The Next Chapter

Antanas Sileika reviews a book that looks at how war has shaped our society over the centuries

The Next Chapter columnist reviews War by Margaret MacMillan.
Antanas Sileika is an author and columnist. (Random House, Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Antanas Sileika regularly appears as a columnist on The Next Chapter. He's the former director of the Humber School for Writers and he's been nominated for literary awards such as the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and the City of Toronto Book Award. 

Sileika recently read War by Margaret MacMillan, a book that looks at how conflict has shaped human society and culture over the centuries.

Subverted expectations

"I walked into this expecting a polemic against war — how terrible it is, what we can do to minimise it and the horrors of the past — whereas Margaret MacMillan is much, much cooler. She tells a story of wanting to teach a course on war and being advised to call it a course on peace, which she found strange because that's not what she wanted to talk about.

How do we get to war? What has happened historically at war? What kind of people go to war, who suffers in war?

"How do we get to war? What has happened historically at war? What kind of people go to war, who suffers in war? And what are the advantages of wars? What good things have they brought us? So it's a very cool and calm philosophical approach." 

Nature vs. nurture

"It comes to the old nature and nurture argument. Did the culture lead us to become warlike or are we intrinsically warlike? She says there's a classic divide between Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Hobbes on the one hand says that our primitive selves were violent and that our nature is violent too. And Rousseau said the opposite.

Did the culture lead us to become warlike or are we intrinsically warlike?

"MacMillan comes out on the side of Hobbes saying archaeology has demonstrated right from the beginning of time that we have been warlike. There was no paradise in the hunter-gatherer times.

"Some of the tribes that she examined lost up to a quarter of their populations to war before there was agriculture. First, we are intrinsically warlike. Then with agriculture, this gets cranked because now we have to protect something — the food stores." 

On the edge

"War was a chilling book for me, because like most people of my generation, most people in my social circle, we deplore war. 

So suddenly I realize that we're living on the edge of war at all times.

"But it was like a wake up call. You're thinking this can never happen because it hasn't happened recently. So suddenly I realize that we're living on the edge of war at all times. It's a little bit chilling, more than a little bit chilling. It's mildly alarming." 

Antanas Sileikas's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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