War: How Conflict Shaped Us
by Margaret MacMillan
Random House, 2020
xxii + 312 pages
War is a difficult book to review. The book is based on the Reith Lectures that MacMillan delivered for the BBC in 2018 and is not organized around a central theme. Instead, it presents a large number of startling facts and anecdotes about war aimed at a wide popular audience. It contains several points that readers of the Mises Institute page will find of value. MacMillan, a renowned authority on international politics who has taught at Oxford and Toronto and who is now, as the saying has it, “rich in years and honors,” is eminently qualified to write about war.
“War is the health of the state” said Randolph Bourne (not quoted in the book), and MacMillan bears him out. She tells us that the
need to make war has gone hand in hand with the development of the state. The historian Charles Tilly goes so far as to say, “War made the state, and the state made war.” Protecting yourself, from neighbors or raiding nomads, takes organization—to get the bodies to fight and then to provide leadership and the discipline and training to exact obedience. (p. 20)
For readers of Bourne, not to mention Oppenheimer and Nock, this is hardly news; but MacMillan offers an illustration of the claim that will surprise many of us:
In the eighteenth century, the British navy was the single biggest industry by far in the whole of the British Isles. While you could build a cotton mill for £5,000, a large capital ship for the navy such as Nelson’s Victory cost over £60,000….The navy needed money, a great deal of it, as well as organization and management, and the British government developed the necessary tools and institutions, which came in handy for managing other aspects of British society. The Treasury was founded in the second half of the seventeenth century to keep military expenditure under control but over time developed into a body which kept track of the spending of all government departments. In the 1690s…the government as an emergency measure founded the Bank of England, which could take money from subscribers and lend to the government at a fixed rate. Again, like the Treasury, the bank grew into a key part of Britain’s fiscal system. (pp. 20–21)
MacMillan, though fully aware of the terrible costs of wars and massive states, thinks that both of these have their good sides. States are needed to suppress local brigands, and wars bring with them technological innovation. Also, wars sometimes lead to more democracy and socially beneficial programs.
Recently, prominent historians and economists, among them Walter Scheidel and Thomas Piketty, [!] have argued persuasively that major wars can also act to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor and that the experience of the nations involved in the First and Second World Wars bears this out. Major wars stimulate employment; labor becomes more valuable so wages go up; and the rich pay higher taxes voluntarily, or find it harder to avoid doing so. At the end of destructive wars it is also easier to contemplate major programs of reconstruction and social benefits and gain support for them. As William Beveridge, whose report laid the foundations for the British welfare state, wrote, “Now, when the war is abolishing landmarks of every kind, is the opportunity for using experience in a clear field. A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolution, not for patching.” (pp. 27–28)
To some of us, the tendency of wars to bring with them high taxes and welfare states will be arguments against them rather than in their favor, and one could wish that the author were familiar with the work of Robert Higgs on the myth of wartime prosperity. But MacMillan should on the whole not be assigned to the prowar camp, and she fully acknowledges war’s horrific costs:
The American Civil War probably had more casualties than all other American wars combined. Some 3 million men fought out of a total population of 30 million and at least 600,000 died and another 500,000 were injured. (The equivalent number of dead today with a much larger American population would be closer to 5 million)….In the First World War the final death toll for those who fought is around 9 million and in the Second World War the figure is at least double that. (pp. 42, 90)
When civilians are taken into account, matters become even worse. “The total wars of the twentieth century presented humanity with enormous bills. In the Second World War between 50 and 80 million civilians—we will never know with any certainty—may have died” (p. 179–80).
Although MacMillan counts as a member in good standing of the establishment, she rejects the currently fashionable stance that in the Civil War all measures were justified to defeat the traitorous Southerners. To the contrary, she presents General Sherman as a veritable war criminal:
In the American Civil War not only did General Sherman use mass reprisals to deter attacks…but, like Americans later in Vietnam, he became convinced that the key to victory lay in cutting off support—from providing intelligence to food—that Southern civilians could give their forces in the home territory…Sherman viewed every Southern civilian, young, old, men and women, as an enemy. (p. 187)
Readers may at times differ with her interpretations of events, but she is a scholar of great accuracy. On one point, though, she has gone astray. She appears to think that Einstein played a direct role in building the atomic bomb. She says, “The Nazis also drove out Jewish scientists, among them Albert Einstein, with the result that the exiles were able to offer their talents to Germany’s opponents. Without the work of the refugee scientists it is unlikely that the Allies could have developed the atomic bomb so quickly” (p. 101). Though Einstein’s famous equation e = mc2 shows that a small mass is equal to a tremendous amount of energy, since “c” is the speed of light, Einstein wasn’t involved in making the bomb.
War gives us much to think about, but only by adopting a resolute policy of nonintervention in foreign quarrels, along the lines advocated by Murray Rothbard and Ron Paul, can we hope to address adequately the evils of war which MacMillan has presented in her book.