The Sunday Magazine·Q&A

Changing the course of human history 'for better and for worse': Margaret MacMillan on the paradoxes of war

Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan speaks with Piya Chattopadhyay about how war has shaped everything from the power of the state, to the role of women in society, to public health. Her new book explores how war transforms our world, even after the fighting has stopped.

'I see the relationship between war and society very much as a two-way thing,' says historian

Margaret MacMillan is a professor of international history at the University of Oxford. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

Across human history, it's estimated that war has claimed anywhere between 150 million to one billion lives. But it has also been a catalyst for social change, says a Canadian historian. 

"War is among those catastrophic events which helped to change the course of human history for better and for worse," Margaret MacMillan told The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay.

Her latest book War: How Conflict Shaped Us delves into how war has brought us death and destruction, but also improved education and social benefits, advances for women, an end to private armies, and innovation in medicine, science and technology.

MacMillan, a professor at the University of Oxford, spoke to Chattopadhyay from her home in England.

Here is part of their conversation.


A big theme in this book is the many paradoxes of war  — how wars have changed the relationship between citizens and their governments. You write that war has increased the power of the state. How so?

We have a view of war as a whole lot of people losing their tempers and going out, trying to bash and kill each other. It certainly involves that element of violence. But war is probably one of the most — if not the most — organized of human activities.

When you think of the organization needed: to get armed forces, to train people, develop the hierarchies, get the equipment you need, get them off into the field, transport the people who are going to go and fight, keep them there and keep the supply — it's a hugely organized activity.

Governments' taxing powers … has depended a lot on wars — the ability to mobilize people and to use your resources. So governments have, on the whole, become stronger because of war. But the stronger they become, the more control they can have over society.

In her latest book, Margaret MacMillan analyzes the tangled history of war and society and our complicated feelings towards it and towards those who fight. (Viking)

On one hand, war increases the power of a government — power that may not be relinquished once the fighting is over. You also say war has been a catalyst for progressive changes. Explain that.

If you want people to fight willingly, then you're going to have to do something for them. As far back as the classical world, the Romans and the Greeks had to give certain rights to members of their societies. They had to allow them to participate in debate and have a vote if they wanted them to fight.

The same thing was true in the 19th and 20th centuries … in part at least because governments were aware of the need to have educated and healthy soldiers and sailors. A lot of the research that was funded in American universities after the Second World War was funded because of the Cold War. It also helped the universities, education and society as a whole. So I see the relationship between war and society very much as a two-way thing.

The First and Second World Wars, and other wars have shown that women can do things that people didn't expect them to be able to do.- Margaret MacMillan

How has war changed the position of women in the world for both better and for worse?

Before the First World War and even later, a number of countries including Canada and Britain, argued that women's place is in the home. They're not interested in the wider world, they don't have the capacity to think about politics, etc. Therefore, they shouldn't be thinking of doing the jobs that men can do because they're not fit for them. They don't need a vote because they really wouldn't know what to do with it.

The First and Second World Wars, and other wars have shown that women can do things that people didn't expect them to be able to do … drive tractors and buses, fly airplanes, which they did in the two world wars. That changed the perception of society, crucially of male politicians who came around saying, 'We really cannot deny women equal rights and deny them the vote, as we might once have done.' It didn't mean that everything changed at once. But the experience of women contributing to war has really helped to shift thinking about the role of women in society.

But women bear a particular burden [in war] because they're also targeted as the carriers of the enemy because they bear the children. So rape has been a tool of war in certain circumstances. It's not just spontaneous. It's not just soldiers running amok. It's often encouraged by the authorities … The price women pay for wars is a very heavy one. They're often victims in a very particular and brutal way.

One of the paradoxes you highlight is that even though war is destructive, it has also led to new ways of saving human life — advanced science and medicine. What are some examples of that?

Things that seem too expensive in peacetime … suddenly become possible in war. 

Penicillin was discovered before the Second World War. But nobody put it into production because it seemed prohibitively expensive. Then the Second World War broke out and suddenly it became absolutely important — a matter of national survival — to be able to cure soldiers when they were injured or to keep them safe … And so the allies were able to produce penicillin. So war has promoted research and advances. We've learned a lot, unfortunately through war, that has benefited medicine and society as a whole.

We tend to focus on the present and put things off. It's perhaps wishful thinking — if we don't think about the unpleasant things, maybe they won't happen. The thing about war is it's right there. You can't avoid it.- Margaret MacMillan

What do you think it says about us, that we don't tend to pull off these big changes outside of major conflicts, that things don't get done in the same way during peacetime.

We're very good at postponing things. We've seen this whole discussion around climate change. It seems to me now the overwhelming weight of evidence is that something is happening to our planet … We are very good saying, 'Well, it's not going to happen right away, it'll happen in 10 years, 15 years.' We tend to focus on the present and put things off. It's perhaps wishful thinking — if we don't think about the unpleasant things, maybe they won't happen.

The thing about war is it's right there. You can't avoid it. You don't have a choice. It's understandable that we can only worry about so many things at once. At the moment, we're focused on COVID-19, on the very serious economic fallout from that.

So it's difficult for us to think of some of the other things that we should be worrying about. It's quite natural. But we can rise. Catastrophes can force us to think about what we need to do together. So I remain optimistic that we are capable, and we do sometimes realize just how serious a dilemma we're in, and then we actually do something about it.


Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Interview produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

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