“War remains, as it always has been, one of the chief human mysteries.”
—Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War
War. The word alone raises a range of emotions from horror to admiration. Some of us choose to avert our eyes as if the very act of remembering and thinking about war somehow brings it closer. Others of us are fascinated by it and can find in war excitement and glamour. As a historian I firmly believe that we have to include war in our study of human history if we are to make any sense of the past. War’s effects have been so profound that to leave it out is to ignore one of the great forces, along with geography, resources, economics, ideas, and social and political changes, which have shaped human development and changed history. If the Persians had defeated the Greek city-states in the fifth century b.c.; if the Incas had crushed Pizarro’s expedition in the sixteenth century; or if Hitler had won the Second World War, would the world have been different? We know that it would although we can only guess by how much.
And the what-ifs are only a part of the conundrums we face. War raises fundamental questions about what it is to be human and about the essence of human society. Does war bring out the bestial side of human nature or the best? As with so much to do with war, we cannot agree. Is it an indelible part of human society, somehow woven in like an original sin from the time our ancestors first started organizing themselves into social groups? Our mark of Cain, a curse put on us which condemns us to repeated conflict? Or is such a view a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy? Do changes in society bring new types of war or does war drive change in society? Or should we even try to say what comes first, but rather see war and society as partners, locked into a dangerous but also productive relationship? Can war—destructive, cruel and wasteful—also bring benefits?
Important questions all, and I will try to answer them, and others that will come up along the way, as I explore the subject. I hope to persuade you of one thing, however. War is not an aberration, best forgotten as quickly as possible. Nor is it simply an absence of peace which is really the normal state of affairs. If we fail to grasp how deeply intertwined war and human society are—to the point where we cannot say that one predominates over or causes the other—we are missing an important dimension of the human story. We cannot ignore war and its impact on the development of human society if we hope to understand our world and how we reached this point in history.
[ Return to the review of “War.” ]
Western societies have been fortunate in the last decades; since the end of the Second World War they have not experienced war firsthand. True, Western countries have sent military to fight around the world, in Asia, in the Korean or Vietnam Wars or in Afghanistan, in parts of the Middle East or in Africa, but only a very small minority of people living in the West have been touched directly by those conflicts. Millions in those regions of course have had very different experiences and there has been no year since 1945 when there has not been fighting in one part of the world or another. For those of us who have enjoyed what is often called the Long Peace it is all too easy to see war as something that others do, perhaps because they are at a different stage of development. We in the West, so we complacently assume, are more peaceable. Writers such as the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker have popularized the view that Western societies have become less violent over the past two centuries and that the world as a whole has seen a decline in deaths from war. So while we formally mourn the dead from our past wars once a year, we increasingly see war as something that happens when peace—the normal state of affairs—breaks down. At the same time we can indulge a fascination with great military heroes and their battles of the past; we admire stories of courage and daring exploits in war; the shelves of bookshops and libraries are packed with military histories; and movie and television producers know that war is always a popular subject. The public never seems to tire of Napoleon and his campaigns, Dunkirk, D-Day or the fantasies of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. We enjoy them in part because they are at a safe distance; we are confident that we ourselves will never have to take part in war.
The result is that we do not take war as seriously as it deserves. We may prefer to avert our eyes from what is so often a grim and depressing subject, but we should not. Wars have repeatedly changed the course of human history, opening up pathways into the future and closing down others. The words of the Prophet Muhammad were carried out of the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula into the rich settled lands of the Levant and North Africa in a series of wars, and this has had a lasting impact on that region. Imagine what Europe might be like today if Muslim leaders had managed to conquer the whole continent, as they came close to doing on a couple of occasions. Early in the eighth century Muslim invaders conquered Spain and moved north across the Pyrenees into what is today’s France. They were defeated at the Battle of Tours in 732, marking the end of the surge northward. Had it continued, it is possible to imagine a Muslim and not a Catholic France shaping French society and European history over the next centuries. Some 800 years later the great Ottoman leader Suleiman the Magnificent swept through the Balkans and most of Hungary; in 1529 his troops were outside Vienna. If they had taken that great city the center of Europe might have become part of his empire and its history would have been a different one. The spires of Vienna’s many churches would have been joined by minarets and a young Mozart might have heard different forms of music played on different instruments. Closer to our own times, let us imagine what might have happened if the Germans had wiped out the British and the Allies at Dunkirk in May 1940 and then destroyed Britain’s fighter command in the Battle of Britain that summer. The British Isles might have become another Nazi possession.
War in its essence is organized violence, but different societies fight different sorts of wars. Nomadic peoples fight wars of movement, attacking when they have an advantage and slipping away into vast open spaces when they do not. Settled agricultural societies need walls and fortifications. War forces change and adaptation, and conversely changes in society affect war. The ancient Greeks believed that citizens had an obligation to come to the defense of their cities. That participation in war in turn brought an extension of rights and democracy. By the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution made it possible for governments to assemble and maintain huge armies, bigger than anything the world had seen before, but that also created an expectation among those millions of men who were conscripted that they would have a greater say in their own societies. Governments were obliged not only to listen but also to provide a range of services, from education to unemployment insurance. The strong nation-states of today with their centralized governments and organized bureaucracies are the products of centuries of war. Memories and commemorations of past victories and defeats become part of the national story and nations require stories if they are to be cohesive. Such centralized polities, whose people see themselves as part of a shared whole, can wage war on a greater scale and for longer because of their organization, their capacity to use the resources of their societies and their ability to draw on the support of their citizens. The capacity to make war and the evolution of human society are part of the same story.
Over the centuries war has become more deadly, with greater impact. There are more of us; we have more resources and more organized and complex societies; we can mobilize and engage millions in our struggles; and we have a much greater capacity to destroy. We had to come up with new terms to describe the two great wars of the twentieth century: world war and total war. While some threads run consistently through the history of war and human society—such as the impact of changes in society or technology, attempts to limit or control war, or the differences between warriors and civilians—I will be paying a lot of attention to the period since the end of the eighteenth century, because war has become not just quantitatively different but qualitatively. I will also draw many of my examples from the history of the West, because it has pioneered so much in the recent past in war, as well as, it must be said, attempts to keep it under control.
Yet in the majority of Western universities the study of war is largely ignored, perhaps because we fear that the mere act of researching and thinking about it means approval. International historians, diplomatic historians and military historians all complain about the lack of interest in their fields, and of jobs too. War or strategic studies are relegated, when they exist, to their own small enclosures where those called military historians can roam away, digging up their unsavory tidbits and constructing their unedifying stories, and not bother anyone else. I remember years ago, in my first history department, we had a visit from an educational consultant to help us make our courses more appealing to students. When I told him that I was drawing up plans for a course called “War and Society” he looked dismayed. It would be better, he urged, to use the title “A History of Peace.”
It is a curious neglect, because we live in a world shaped by war, even if we do not always realize it. Peoples have moved or fled, sometimes disappeared literally and from history, because of war. So many borders have been set by war, and governments and states have risen and fallen through war. Shakespeare knew this well: in his plays war often provides the mechanism by which kings rise and fall while the ordinary citizens keep their heads down and pray that the storm will leave them unscathed. Some of our greatest art has been inspired by war or the hatred of war: the Iliad, Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Goya’s The Disasters of War, Picasso’s Guernica or Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
War is in the games children play—capture the flag or the fort—and one of the most popular video games of 2018 in the United States was Call of Duty, based on the Second World War. The crowds who go to sporting events sometimes treat them as battles with the other team as the enemy. In Italy those who are known as Ultra fans arrive at soccer matches in highly organized groups with a firm hierarchy of command. They wear uniforms and give themselves names such as Commandos, Guerrillas and, much to the dismay of many of their fellow Italians, some borrowed from the partisan bands of the Second World War. They come to do battle with supporters of the rival team more than to watch the match. The modern Olympics were meant to build international fellowship but from almost their first moment they mirrored competition between the different nations. The games were not war but they took on many of its attributes, with the awarding of medals, the playing of national anthems and teams in uniforms marching in unison behind their national flags. Hitler and Goebbels famously envisaged the 1936 Berlin Olympics as key in their campaign to show the superiority of the German people and, during the Cold War, tallies of medals were read as showing the superiority of one side over the other.
[ Return to the review of “War.” ]
Even our language and our expressions bear the imprint of war. After they defeated the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars the Romans continued to use the expression “Punic good faith” (fides Punica) sarcastically. In English we say dismissively that someone or something is a flash in the pan without realizing that the expression originated with early guns, when the gunpowder meant to ignite the charge flared to no effect. If the British want to be rude they will call something French or Dutch, because those nations were once enemies. Taking French leave means departing rudely and abruptly, while Dutch courage means drinking gin. (And the words “British” and “English” fill the same role for the French and the Dutch.) So many of our favorite metaphors come from the military, for the British especially from the navy. If we are three sheets to the wind, eating a square meal might help. If we run into a spot of trouble we can wait for it to blow over or give it lots of leeway. If you don’t believe me you can always say, “Go tell it to the marines!” Our conversation and writing are sprinkled with military metaphors: wars on poverty, on cancer, drugs or obesity (I once saw a book entitled My War on My Husband’s Cholesterol). Obituaries talk about the deceased as having “lost the battle” with their illness. We speak freely of campaigns, whether in advertising or to raise money for charity. Business leaders read a Chinese work on strategy written 2,000 years ago for tips on how to outsmart the opposition and carry their enterprises to victory. They boast of their strategic goals and their innovative tactics and are fond of comparing themselves to great military leaders such as Napoleon. When politicians go to ground to avoid questions or scandals—firestorms, they are often called—the media report that they are in their bunkers trying to rally their troops and planning an offensive. In December 2018 a New York Times headline read: “For Trump, a War Every Day, Waged Increasingly Alone.”
War is there too in so much of our geography. In the names of places: Trafalgar Square in London after Nelson’s triumph; the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris after one of Napoleon’s greatest victories; Waterloo Station in London after his final defeat. In Canada there is a town which was once called Berlin-Potsdam because it had been settled in the nineteenth century by German immigrants; when the First World War broke out, it suddenly became Kitchener-Waterloo. Our towns and cities almost always have their war memorials with the names of those who died or monuments to long-gone heroes. Nelson stands on his column in London; Grant’s tomb is a popular meeting place in New York’s Riverside Park. Increasingly in the past century, memorials have appeared to the rank and file, the often anonymous participants in war, such as nurses, pilots, infantry soldiers, marines, ordinary seamen and even, in the case of the United Kingdom, to the animals used in the two world wars. Reminders of past wars are so much part of the scenery we often do not see them. I have walked up and down Platform 1 at London’s Paddington Station more times than I can remember, never noticing a large memorial to the 2,524 employees of the Great Western Railway company who died in the First World War. At Paddington too is a striking bronze statue of a soldier who stands there, dressed for war, reading a letter from home. Without the commemorations of the hundredth anniversary of the war I would not have stopped to see it, or taken the time at Victoria Station to search for the plaques to the vast numbers of soldiers who entrained there on their way to France, or the one to the body of the Unknown Soldier which arrived back in 1920.
If we pause to reflect on our own histories we can often find traces of war in our memories. I grew up in a peaceful Canada but many of the books and comics I read were about war, from the seemingly inexhaustible supply of G. A. Hentys, with stories of noble and heroic boys in most of the major conflicts before 1914, through the intrepid pilot Biggles and his crew in the Second World War to the Black Hawk comic books, which had started out in that war but moved seamlessly into the Korean one. At Brownies we sang songs—much cleaned up, I later realized— from the First World War and learned semaphore and how to make bandages. At school in the early 1950s we collected string and foil for the war effort in Korea. We also practiced sitting under our desks in case nuclear war broke out between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Many of us will have heard stories told by older generations who knew war firsthand. Both my grandfathers were in the First World War as doctors, the Welsh one with the Indian Army at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia, and the Canadian one on the Western Front. My father and all four of my uncles were in the Second World War. They told us some but not all of what they had experienced. My father, who was on a Canadian ship escorting convoys across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, mostly had funny stories, but once and only once he told us how close they had come to being sunk. His voice shook and he could not go on. His own father never told him much about the trenches, but as often happens he talked to a grandchild, my sister, who was too young to understand much of it. Our grandfather also brought back a hand grenade as a souvenir which sat in my grandmother’s curio cabinet along with such treasures as a miniature Swiss cottage and a tiny wooden Scotty dog. We played with the grenade as children, rolling it around on the floor, until someone noticed that it still had its pin. Many families must have such stories and mementoes, the packages of letters from war zones, artifacts picked up on battlefields, the old binoculars and helmets, or the umbrella stands made out of shell casings.
And the souvenirs keep coming as the battlefields around the world give up their debris. Eurostar has had to put up signs to remind passengers who have been to the battlefields of the First World War not to bring on board shells or weapons they have collected as souvenirs. Every spring Belgian and French farmers along what was once the Western Front pile up what they call the Iron Harvest. The winter frosts have heaved the land, bringing to the surface old barbed wire, bullets, helmets and unexploded shells, some of them containing poison gas. Units of the French and Belgian armies collect the munitions for safe disposal, but the war still claims its victims, among farmers and the bomb disposal experts, workers who dig in the wrong place or the woodcutters who build a fire for warmth on top of a live shell. Construction in London and Germany still turns up, from time to time, unexploded bombs from the Second World War. And relics surface from much older wars. A ship dredging Haifa harbor in Israel found a magnificent Greek helmet from the sixth or fifth century b.c. A retired schoolteacher out for a walk with his metal detector found a Roman helmet buried in a hill in Leicestershire. Scuba divers on a routine training exercise on the Shannon River in Ireland found a Viking sword from the tenth century.
Many societies have war museums and days of national commemoration when they remember their dead. And the dead themselves make unexpected appearances to remind us of the costs of war. On the quiet Swedish island of Gotland archeologists unearthed the body of a local soldier in his chain mail. He had been killed along with many of his fellows fighting Danish invaders in 1361. Bodies can be preserved for centuries if they are buried in mud or mummified in hot countries. In the summer of 2018 archeologists surveying land near Ypres for a housing development found the remains of 125 soldiers, German mainly, but also Allied, who had lain there since they fell in the First World War. In 2002 thousands of corpses, still dressed in their blue uniforms with buttons bearing the numbers of their regiments, were discovered in a mass grave outside Vilnius. They had died during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812.
When we pause to remember war we think of its costs—the waste of human beings and resources—its violence, its unpredictability and the chaos it can leave in its wake. We less often recognize just how organized war is. In 1940 Germany tried to force Britain into surrender and for nearly two months London was bombed day and night. Many nonessential civilians were evacuated to the countryside. Those who remained slept in makeshift shelters or the Underground. The British Broadcasting Corporation—the BBC—which was based in the center of London, sent several departments away. Music went to Bedford, Drama and Variety to Bristol, until that got too dangerous, and Variety went off to languish rather glumly in the sedate town of Bangor in North Wales. The remaining staff often could not get home at night so the BBC—not nicknamed Auntie for nothing—turned its Radio Theatre into a dormitory, with a curtain down the middle to keep the sexes apart. In October two bombs hit the building. Seven members of staff died as they tried to remove an unexploded one and the fire department rushed to the scene to keep the flames from spreading. The news reader for the nine o’clock news paused briefly as the building shook and then kept going, covered in soot and dust. By the next morning scaffolding had gone up around Broadcasting House and the rubble was being cleared. Think for a moment of the organization that was involved in that single episode, a tiny one in the overall history of the war. The German bombers, with their fighter escorts, were the products of Germany’s war industry, which had mobilized resources from materials to labor and factories in order to get the planes made and into the air. Their crews had been chosen and trained. German intelligence and planners had done their best to select important targets. And the British response was equally organized. The Royal Air Force tracked the incoming planes and did its best to stop them, while on the ground crews manned barrage balloons and searchlights. The blackout over London and other key cities was complete and carefully monitored. The BBC had made contingency plans, the fire department came and the work of clearing up started at once.
War is perhaps the most organized of all human activities and in turn it has stimulated further organization of society. Even in peacetime, preparing for war—finding the necessary money and resources—demands that governments assume greater control over society. That has become increasingly true in the modern age because the demands of war have grown with our capacity to make it. In increasing the power of governments, war has also brought progress and change, much of which we would see as beneficial: an end to private armies, greater law and order, in modern times more democracy, social benefits, improved education, changes in the position of women or labor, advances in medicine, science and technology. As we have got better at killing, we have also become less willing to tolerate violence against each other. Murder rates are down in most parts of the globe, yet the twentieth century saw the greatest deaths in war in absolute figures in history. So there is yet another question: How do we reconcile killing on such a scale while simultaneously deploring violence? Most of us clearly would not choose to make war to get its benefits. Surely there is some other way of doing it. But have we yet found it?
There are many such paradoxes about war. We fear war but we are also fascinated by it. We may feel horror at the cruelty of war and its waste, but we can also admire the courage of the soldier and feel the dangerous power of war’s glamour. Some of us even admire it as one of the noblest of human activities. War gives its participants license to kill fellow human beings, yet it also requires great altruism. After all, what can be more selfless than being willing to give up your life for another? We have a long tradition of seeing war as a tonic for societies, as bracing them up and bringing out their nobler sides. Before 1914 the German poet Stefan George dismissed his peaceful European world as “the cowardly years of trash and triviality” and Filippo Marinetti, founder of the Futurist movement and future fascist, proclaimed, “War is the sole hygiene of the world.” Mao Zedong later said something very similar: “Revolutionary war is an antitoxin which not only eliminates the enemy’s poison but also purges us of our own filth.” But we have another, equally long tradition of seeing war as an evil, productive of nothing but misery, and a sign, perhaps, that we as a species are irredeemably flawed and doomed to play out our fate in violence to the end of history.
Svetlana Alexievich is right. War is a mystery, and a terrifying one. That is why we must keep trying to understand it.
[ Return to the review of “War.” ]