If You Want Peace, Study War

Colleges are turning against the history of military conflict. But we forget these lessons at our peril.

“War…What is it good for?” the classic song asks. Many universities agree on the answer: “Absolutely nothing.”

Although anthropologists and archeologists still wonder why human beings have for so long organized themselves to fight, the study of war in history and political science departments is fading. Senior scholars are retiring and not being replaced, or their posts are allocated to other fields of history. Each year, fewer courses are offered on great conflicts such as the Napoleonic wars, the total wars of the 20th century, and the Cold War. The Second World War, you may hear on campus, “has been done.”

Yet war remains one of the events—along with revolution, famine, financial collapse and, as we are learning again, pandemics—that change the course of history. In privileged countries, we forget the importance of military conflicts because we have enjoyed the “Long Peace” that followed the Second World War. Other places have not been so fortunate, with wars around the world almost every year since 1945, bringing millions of deaths and creating millions more refugees. Meanwhile, the world’s great powers maintain large military establishments, and still prepare for battle.

It is as important as ever to understand war—its causes, nature and consequences—and the many ways that conflicts have shaped our societies. The conquering armies that came from the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century after the Prophet Mohammad’s death created new empires and spread the new religion of Islam across the Middle East, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), a global conflict, laid the foundations for the dominance of the British Empire and the bankruptcy of France, which helped to fuel the French Revolution. 

War can also speed up advances in science and technology that have benefits in peacetime. Think of the development of penicillin, blood transfusions, radar, or the transistor. And war can bring about significant social change, often for the better. The need for mass armies in the 19th and 20th centuries meant that governments had to treat the lower classes better, whether by educating them or by improving public health. In many countries that fought in the two world wars, ruling classes recognized the contributions of women and the working classes, granting them the franchise and introducing social benefits.

So why do history faculties, which accept the need to study other great forces in history, such as changes in the means of production or systems of belief, shy from war? I suspect that horror at the phenomenon itself has affected universities’ willingness to treat it as a subject for scholarship. Years ago, when I proposed a new course on war and society, an education consultant asked me, “Why don’t you call it peace studies?”

I have since met with incomprehension, even hostility, when I have pointed out that wars can bring unintended benefits. However much I say that we would not choose to make war in order to improve our societies, I am charged with loving war. Yet nobody would say that the study of imperialism, racism or famine means that we think those are good things.

The history of war is neglected for other reasons, too. First, separate histories—of women, emotions, food and the environment, for example—have come along. Quite rightly, room has been made for them in the big and eclectic house that is the study of the past. However, part of the shift away from war studies owes to the quest for “social justice”—intended as a drive for radical change in society at large—that has taken root in many history faculties.

Here, for example, is how the chair of Historical and Cultural Studies at the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto, Natalie Rothman, welcomed students this autumn: “As a department, we have strengthened our resolve to confront racism, colonialism and Islamophobia throughout our curriculum and in our co-curricular initiatives.” The University of Berkeley in California asks prospective graduate students to provide “evidence of how you have come to understand the barriers faced by others, evidence of your academic service to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities, and individuals from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education, evidence of your research focusing on underserved populations or related issues of inequality, or evidence of your leadership among such groups.” It is hard to quarrel with such goals, but their impact on curriculum has been to downgrade subjects such as political and military history, which are seen as too focused on elites and complicit with hierarchy and oppression.

Another factor is that history overall is worryingly in decline as an academic subject. While it remains popular among publishers and readers, enrollments in history majors are significantly down. They have dropped more than any other major in the humanities—perhaps by as much as one-third in American universities in the past decade. At the University of Toronto, where I am a professor, colleagues fear that history enrollment may be down as much as 50% over the same period. Even in the United Kingdom, where history remains popular among undergraduates, the number of those majoring in history has dropped by about one-tenth in the past decade.

Part of the reason is that, given the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis and uncertainty over the economy, students and their parents want university courses to lead to jobs. The decline in history students in turn affects university hiring, and the fewer the tenured faculty, the fewer places for the doctoral students who are the future of the profession. 

Faculties and administrators are not necessarily helping matters, reluctant to include popular courses on war in the curriculum, or to support well-established centers for the study of conflict, some of which are being remodeled, such as the Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies, in Waterloo, Ontario, which will focus more on Canadian history; another at the University of Calgary is fading as those who retire are not replaced. This seems to be particularly true of elite universities. War studies remains in better health at military colleges or some second-tier public universities, while schools of public policy are also still teaching military history, strategic studies and diplomatic history.

But those in other fields stereotype war studies, characterizing it as too narrowly focused on tactics, battles, or “toys for boys,” meaning armaments. If that caricature were ever true, it has not been for decades. The great historian Sir Michael Howard, who pioneered the modern study of war and trained generations of historians, always insisted that what he was doing was to consider wars within their social and political contexts as a part of the great sweep of history, not somehow separate from it.  

My own evidence of the distaste for military and diplomatic history at North American universities comes from tales exchanged privately among fellow academics. One retired Canadian military historian recounted that his old faculty had asked him how to reverse the collapse in enrollment. He suggested a course in military history, but the response was a flat no. When a university in the Maritime provinces of eastern Canada was offered a fully funded post in naval history a few years ago—a good fit in a port town that had been deeply affected by conflict on the Atlantic—members of the department rejected it.

Yet, despite the overall downturn in university history programs, we know from course enrollments that students are interested in war, as indeed they are in international relations, when they get the chance to study them: At Yale, Paul Kennedy’s “Military History of the West” attracted large crowds; at Toronto’s Ryerson University, international relations courses are the most popular choices among students.

I would not suggest that student preference should determine what departments offer. But they should at least be listened to. Much more important is what we, as societies, want our future leaders to know. Political history, diplomatic history and the study of war—they all offer critical warnings and instructive analogies to our times. Social and cultural histories, and history from the bottom up, add to our understanding too. But we need balance, and a sense of how the micro- and macro-histories mesh with each other.

Do we really want citizens who have so little knowledge of how war helped to shape our values and societies and our world? Do we ever want another president asking, as Donald Trump did during a visit to the Pearl Harbor memorial: “What’s this all about? What’s this a tour of?”

If we aren’t aware of how wars happen, we may fail to recognize warning signs when the next conflict brews, as it will.

Margaret MacMillan is a professor of history at the University of Toronto and emeritus professor at the University of Oxford. Her latest book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, was among the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2020.