in her person. I met her once a few years ago when she received an honour at the University of Calgary. She not only acknowledged me, a staff member standing at the ready, but everyone she encountered. She embodied grace and dignity and an acceptance of her place in the world with humility and pride.

I heartily recommend this book, not as a glorification of war, but as a tool to understand it better, and in turn, ourselves.

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