How War Has Shaped Our Lives

Hidden around the world are weapons that can end civilization.

These weapons are in deep sea submarines, remote airbases, desert silos and even driven around vast forests to prevent potential enemies from knowing their whereabouts.

A single ICBM — “inter-continental ballistic missile”— can rain down several nuclear warheads whose destructive power dwarfs that of the bomb that annihilated the city of Hiroshima in 1945. There are hundreds of these missiles, ready for the trigger, waiting to go.

In the western world, we have been living in what Steven Pinker called “the long peace” — the cessation of violence between the major powers since 1945. This is probably down to the apocalyptic capabilities of these hidden nuclear arsenals.

The long peace is less an embrace of harmony than a delicate balance of destructive potential. It’s with this in mind that the United States’ most potent missile was christened the “Peacekeeper”.

The nuclear powers have fixed previously elastic borders with an understanding that both parties would be annihilated in a nuclear exchange. This doctrine is known as “mutually assured destruction”, with the appropriate acronym M.A.D. The reason nuclear weapons are hidden is precisely to enable retaliation against a first strike.

But conventional war still rages around the world like scattered wildfires, some burning more widely and ferociously than others. Since 1945, South America, Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa have witnessed between 150 and 300 conflicts depending on how you are counting.

In Central Africa, millions have died and millions have been displaced since the 1960s as warlords and usurpers fight over the precious minerals in our cell phones and engagement rings.

Many of these wars have been waged by the nations whose civilian populations have enjoyed the “long peace”.

War in Vietnam was waged by both the French and the Americans. The United Kingdom fought and triumphed against Argentina over the tiny Falkland Islands (and a big slice of the oil-rich South Atlantic).

Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iraq been the theatre of war for many countries. Civilian peace seems to be a luxury of wealth.

The long peace has made us western civilians largely squeamish about war, or at least to put it to one side in our consciousness. In a new book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, the historian Margaret MacMillan makes an impassioned case that we must think about war more, not less, if we are to better understand how it has shaped civilisation and to further the cause of peace.

Waterloo Teeth

They say “necessity is the mother of invention” and there’s no necessity like existential struggle. Without war, MacMillan tells us, we’d likely not have centralised states, penicillin, radar, or rockets.

Far from the high technology of space rockets and radar, MacMillan also recounts some of the more grisly ways that war has enhanced civilian life. After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, scavengers pried the teeth from dead soldiers to make dentures that were sold in England as “Waterloo teeth”.

The bones of thousands of dead men were not buried, but ground up into powder and used as fertiliser. Those soldiers were, according to The Duke of Wellington, “the scum of the earth” and so they were treated as such.

The space race is a by-product, ultimately, of the arms race. Most space rockets were derived from missile programs like the Atlas ICBM. Their own genealogy will take you back to the Nazi V2 rocket, built to terrorise British cities. The radio pulses of Sputnik were not celebrated in the west as a triumph for humanity, but as a menacing sign that the Soviets had the upper hand in space.

Even our ordinary speech is affected by the extraordinary circumstances of war. Everyday jargon is drenched in the language of armed struggle. Innocuous phrases like “flash in the pan” and “the whole nine yards” have their origins in warfare. We win or lose “battles” with cancer and other illnesses, and declare wars on drugs, or crime, or global warming.

Our politics and our very standing as citizens have also been shaped by war from the very beginning.

As you get through the book it gets increasingly difficult — perhaps by design — to see to what extent humanity made war or war made humanity. At the heart of the book is the paradox that people took safety and security in numbers, as tribes and then states, but became more warlike in doing so.

Protecting your own kin takes organisation, and so, as the historian Charles Tilly puts it, “War made the state, and the state made war.”

The ancient Greek citizens were expected at short notice to take up arms and defend their city states. There’s a case to be made that their willingness to do so was rewarded with rights and even democracy. A citizenry expected to fight is a citizenry with rights. Is it perhaps more than a coincidence that women’s suffrage came after the First World War demanded that women work for victory.

African Americans fought for freedom abroad and came home to horrific discrimination. Their effort in the war helped convince Harry Truman, it seems, of what we’d now consider everybody’s intrinsic worth. When confronted with opposition to his civil rights bill, Truman wrote,

“My forebears were Confederates … but my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten.”

In an interview with History Extra, MacMillan refers to the idea that war can “compress” society, narrowing the gap between rich and poor as they share the endeavour to win. “The period from 1914 to the 1960s probably saw the greatest equality in western societies,” she says, “and I would argue that that was largely due to the impact of the world wars.”

It’s hard to tell if war brought about positive societal changes, or was merely an accelerant for these changes. The loyalty or competence of subalterns in a time of war is perhaps a convenient reason to persuade those who stand in the way of progress to stand aside.

We’re left feeling conflicted as we read through MacMillan’s own tapestry of historical anecdotes. Are we really so indebted to something that harms us so much? MacMillan’s answer to this confusion seems to rest on the idea that war is woven into the fabric of human history, rather than being an aberration or disruption of peaceful normality.

War and peace, woven together like the spirals of a double helix, have driven us into the future. That most of us have not experienced war makes us the aberration. It doesn’t take much to drag us back into the brutal normality of conflict.

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch:

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