WAR: How Conflict Shaped Us.

AuthorSmith, Anthony

WAR: How Conflict Shaped Us

Author: Margaret MacMillan

Published by: Profile Books, London, 2020, 328pp, $45.

Margaret MacMillan, Canadian historian and professor of history at Oxford University and Toronto University, has attempted here to understand all facets of human conflict, a topic that is a central through-line in human affairs--even if many academics still shy away from it. This book is highly recommended.

Professor MacMillan is a noted scholar of the international and diplomatic history of the First World War (and a descendent of United Kingdom's First World War Prime Minister Lloyd George), perhaps best known for her 2013 book The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914.

For MacMillan, human warfare conjures a range of emotions, from 'horror to admiration', but it is, nonetheless, one of the 'great forces' of history: 'war is not an aberration'. How do we explain, then, her contention that Western universities largely ignore it. In the 1960s Lord Reith could not easily find a publisher for his war memoir because it failed to reconfirm a prevailing view that war was nothing but a trauma to anyone involved--Reith found meaning in his service, as have a great many who have served. As the book notes, many returned soldiers view their war experience as the most consequential thing in their lives. Relevant to New Zealand's (and Australia's) own Anzac Day commemorations, from the 1960s to the 1980s there were serious accusations from the 'political left' (MacMillan's characterisation) that these events were a glorification of war. She also notes the cultural impact of the popular Blackadder television series, with one of the seasons highlighting the futility of the First World War. In these years only around 2000 people would have attended the Dawn Service at Canberra's War Memorial, and there was an active debate about the continuation of similar First World War-related commemorations in the United Kingdom (Remembrance Day) and Canada (the anniversary of Vimy Ridge). According to the Guardian, around 120,000 Australians (in pre-Covid times) routinely now attend the Canberra Dawn Service. We have witnessed a very similar turn around in New Zealand. MacMillan notes the now overwhelming public demand from Australians and New Zealanders for places at the Gallipoli commemorations in Turkey. What changed? MacMillan notes the efforts of respective governments to bolster these commemorations--pushed by well organised veteran lobby groups. (In...

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