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BIPR | War: How Conflict Shaped Us
War: How Conflict Shaped Us

April 15, 2021 - 18:30

Margaret MacMillan, University of Oxford; University of Toronto

Event Recap

What is war? Why does it keep happening? And how does it affect us? On April 15th, 2021, SAIS professor Mark Gilbert was joined by international historian Margaret MacMillan – whose latest book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, explores these very questions – for a conversation on the history of modern war, our understanding of its impacts, and the nature of armed conflict in the 21st century.

For many Western universities, which have existed in predominantly peaceful locations since 1945, the study of war often feels remote. Armed conflict, for most of academia and Western societies, is something that happens elsewhere, removed by either space or time. Yet the effects of war are not only felt directly in the present day, but extend indirectly from well into the past Wars have brought about social changes such as women's suffrage, political upheavals such as the Bolshevik Revolution, or technological innovations such as the jet engine and modern air travel. While an abhorrent engine of progress or change, just as pandemics or natural catastrophes are, war is a necessary component to understanding the state of the modern world. To gloss over or ignore war or politicize it in a blinkered historical narrative is to lose a critical dimension of global history.

Analyzing war itself, MacMillan reflected how ideology, in the form of nationalism for example, has been a key instigator of war in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was nationalism that helped to motivate the grand armies of the Napoleonic Wars, shattered the Concert of Nations prior to WWI, and drew in the combatants in WWII and after. It was in large part due to nationalist rhetoric and an eagerness to organize for war that European powers came into conflict before 1914 in spite of unprecedented economic and political integration. The Cold War was driven partly by the clash between communism and democracy. There were mistakes and dangerous moments when the Cold War came close to being a hot one capable of destroying civilization. MacMillan noted how today modern US-China strategic and economic competition and the jockeying of each for influence and advantage have the worrying potential from avoidance of armed conflict to preparation in anticipation of it. If the failure of the Concert of Europe before 1914 taught us anything, it would be that increased communication and interconnection may not be inherently enough to prevent a future conflict.

Despite all this, and despite the incessant recurrence and presence of war throughout human history, MacMillan does reject the idea that humans are inherently killers driven to war. Mentioning the famous WWII study that claimed that only one fifth of US forces ever actually fired their weapons, MacMillan pointed out how the very point of training is to instil discipline and make normal people into soldiers capable of violence through the cultivation of martial virtues and values. In certain cases the culture of particular societies can also shape a population's propensity for war. The men who went into the British army in WWI often looked forward to combat because they been raised on the Classical epics which praised bravery, violence, and glory. If then, people can be acculturated to violence, then they can also be acculturated to peace, just as Europe transformed itself from the great battlegrounds of the 19th and 20th centuries to the most robust supranational cooperative political system in the modern world.

Given this evolution, could it be possible that we are transitioning into a world without war altogether? And if so, can we redirect martial virtues such as dedication to comrades away from violence into different more modern crises (if such a thing is even desirable)? To this, MacMillan responded by first reemphasizing that armed conflict has far from disappeared in the present day; we still have state to state conflict as well as the civil wars and anarchy that can arise in failed states. Second, while societies at peace may not face the challenges and dangers that require solidarity and self-sacrifice we still need those qualities. We see them among groups such as like firefighters, and have seen them recently in the current pandemic among medical professionals and other carers. While it is hard to bring societies and peoples together to fight longer-term crises, most importantly, climate change we have to hope this can be done.

The conversation concluded with a lively audience Q&A, during which MacMillan recalled the far-reaching impacts of and participation in war within all sectors of society (and not just the young men it is archetypically associated with), assessed the risk of a US-China armed conflict, and cautioned us all to reconsider the ways in which ideological thinking can preclude us from considering diverse perspectives and options, instead locking us into predictable, disastrous, and recurrent courses of action.

Full Audio:

War: How Conflict Shaped Us
History of the Present Series and Patrick McCarthy Memorial Series on Intellectuals and Politics

hosted by Professor Mark Gilbert

Margaret MacMillan
University of Oxford; University of Toronto

From the bestselling author of Paris 1919 comes a provocative view of war as an essential component of humanity and our history. Is peace an aberration?

The instinct to fight may be innate in human nature, but war — organized violence — comes with organized society. War has shaped humanity's history, its social and political institutions, its values and ideas. Our very language, our public spaces, our private memories, and some of our greatest cultural treasures reflect the glory and the misery of war. War is an uncomfortable and challenging subject not least because it brings out both the vilest and the noblest aspects of humanity.

MacMillan looks at the ways in which war has influenced human society and how, in turn, changes in political organization, technology, or ideologies have affected how and why we fight. War: How Conflict Shaped Us explores such much-debated and controversial questions as: When did war first start? Does human nature doom us to fight one another? Why has war been described as the most organized of all human activities? Why are warriors almost always men? Is war ever within our control?

Drawing on lessons from wars throughout the past, from classical history to the present day, MacMillan reveals the many faces of war — the way it has determined our past, our future, our views of the world, and our very conception of ourselves.


Margaret MacMillan is a Professor of History at the University of Toronto, emeritus Professor of International History and the former Warden of St. Antony's College at the University of Oxford.

Her books include Women of the Raj (1988, 2007); Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (2001) (Peacemakers in the UK) for which she was the first woman to win the Samuel Johnson Prize; Nixon in China: Six Days that Changed the World (Seize the Hour: When Nixon Met Mao in the UK); The Uses and Abuses of History (2008); Extraordinary Canadians: Stephen Leacock (2009); The War that Ended Peace (2014); History's People (2015). Her most recent book is War: How Conflict Shaped Us.

She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, University of Toronto, Honorary Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, St Hilda's College and St Antony's College at the University of Oxford. MacMillan is also a Trustee of the Central European University in Budapest, and the Imperial War Museum and sits on the editorial boards of International History and First World War Studies.

She has honorary degrees from the University of King's College, the Royal Military College, the University of Western Ontario, Ryerson University, Huron University College of the University of Western Ontario, the University of Calgary, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Bishop's University and the University of Toronto. In 2006 Professor MacMillan was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 2015 became a Companion. In 2018 she became a Companion of Honour (UK).
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