Margaret MacMillan Comes to Swarthmore College to Talk About War

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On Sept. 8, Margaret MacMillan, Professor Emeritus of International History at the University of Oxford, held a public lecture entitled “Friend or Foe? War and Society?” as part of the 2022-23 Cooper Lecture Series. 

MacMillan was invited to campus by the political science department, peace and conflict studies department, and the history department in the wake of the publication of her newest book, “War: How Conflict Shaped Us.” MacMillan was first invited to Swarthmore in 2020, the same year her book was published, but her visit was canceled due to COVID-19. The college was finally able to reschedule her visit for this September. 

MacMillan gave a 45-minute lecture on the history and causes of war in the Science Center Chang Hou Auditorium, and then she took questions from the audience after. The lecture was followed by a reception held outside of the auditorium where students, faculty, and MacMillan mingled.

While introducing MacMillan, Professor Emily Paddon Rhoads spoke highly of her, highlighting the books she has written and her background as a historian. 

“She is a master storyteller and a meticulous historian,” Professor Paddon Rhoads told the audience before handing the podium off to MacMillan. 

MacMillan’s central theme to the lecture, and the guiding point of her newest book, is that she believes people don’t talk enough about war given its impact on history and society. 

“The study of war has fallen out of fashion. Universities that used to have War Studies have closed them down, and they haven’t been replaced,” she said. 

MacMillan went on to discuss both the societal and political ways war can change and benefit society. She called on both the advancement of medicine and the advancement of gender and class equality during war in order to make her argument.

Students in the audience found this discussion to be particularly engaging. After the lecture, Satchel Tsai ’23, a political science and anthropology/sociology double major, talked about the points of the lecture she enjoyed, which included MacMillan’s discussion on the benefits of war. 

“I think her discussion of crises in general and how crises spur different types of problem solving and unity and cohesion was really interesting,” said Tsai. 

Students, though, still had some questions about MacMillan’s lecture and her viewpoint on war. 

“I’m still trying to put together if war is really something so unique in creating these benefits she talked about, or if other crisis situations would bring similar upsides,” said Tsai. 

During her lecture, MacMillan also drew heavily on both historic examples of war and current ongoing conflicts. She spoke of different moments of war throughout time and history, from as long ago as Sparta and Athens all the way to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.

For many in the audience, the war between Russia and Ukraine made MacMillan’s lecture feel that much timelier. For Emma Klein ’23, a political science and economics double major, these recent events changed how she viewed MacMillan’s talk. 

“Had this lecture taken place prior to the Russian war in Ukraine, in my head the thought of one state invading another’s territory in the way that we’ve seen Russia do in Ukraine would have seemed unthinkable … I think I would have been like, ‘Why is this relevant?’ prior to that because a majority of the conflict we’re seeing is internal armed conflict. And yet, that invasion is a reminder that this kind of war is still possible and she touched on that: that we can’t think of it as gone or unthinkable,” said Klein. 

MacMillan wrapped up her lecture with a discussion on what she believes to be the future of war, mainly highlighting how advances in technology might impact the landscape of war. MacMillan drew on the example of artificial intelligence, and what questions this raises for future wars. 

“There are new and terrifying frontiers opening up in war,” she told the audience. 

The lecture MacMillan gave was just one part of her visit to the college. MacMillan also spent two days speaking to smaller groups of students, mainly, Paddon Rhoads’ The Politics and Practice of Wartime Humanitarian Action honors seminar and Civil Wars course, and Professor Gordon Arlen’s Global Justice course. Rhoads’ honors seminar had a dinner with MacMillan at the Swarthmore Inn to discuss her new book on Tuesday Sept. 6, while the two latter groups held a roundtable discussion with MacMillan the afternoon preceding her nighttime lecture. 

The students who got to meet with MacMillan in these smaller groups enjoyed their time with her. Jessie Weiss ’24, an honors political science major, who had dinner on Tuesday night with MacMillan, found the experience particularly rewarding. 

“It was incredible to meet Margaret MacMillan and have the opportunity to speak and eat dinner with her as part of our seminar. She has such a vast wealth of knowledge on international history, war and peace treaties, literature, and art … This experience grounded a lot of the humanitarian war and peace theories we have read for class,” she said. 

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