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Conversation with Renowned Military Historian Margaret MacMillan. Aired 2-2:30p ET
Aired July 20, 2018 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST, AMANPOUR: Coming up, people, power and conflict. My conversation with the renowned military historian Margaret
MacMillan on humanity's complicated relationship with war and how, throughout history, we are repeatedly drawn back into it despite the
Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.
We're often warned that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The message holds particular resonance today with nationalism
on the rise across Europe, democracies morphing into autocracies from Asia to Latin America, and civil war plaguing Africa and the Middle East.
Old alliances appear strained, and so too is the past 70 years of geopolitical stability that many of us have benefited from.
It is perhaps, therefore, timely that a prestigious British lecture series this year is being given by the renowned military historian, Oxford
University's Margaret MacMillan.
She argues that war, at its heart, is a paradox. We are all appalled by it, but also entranced by it. War is devastating, but it also brings about
huge social invention.
War appeals to the worst of human's traits, but inspires ideals and qualities that are rarely seen in peacetime. And above all, war is what
happens when the things that we want to live for are worth dying for.
I sat down with Professor MacMillan to discover why war is such an integral part of our human experience.
Professor MacMillan, welcome to the program.
MARGARET MACMILLAN: Thank you very much.
AMANPOUR: So, you have named your Reith Lectures "Mark of Cain." Tell us about that biblical reference.
MACMILLAN: Well, I think what we were trying to get at, I was trying to get at, was whether we are so deeply attracted to war and whether war is so
ingrained in human nature and in human society that we can't escape it. And so, the Mark of Cain is, are we doomed to fight.
AMANPOUR: And you go back to Cain and Abel.
AMANPOUR: Cain and Abel, yes. Yes.
MACMILLAN: Yes. And fighting between two people who were brothers, fratricidal fighting and you could argue that is one of the earliest civil
wars. And so, I suppose what I was really trying to engage in was this long, long debate about is it part of human nature or not.
AMANPOUR: What is it? What have you come up with?
MACMILLAN: Well, human nature, I won't go into in a way because I'm not a biologist, but there are certainly those who would argue it is. I mean, I
think that we have to protect ourselves.
Fear is a very important motivator. We will often do things because we're frightened. We will be suspicious of others. And I think we still have
those instincts. We are creatures after all as well as sentient beings.
But I think what is more interesting is whether human society itself is deeply engaged with war and vice versa that once we began to get organized
as a species, we seem to have ended up fighting each other.
AMANPOUR: I mean, you say that it is inescapable. It has formed sort of the fabric of our societies. And let's face it, wherever we go, especially
here in Great Britain, in England, on the continent, every village has a monument and, of course, that goes back throughout history.
War is venerated. Courage is venerated.
MACMILLAN: Yes. And I find it myself. I mean, I don't think I could ever be a soldier. I think I'm much too cowardly. But I do have admiration for
people who do this.
And what war can bring out is some of the worst qualities in people. It can bring out the brutality, the violence, the cruelty, the malicious
cruelty, but it can also bring out sacrifice, nobility, comradeship, which makes it so fascinating.
AMANPOUR: So, it's something we admire. It's something that we fear. It's something that's with us.
Let's just get to recent history and let's just get to what President Trump and President Putin were discussing, which, by the way, we do not know in a
closed room with only translators. We have no idea what geopolitical, geostrategic deals were or were not made.
But afterwards in the press conference, President Putin described the world order like this. Let's just play a little bit of his soundbite.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): The Cold War is a thing of past. The era of acute ideological confrontation of the two
countries is a thing of remote past, is a vestige of the past. The situation of the world has changed dramatically.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So has it? Has the situation changed dramatically? And all that hope and promise that the whole world had for a massive peace dividend
after the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, has it come true?
MACMILLAN: Well, if you look around the world, I would say no. We have conflicts, some of them which have been now running for years. You think
of the conflict in the Great Lakes region of Africa, you think of the Syrian civil war, Afghanistan has now been rumbling on for almost two
decades, Yemen is a country in crisis, and we have the possibility of wars among other countries.
And we still have an awful lot of preparation for war. That doesn't mean we're going to fight, but it's still something that is very much there in
our world, I'd say.
AMANPOUR: I was struck by what you said in one of the lectures. You said that, as you've just repeated, that the big powers, big nations are
preparing massively for a massive war, even though most of war right now is at a lower level.
MACMILLAN: I think we have this very interesting situation where we have a lot of very lower-level wars where, in fact, you don't need sophisticated
I mean, a lot of the fighting in (INAUDIBLE) was done with hoes and shovels. And a lot of what happened to the Rohingya was done at a very -
with very primitive - what we would regard as very primitive weapons.
But at the same time, we have these extraordinary leaps now with killer robots and killer drones and the possibility of artificial intelligence
making human beings almost obsolete in war that it will now be possible to fight wars with planes that don't need pilots, for example. The British
have just said their next generation of fighter planes will not need a pilot.
AMANPOUR: And I mean not needing a pilot in the next generation of weapons also leads us again to what President Putin said and whether we should
believe that the great power rivalry is over because we know that he wants his sphere of influence, that he has bases all over the place.
We see the very harsh rhetoric of war coming out of President Trump before he then turns on a dime and does other things. Do you see - what is the
biggest threat? Is it cyber? Is it - and where is the biggest threat?
MACMILLAN: I think it's very hard to say where the biggest threat - cyber I think is the new frontier or one of the new frontiers. And the military
in all the advanced countries are very, very worried about it indeed. I mean, they're investing heavily in it.
Because so much of our societies now depend on those electronic networks and those electronic devices we take for granted. And the possibility of
suddenly cutting it off, cutting off the power, cutting off the transmission between different devices, the things that we use our phones
for, I mean, it would bring our societies to a complete standstill.
But I think what is also always worrying is that when you get great powers preparing for war, they think of it defensively. I'm defending myself, but
it doesn't look like that from the other side of the border. And what I think is a real worry in human affairs is just sheer accident and people
acting out of fear and misapprehension and misassumption.
AMANPOUR: I'm really fascinated by what you say about the motivation for war on a personal level. The sense of honor, either a president or a
government is thinking they're defending their people, defending their country, and you sort of describe that sense of honor as if it was on a
local level, it's what gangs do in LA or elsewhere. It's the same kind of motivation.
MACMILLAN: Well, I think it is. I mean, in gangs, you have people who'd rather die than be disrespected. And that has driven a lot of warriors
over the centuries. You think of the knights in armor, the people who went off in the Crusades, you think of people in the First World War. They
would rather die than lose their honor.
And I think nations are still impelled by this. I mean I think one of the reasons the United States is so obsessed with Iran is because Iranians
humiliated them when they took those hostages at the end of the 1970s and I think this still affects American policy toward Iran, and lots of other
factors, of course.
AMANPOUR: Yes. I was actually going to bring this up because we have a series of soundbites on this sort of issue from President Trump. And
you're talking about honor and disrespect. Both President Putin and President Trump believe that they and their countries are disrespected by
whoever, I don't know, the rest of the world or by each other.
So, I want to play you these soundbites using very strong, sort of warlike Trumpian rhetoric.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury
like the world has never seen.
You're not going to be restarting anything. They restart it, they're going to have big problems, bigger than they've ever had before. And you can
mark it down. They restart their nuclear program, they will have bigger problems than they have ever had before.
The United States has great strength and patience. But if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, two bits about North Korea, the middle bit about Iran after he pulled out of the nuclear accord and said they best not start up again.
So, I was struck again by what you've said in your lectures that the more inevitable, once you accept something is inevitable, like that kind of
language does, you really risk bringing that kind of conflict closer, actually making it happen.
MACMILLAN: Well, I think so because you start planning for it and you start looking at the other side. I mean, one of the things that often goes
wrong is you look at the other side and you read the signals wrong or you read them in a way which feeds into your fears.
[14:10:04] One of the things that seems to be very dangerous at the moment is in both China and the United States, you have policy planners and states
people saying things like rising and declining nations are bound to fight at some point. And if you start thinking that, you've already brought it a
stage closer it seems to me.
AMANPOUR: And that is a big worry with China, right?
MACMILLAN: I think so, yes.
AMANPOUR: Yes, because they were always worried about - I mean, as you say, the whole sort of Sparta, Athens, sort of rising power, risen power,
And we see what China is doing to fill a vacuum that it thinks America is leaving in the Pacific and generally spreading its might around and upping
its navy and its military power.
MACMILLAN: And the Chinese, of course, say they're doing this purely for defensive purposes. And they have this rhetoric which they've used for a
long time that we have always been a defensive nation. We have never waged war in other nations, which doesn't explain how the borders of China
expanded so enormously over the centuries. So, there was an awful lot of fighting and conquest going on there.
But I think it is dangerous because, from the United States' point of view, that doesn't look like defensive. It looks like a threat. And if the
United States tries to enhance its power in the Pacific, how will the Chinese see it? They won't see it as the United States just defending
itself and its allies. They'll see it again as a threat.
AMANPOUR: Let's go back - way, way - let's go back hundreds and hundreds of years when war first started or maybe thousands of years ago when war
first started. And you describe in the lectures how this was linked to the agrarian nature of communities.
MACMILLAN: We'll never know for sure, but I think that a theory which I find persuasive, at least it seems to (INAUDIBLE) so far, is that when you
were a nomad, you did your hunting and your gathering, but you could always move away. There's always somewhere else to move. So, someone threatened
you, you could get out of the way rather than stay and fight.
But once you settle down into agriculture, you have something you have to look after, you have to defend and something that someone else wants to
raid. And so, I think the more complicated societies became, the more they became settled, the more they fought.
AMANPOUR: And then, you talk about how war changed from those early agricultural communities to the end of the 18th century when it became much
different prospect and the citizen was implicated. The leaders talked about waging war on behalf of their citizens.
MACMILLAN: There's a very important shift. And I think more is always reflex. The types of war you fight reflects the type of society you are.
So, when it was a knightly society, fighting was done mainly by the knights and it reflected their goals and their aims.
But what happened at the end of the 18th century rather was you got, not everywhere, you've got a transformation of subjects into citizens. And
once you're a citizen, you have a share in your own country, in your own society, but you also have an obligation. And so, the government can call
on you to support it because it is your government in a way.
And what was also happening in the 19th century was war was getting a lot more complicated because of the Industrial Revolution and the scientific
and technological revolutions.
So, we were getting, especially in the Western world, an awful lot better at killing each other.
AMANPOUR: Well, just run through because you did put out some amazing statistics about what it looked like, the first time a big war, there was
600,000 people et cetera, et cetera.
MACMILLAN: Well, the size of our armies was always limited by how much they could eat. And in the old days, they would march to somewhere they
eat everything in the surrounding, then they'd have to move on. And so, you couldn't have very big armies.
But with the railway, it became possible to have much bigger armies and keep them there much longer. And so, Napoleon took to Russia in 1812
something like 600,000 men, probably the biggest army that had ever been seen in Europe and, of course, we know what happened. Most of them died
In 1870, when the German Confederation attacked France, it was 1.2 million men. In 1914, when Germany went to war, it could put 3 million men into
the field and keep them there, which is why the First World War lasted so long.
AMANPOUR: I'm struck by one line in your biography that your great- grandfather was David Lloyd George.
AMANPOUR: Who was the prime minister of Great Britain during the second part of World War I. How has that sort of informed your study and affected
MACMILLAN: I don't know because I grew up in Canada where he wasn't as much of a figure. In fact, at one point, someone said I never knew you
were descended from boy George. Boy George.
AMANPOUR: Lord George.
MACMILLAN: Yes. So, there wasn't that much knowledge. I think if I had grown up in the UK, it might have been different. But I think I was always
aware of history and I was always aware of politics because my family talked about it.
And I suppose, more importantly, I think both my grandfathers fought in the First World War and my father and my uncles fought in the Second World War.
So, it was something that you just learned about. If you're someone of my age, you probably have someone who fought in a war in your family.
AMANPOUR: And do you think that people don't know enough about it? People don't remember enough? There isn't enough, I don't know, present-day
reminders of what can lead to war and how dreadful it can be?
MACMILLAN: Yes. I think, generally, we don't know enough history and I think history is useful because it helps us to understand how we got here
and what mistakes we might avoid.
But I think, with war, I think we don't understand enough that it can come quite suddenly. I mean, people in Europe in 1914 thought we don't do war
anymore. We are too civilized. We haven't really had a major war since 1815. We don't need to worry about it.
[14:15:04] It took them less than five weeks to get into a major war. And I just think we need to be careful. We shouldn't be too smug. Wars can
often start for very trivial reasons or they blow up suddenly.
And then, of course, they are out of anyone's control.
AMANPOUR: I mean, one of the interesting things you say about war is that it has - like, many sort of seismic events, necessity is the mother of
invention. And you talk about some of the really important things that we have today coming out of wars, everything down to penicillin.
MACMILLAN: It's one of the great paradoxes of war. I mean, we see it as enormously wasteful and destructive, which it is, but it can produce really
important changes. It can speed up scientific advances. I mean, the jet engine, penicillin, these were things that had been talked about before the
Second World War, but really became possible as a result of the war.
Splitting the atom for better or worse would probably not have happened without the Second World War.
And there are also huge social changes. I mean, the position of women really changed in Western societies as a result of the First and Second
World Wars because women showed they could do the jobs that it had been said before, they can't do, that's too complicated, let men do those jobs.
And suddenly, women did them. And so, you could no longer, if you were a male politician, say, well, you can't vote. And so, women began to get the
vote, I think, very much because of what they had done in the wars.
AMANPOUR: A recent novel by a great American young novelist, Jennifer Egan, has come out called "Manhattan Beach" and that's all about women who
were forced to do work that men couldn't do because they weren't there, they were at war, in the naval dockyards.
Then, they had to go back to their homes and their factories and their little lives after the men came back.
MACMILLAN: It's always two steps forward, one step back. And so, women gained a lot during the wars. And then, they did tend to go back. But
they never quite lost it. And I think women gained a confidence that they knew they could do these things.
But also, I think a really interesting thing in societies as a result of both the World Wars is you got a compression between the very rich and the
I mean, the times of greatest equality in Western societies were during and after the World Wars. Now, you wouldn't fight a war to achieve that, but
it, in fact, from my point of view was a real benefit.
AMANPOUR: In my career, I came of age covering wars when they were not big set pieces. They were not army against army. The last one of those we saw
was the First Gulf War and that's the only one of those that I covered. And then, it was all civil wars, whether it was Rwanda, Bosnia, wherever we
went, Somalia, Haiti all those spaces.
The citizen, the civilian, the ordinary man, woman and child are much, much worse off in today's kind of wars.
MACMILLAN: I think so. We've always tried to have rules about civilians. And it's another oddity. You're trying to have rules about how to fight
wars when there are acts of outright violence.
But we have had rules about not attacking women, children, the old, not sacking cities, although, of course, it did happen a lot in the past. But
because societies have become much more integrated and because war effort is now seen that something whole society is engaged in, then it's become
more legitimate to attack civilians.
But the misery, I think, that these low-level wars are now inflicting on civilians who are the targets, the tools, often the recruits for these wars
is absolutely appalling. And I see no end to it. That's what's so depressing.
AMANPOUR: You say you see no end to it. We all though the United Nations and the great sort of institutions that grew out of the Second World War
were going to be precisely that, the accountability, the negotiated peace in our time, and it hasn't happened.
MACMILLAN: No, it's happened a bit. The UN has been very successful in cease-fires and monitoring cease-fires and it's been very successful in
rebuilding post-conflict societies.
But what is terribly difficult is to bring conflicts to an end. I read a book recently - a wonderful book by Peter Wilson on the 30 years' war in
Europe in the 17th century. And it just took on a momentum and people switched sides and they had different motives.
But once you get that sort of level of violence and you get the degradation of society where it becomes permissible to get out there and beat other
people up and kill them, then it's very difficult to put it back in the box again.
AMANPOUR: I was struck. We were just talking about civil war and rules about civilians. I was struck by one of these - again from one of your
speeches. When civilians became legitimate targets once they were embedded in the war effort, for instance, the RAF over Dresden.
And this is what one of the bombers - Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris said, "The aim of our bombing is not to knock out specific factories. The aim is the
destruction of the German citizen, the killing of German workers and the destruction of civilized community life throughout Germany."
I mean, that to me is really shocking.
MACMILLAN: Well, it means you have no limit on what the targets are. The limits have now expanded, so that anything that is part of a society that
is your enemy is now a legitimate target. So, it's OK to kill babies because that will make the people - the mothers not want to work as hard in
the factories or it's OK to kill the old people because that will also cause suffering and sorrow to the civilians. It's OK to disrupt everything
that makes life possible, water, hydroelectricity, whatever.
And it is terrifying, I think.
[14:20:04] AMANPOUR: And I was really struck as well. When you read about the US military, the (INAUDIBLE) of the army during the Vietnam War, when
reporters discovered the torching of villages and My Lai and other such things, and the army was like, well, yes, that's what we do, that's how we
pacify, that's how we win.
MACMILLAN: I know. It's always so difficult because you want our - I mean, what an army is about, it's about discipline and it's about the
disciplined application of force. But there is always that narrow line. And armies can so easily go over it. And they can just simply brutal.
I mean, I was reading a description of the My Lai massacre again the other day and it makes the most appalling reading. And there was no military
purpose in it. And it had no justification whatsoever. But something had happened to them and the soldiers had become brutalized and they didn't see
it as illegitimate.
AMANPOUR: OK. That is something that really, really fascinates me. The brutalization of otherwise normal people, whether it's young Americans in
Vietnam, young British bombing civilians over Dresden, and particularly young Germans and those who were called up and served in the worst military
enterprise that we've seen in any kind of modern warfare.
And I just wanted to read this to you because it's just so awful, the dehumanization, which is an effective tool of warfare, so it makes it
easier to kill.
"Honor in murder." This is Himmler talking to SS death squads. "Most of you must know what it means when 100 corpses are lying side by side or 500
or 1,000, to have stuck it out and at the same time to have remain decent fellows. That is what has made us hard."
MACMILLAN: Now, if you didn't know it was Himmler, you'd think this is a commander telling his soldiers, war is tough and you've got to be tough.
What he's talking about is the murder of Jews, helpless innocent Jews.
A lot of those people were decent Germans, nice people, went off to war. There's that wonderful and chilling thing that one of the mothers said of
her son who was at My Lai. She said I sent my son to war, he was a good boy and you sent him back a killer.
AMANPOUR: It really hits you right here, particularly if you are a mother and you know that that happens.
We are in a moment right now where democracies are under assault, where dictatorships keep flourishing in their own dictatorial ways, where truth
is indistinguishable from lies, fake news and all the rest of it, the bots, the hacking and where politics even in our democracies is so poisonous and
so partisan that you can call it warfare, war by other means.
MACMILLAN: And people are actually using that language, aren't they? They're talking about campaigns. There are talking about fighting the next
- we've always used a bit of military language, but it seems to be more.
I find it poisonous because what you to accept in a democracy is that someone may have a very different opinion to you, but that opinion has to
be respected and you have to be able to talk to people.
And what we now see, I think, particularly in the United States and I think it's happening in Britain with Brexit is separate camps forming and people
socializing only with those who share their views. And I think this is very destructive to the society. We need a middle ground. We really do.
AMANPOUR: Where do you think that's going to take our societies who are not formally at war, but are by other means.
MACMILLAN: I hope what we will do is recognize what it's doing to us and recognize that the level of rhetoric and the mistrust is in the end going
to poison it for all of us. None of us want to live in a society where you can't trust your neighbor and we should look at other societies where that
I mean, Beirut is still very tense. Lebanon is very tense. Does anybody really want to live like that? I mean, what's happening is the young
Lebanese are leaving. That's what happening because they don't want to live there and a lot of the young have left Northern Ireland.
And so, I do think it's incumbent on us all to try and build bridges and to try and understand the point of view of others, but it doesn't help that so
much of the news now is - the mainstream media trusted and instead the sort of the blogs, the - these are trusted more by people who think they're
telling the truth. And I think this is very dangerous.
AMANPOUR: And in all the time it took you to prepare for these, to research these lectures and to travel, what surprised you the most?
MACMILLAN: I think I was surprised and quite touched by the concern that people had. And what I found was that people asked very thoughtful
questions and they were very concerned. And they were asking the sort of questions you've been asking, how do we avoid war, how do we build a
society in which war isn't seen as a default, how do we build trust in society. And a lot of them were young, which I found very encouraging.
AMANPOUR: Do you, as we sit here today and we see what's going on between Trump and Putin and the other big power, China, do you fear another big
MACMILLAN: I don't want to, but I do sometimes. I mean, I just think it's dangerous when people start talking in terms of its possibility. And when
you get the United States and China -I've heard too much of people on both sides saying, oh, well, we may well have to fight one day. And that really
does worry me.
And if you start preparing for it - and just the smallness of the area where the United States and China are now in a strategic struggle, it will
take one plane to be shot down, one boat to be rammed, and then you get the nationalist feelings on both sides. I mean, that's really what happened in
the First World War.
[14:25:13] AMANPOUR: And just expand just a little bit on that. I mean, the difference between China and Russia because right now the narrative in
the West is that Russia poses the biggest threat to the West.
MACMILLAN: I think Russia poses a threat to the values of Western society because I think what Putin is doing - and I think Russia is using the tools
of a weak power. I mean, economically, it's a disaster. No, disaster is too strong. But economically, the standard of living is going down. It
depends far too much on oil and the price of oil is down. It hasn't really managed to build up a modern industry.
Demographically, it's got problems. Its birth rate is lower. It's got a huge China sitting on its southern border which isn't going to be a friend
for very long time, I don't think.
And so, what Russia is doing is making mischief where it can. But that is very destructive of Western society. The fact that people are even talking
about the possibility of the Russians swinging the American election, the last presidential election, or the Russians swinging the referendum vote in
the UK is worrying.
And the subversion, the support for far right parties that is coming from Russia across Europe.
AMANPOUR: These are scary times, but it's really fascinating to listen to your lectures and to talk to you now. Professor MacMillan, thank you so
much. "The Mark of Cain".
MACMILLAN: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: That's it for our program. And remember, you can always listen to our podcast and see us online at Amanpour.com. And, of course, you can
follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for watching. And goodbye from London.