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Margaret MacMillan on How War Has Shaped Humanity

Historian Margaret MacMillan revealed the many faces of war – the way it has determined our past, and will continue to shape our future

“War isn’t just a disruption of normality, not just an absence of peace – it’s something we keep returning to over and over again as a species. War is deeply woven into human history.” – Margaret MacMillan 

Margaret MacMillan is a distinguished historian, known for her masterly grasp of her subject matter as well as her gift for vivid storytelling. In November 2020 she came to Intelligence Squared to discuss war, a topic which, she argues, we should be talking about more than we currently are. 

MacMillan explained how war has shaped our societies and our very concept of ourselves. Once you embark on war you need structures and soldiers. You need people to give orders and to take orders. All that requires societal organisation. And from war we get many of our political institutions, our values and ideas. Our very language, our public spaces, our private memories, and some of our greatest cultural treasures have been influenced by war from Homer to the paintings of Paul Nash. 

Drawing on the themes of her new book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, MacMillan examined the benefits that war has brought us, from votes for women to the mass availability of penicillin, and (arguably) nuclear power. And debated such questions as: When did war first start? Does human nature doom us to fight one another? Why has war been described as the most organised of all human activities? Why are warriors almost always men? Is war ever within our control?

In conversation with bestselling historian Peter Frankopan, MacMillan revealed the many faces of war – the way it has determined our past, and will continue to shape our future. 




Margaret MacMillan

Historian and author

Warden of St Antony’s College and Professor of International History at the University of Oxford. Author of numerous historical books, her latest publication is War: How Conflict Shaped Us.

Peter Frankopan

Historian and author

Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford, and Director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford University. He has lectured at leading universities all over the world, including Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, NYU, King’s College London and the Institute of Historical Research.


Speakers subject to change.