The Current·Q&A

A historian's take on the importance of Remembrance Day and understanding war

On Remembrance Day, as Canadians honour those who sacrifice their lives to defend our freedom, one historian says it’s more important than ever to talk about war and history.

‘We have to be aware that those costs [of war] are borne by the world as a whole,' says Margaret MacMillan

'The more we understand about the past, the more we understand ourselves and ... others,' says historian Margaret MacMillan. (Neil Cochrane/CBC)

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On Remembrance Day, as Canadians honour those who sacrifice their lives to defend our freedom, one historian says it's more important than ever to talk about war and history.

"There still is an awful lot of war in the world," said Margaret MacMillan, a history professor at the University of Toronto and the University of Oxford. 

"And I think we have to really think about it, because if we don't think about it, we won't think about how to stop it, how to end it, how to control it, how potentially to outlaw it altogether."

MacMillan is the author of several historical books. Her latest work, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, looks at how conflict has shaped human society and culture over the centuries. 

She spoke with The Current's Matt Galloway about what it means to remember, and how learning about the past can help us in the present.

Why is it important that we as Canadians remember what happened in a war that was more than a century ago?

It's part of the fabric of our history and it's part of what made us what we are.

As a result of the First World War, we came out more confident of ourselves as a nation, as a player in the world, we were prepared to take more independence from the British. And as a result of the Second World War, we became pretty much fully independent from the British. And I think these were important moments. 

So it's useful always, I think, to look back and see how we got to where we are today.

You say that remembering war, and how we remember it, is often tangled up in political and social debates. What do you mean by that?

We change ourselves as a people and we change how we remember the past, and that's inevitable.

The First World War, when it was first commemorated in the 1920s on the allied side, it was commemorated as victory. And people talked in Canada and Britain, Australia, elsewhere, about our dead heroes. And it was seen as a victory and a triumph. And then gradually the doubts crept in, especially as the world moved to a Second World War. And I think people began to think, was it all a waste?

What I think has also happened to remembrance is we're remembering more and more not just the people on our side, as we would have once said. We're remembering all those who die in war, and I think that's an important thing.

A lot of people in Canada … come from very different parts of the world, whose countries weren't involved in the first and second world wars or were involved on the other side. And I think remembrance now is something that we should communally think about [in terms of] those who died in war and reflect on the costs of war.

Canadian soldiers returning from the trenches during the Battle of the Somme, in November of 1916. (Library and Archives Canada under the reproduction reference number PA-000832/Wikipedia)

In this book, you grapple with what war is and you say that war is not an aberration, nor is it the absence of peace. Tell me more about that in terms of how we define what war is.

Especially in the West, we've had a very long period of peace. And so we tend to see war as something that happens when things go wrong, that it's an aberration.

I think we need to recognize that war is not something that just happens by mistake and a few people want. I think it's something that goes right back into human organization and human history. 

The danger of war is always present. I'm not saying we're going to have a war anytime soon, but there still is an awful lot of war in the world. And I think we have to really think about it, because if we don't think about it, we won't think about how to stop it, how to end it, how to control it, how potentially to outlaw it altogether.

When war happens elsewhere … what does that do to our relationship to war?

It can make war seem glamorous.

You know, there are hundreds of books when you go into bookstores, about war, and a lot of it is about battles and movies…. Those who've actually fought don't see the glamour of war. You know, they see the hideous side of war and they see the costs of war. So I think there's that. We may falsely glamorize war, thinking it's something noble and glorious because we don't actually experience it much. 

We have to be aware of the costs of war and we have to be aware that those costs are borne by the world as a whole, not just by those who suffer and die in them.- Margaret MacMillan

But the other thing I think is we tend to distance ourselves and … quite wrongly, we say, "Well, some parts of the world are just warlike. I mean, those people are just like that." 

That's dangerous because I think we have to be aware of the costs of war and we have to be aware that those costs are borne by the world as a whole, not just by those who suffer and die in them. The waves of refugees in the world — this is part of the cost of war, and it's something that does affect us.

MacMillan is a history professor at the University of Toronto and the University of Oxford, and the author of several books. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

Why is [it] important to study war, especially now?

Because if we don't study it, we fail to understand something about how human society has developed.

Canada may not be a nation forged in war, but it's a nation which has been affected by war. I mean, governments have grown stronger, for example, partly because of the needs to respond to war. The country came very close to breaking up, I think, a couple of times in the first and second world wars over the conscription issue. So these are things that I think we need to be aware of, that even a peaceable country like Canada shows the marks of war. 

But I think studying it also gives us … a better understanding. The more we understand about the past, the more we understand ourselves and the more we understand others.

And yet, as you say, I mean, we don't in some ways take war seriously enough. 

Why is it [that] the study of war is largely ignored?

I think maybe it's because it's seen in a lot of circles as military history. So it's sort of battles and toys for boys. And I think that's a mistake. 

If we avert our eyes just because we don't like something [or] we find it distasteful, then I think that that's rather foolish.- Margaret MacMillan

To understand how wars break out and to understand something about the nature of war may give us a healthy respect for those who try and keep peace, and may make us understand the need.

But I think there's a sort of distaste for studying war…. I was giving a talk once and someone said, "Why don't you study peace instead?" And I said, you know, that you have to understand war if you want to understand peace. The two are tied up together. And if we avert our eyes just because we don't like something [or] we find it distasteful, then I think that that's rather foolish.


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Howard Goldenthal. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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