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Book Review: ‘War,’ by Margaret MacMillan

How Conflict Shaped Us
By Margaret MacMillan

After the Napoleonic Wars ended on the fields of France, in 1814, many British took to wearing dentures that had been pried from the dead on the battlefield — “Waterloo teeth,” they were called. Scavengers scoured the same fields for bones, of both men and animals, and shipped millions of bushels to Yorkshire, where they were ground into dust and used for fertilizer.

So recounts Margaret MacMillan, the Canadian historian, in “War: How Conflict Shaped Us,” her richly eclectic discussion of how culture and society have been molded by warfare throughout history. As the above anecdotes suggest, MacMillan argues that war — fighting and killing — is so intimately bound up with what it means to be human that viewing it as an aberration misses the point; it’s in our bones. “War is waged by men; not beasts, or by gods,” MacMillan writes, quoting Frederic Manning, a poet and novelist of World War I. “To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance.”

“War” is not a long book, only 272 pages of text, but it’s as colorful and tightly woven as a Persian carpet, showing us not just the many ways that men and women make war, but how war makes women and men. In another scholar’s hands, “War” might come across as a work of dry political theory, but as anyone who has read “Paris 1919” — her vivid account of the Versailles Conference at the end of World War I — can attest, MacMillan writes with enormous ease, and practically every page of this book is interesting, even entertaining.

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of October. See the full list. ]

“War” opens with the story of Ötzi, the prehistoric man whose body was discovered by two hikers in the Italian Alps in 1991. Ötzi died more than 5,000 years ago, but his body, long encased in glacial ice, was remarkably well preserved; his last meal, of dried meat, fruit and possibly bread, was still in his stomach, and his leather cap and cloak of woven grass were still on his body. While scientists initially speculated that Ötzi had died alone, having lost his way, further investigation revealed an arrowhead embedded in his shoulder and contusions on his skull. Ötzi was murdered, it appears, and he may have even fought with his killer. (Blood was found on his knife.) “Ötzi is by no means the only piece of evidence we have that early humans, certainly by the time of the late Stone Age, made weapons, ganged up on each other and did their best to finish each other off,” MacMillan writes.

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