Is War Ever Worth It?

soldier in shadow

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by Alexander JawfoxАнтон Дмитриев, and Mohammad Rahmani (CC0).

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Original Air Date: 
September 11, 2021

For all the commentary, the sorrow and rage, all the second-guessing about everything that followed, it’s still hard to fathom what happened on 9/11. Photographer James Nachtwey was in New York that day, and he took some of the iconic photos of the Twin Towers as they crumbled. "I’ve actually never gotten over it," he says. On the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, Nachtwey reflects on his life as a war photographer, and we consider the deep history of war itself. We also examine a very difficult question: Is war ever worth it?

James Nachtwey, Collapse of the South Tower, Church of St. Peter, September 22, 2001.

James Nachtwey is one of the world's great war photographers. For more than three decades, he's covered just about every major armed conflict around the world, and he's been wounded several times on the job. He talks about his harrowing work in Afghanistan, Iraq and where those wars began — Ground Zero in 2001.

"From War is Beautiful" by David Shields, published by powerHouse Books.
Photo Gallery

David Shields says the New York Times is complicit in romanticizing war through imagery.

Mural of ancient soldiers returning from battle

Why do humans still wage wars? Despite their terrible costs, they benefit certain groups, and thoughout history, they've also galvanized social movements and sparked scientific advancements. Margaret MacMillan explains how wars have shaped us.

Mark Art, Not War

Is war inevitable? Leymah Gbowee loudly and strongly says no. And she’s got proof.

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Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Anne Strainchamps (00:42):

This week marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Anne Strainchamps (00:55):

And if like me, you are of a certain age, you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard those reports.

Anne Strainchamps (01:08):

Saw those first words unforgettable images.

James Nachtwey (01:26):

I lived not far from it. I could see it from my window.

Anne Strainchamps (01:32):

This is James Nachtwey, the celebrated war photographer.

James Nachtwey (01:40):

When I saw the first tower smoking, I thought it was an accident, but an accident of that magnitude at the World Trade Center was obviously going to be very important so I began to assemble my camera gear. While I was doing that, there was a kind of vibration in there and my windows rattled and I looked out my window again, saw that the second tower was burning and understood immediately that we'd been attacked and the United States was now at war.

James Nachtwey (02:30):

I got there before either of the towers fell and I was framing both towers burning, and there's a cross. It's a cross of a church that was about a block and a half away from the south tower. I understood that this was an attack by Al-Qaeda. I knew enough about our contemporary history. I'd worked enough in Afghanistan to feel that that was no doubt the case. And I just saw that the cross is a symbol of our culture, so I framed it that way. It wasn't such a brilliant thing to do, but it seemed obvious to me. And as I was photographing, the tower collapsed.

James Nachtwey (03:41):

And it was hard to believe I was seeing it with my own eyes. Those steel girders that you see flying through the air like matchsticks are huge. I don't know how many, hundreds if not thousands of pounds, each. Gigantic pieces of metal and sides of the building were flying through the air as well as a kind of confetti of tens of thousands of pieces of paper that had been inside filing cabinets.

James Nachtwey (04:23):

And all of this was just floating towards me so slowly I thought I had all the time in the world to make the frame and I was shooting film where there were 36 frames on a roll of film as opposed to digital which has many more. I got to the last frame when I shot that picture and that stopped me because I knew I had to change film and in stopping me, everything went back into normal motion and I realized I was about to get taken out and I had a few seconds to take cover in the league of buildings on the other side of the street from where I was standing and all of the records sort of fell over me.

Anne Strainchamps (05:27):

For more than 30 years, James Nachtwey risked his life covering war zones all over the world. He survived shooting and grenade attacks. He's won pretty much every photojournalism award there is, he's even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 10 times. So we talked back in 2015 when there was a new museum exhibition documenting his work in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the place it all began, Ground Zero.

Anne Strainchamps (05:59):

The photo that haunts me is the one of the firefighters at Ground Zero. All you see is rebel, huge building, and a firefighter kind of in silhouette, and there's no obvious carnage, there are no close-up faces to carry emotion, but it's unforgettable. What makes it such a powerful photograph, do you think?

James Nachtwey (06:22):

The scale. The scale of that fireman against the amount of wreckage was staggering. Everyone who was on the scene was in a kind of autopilot because it was so shocking. I think everyone just did what they knew how to do. Bringing out fire hoses was of no value whatsoever, but that's what firemen do so that's what they did. As a photographer, I could have been paralyzed with disbelief but my job is to document visually and that's what I did. But it's still hard to believe. I looked at the picture yesterday and it was hard to believe. I've actually never gotten over it.

Anne Strainchamps (07:09):

I've read some of the things you've said about why you chose to become a photojournalist in the first place. I think it goes way back to you were a student in the 1960s, Vietnam War was happening, civil rights protests. The photographs taken at the time, you felt really changed history.

James Nachtwey (07:28):

Photographers were telling us one thing and our political and military leaders were telling us something else. And I found the work of the photographers to be more convincing. And when I finally decided what I wanted to do with my life, that's what I decided I wanted to do. I wanted to be part of that tradition. I saw that pictures could not only record history, in some way they helped change the course of history. They become an element in the process of change.

Anne Strainchamps (07:56):

So the role of the war photographer is a crucial one to a democracy, I guess.

James Nachtwey (08:02):

I think it's absolutely necessary. I think that the stories we tell are vital for society to function properly. How can citizens make proper decisions unless they know what's going on? Journalism is vital and I think the particular role that photography plays is that it can make a human connection, help people see something that is universal, that transcends culture, that transcends nationality, religion, race, and is just simply human. You're witnessing something that's happening to an individual.

Anne Strainchamps (08:37):

It's funny, the stereotype of the war photographer is the adrenaline junkie. It sounds like that's not at all what it's about for you.

James Nachtwey (08:46):

Adrenaline is a fact, but it's not a reason. There probably are some, what you would call war junkies out but I don't think they're the ones who continue for very long and perhaps are not the ones who make the most meaningful pictures. I think it's part of it, but there's this much more deep reason for pursuing this profession than adrenaline.

Anne Strainchamps (09:14):

How do you deal with being in the places you've been? Seeing the kind of suffering you've seen? I imagine one way of dealing with it would be to wall it off when you're working, to just suppress your own reactions until later, but I'm wondering whether that's changed a bit for you over the years, whether you found ways either to open up a bit more to actually work with and use your emotions or do they just get in the way?

James Nachtwey (09:39):

No, the emotions are natural. You have to channel them. You have to use them. You have to channel them into the work. If I were to see things and not feel emotions, then I wouldn't make pictures that were worth much. I'm the own who has to feel it first if I'm going to make anyone else feel something, so it's never been the case. It's simply not the case that photographers go someplace and wall themselves off, our job is actually quite the opposite. Our job is to go someplace and open ourselves up and leave ourselves vulnerable and feel those things and put it into our work so that we can translate it and pass it on to the viewers.

Anne Strainchamps (10:26):

You're making me think about another photo in this exhibition. It's one of an Afghan woman., I think. She's completely covered in a burka and she's kneeling on the ground in a graveyard. You can't even see her face, but the grief is just palpable. Where was that taken? Who is she?

James Nachtwey (10:48):

It was taken in a cemetery in Kabul in 1996 and she was there mourning her brother who'd been killed in a Taliban rocket attack. At that time, the Taliban had surrounded Kabul and were shelling and rocketing daily. I think the graveyard itself is expressive and it's so humble. Bare, cracked earth with uncarved kind of raw stone. And her hand, her aged weathered hand that had seen a hard life, reaching out, touching the stone as if that's as close as she could get to her brother. What you don't get from the picture is the sound she was making. As she was grieving for her brother, she was singing a kind of song in this very grief-stricken voice. It was very moving.

Anne Strainchamps (11:45):

I'm just thinking about how hard it must be for you to be there to feel that much grief, and then multiply that over and over again. You've taken photos of injured children and vets who are returning and painfully rehabbing themselves. People at the moment they're being shot or about to be shot. I don't know, what do you do with the grief?

James Nachtwey (12:09):

Well, yoU carry it with you. Nothing is forgotten and I guess you have to carry it with you with as much grace as you possibly can. Again, as opposed to the stereotype, rather than getting hardened to it, I find that I get more and more sensitized to it and it gets actually more difficult to witness such things, not less difficult, and it's just something you have to bear.

Anne Strainchamps (12:40):

Do you still believe in the goodness of humans?

James Nachtwey (12:44):

Oh, absolutely. I've seen so much goodness come out of the most horrible situations. So much generosity and hospitality. I can't help but be moved and humbled by it. There's a very large installation. It's about 32 feet long. It's one single file. One single print. And it's a composite of 60 images that were all made in combat field hospitals during the war in Iraq and it's pictures that show lives being saved. It's called The Sacrifice.

Anne Strainchamps (13:29):

You've been there yourself, right? You've been shot. Weren't you injured in a grenade attack?

James Nachtwey (13:35):

I'd been covering a single platoon for Time Magazine and I was with Mike Weisskopf who was a Time reporter and a grenade was thrown into the Humvee and Mike had his hand blown off and I got injured with shrapnel and a couple of the soldiers got pretty badly hurt. So I was taken to that very same medical facility and I made it back out to Germany.

Anne Strainchamps (14:03):

Were you still taking photographs while you were injured?

James Nachtwey (14:07):

Until I passed out, yes.

Anne Strainchamps (14:09):

Wow. Why do you keep going back?

James Nachtwey (14:14):

I have a lot of experience. I still see that there's a reason as much as ever to do it and I guess I do it because I can.

Anne Strainchamps (14:32):

James Nachtwey is a celebrated war photographer and Peace Prize winner. And we were talking back in 2015, shortly after the Witness to History exhibition opened at New Hampshire's Currier Museum. And if you want to see some of the photos we were talking about, visit our website at

Anne Strainchamps (14:56):

The photojournalists who document war can have a huge impact on how people back home think about it. There've been times when a single haunting photograph really shifted public opinion about a war. For my generation, it was the 1972 image from Vietnam called Napalm Girl. The one of a naked nine-year-old girl running toward the camera, screaming. Here's the thing though, an image of something horrible can also be beautiful, which is complicated. In 2015, writer David Shields analyzed more than a decades worth of front page war photographs from the New York Times and he concluded that more often than not, the Times editors chose images that glamorized conflict. Here's Charles Monroe-Kane's conversation with David Shields about his book, War is Beautiful.

Charles Monroe-Kane (15:50):

I want to use the word you used, because I found that to be very powerful, and the word you used is beautiful. War is Beautiful, is the title of your book, talk about [crosstalk 00:16:01]. And these photos, I was like, okay, I get your argument, blah, blah, blah. I got your book. Oh my God, they are beautiful. [crosstalk 00:16:07]. They could be hanging in a museum, what's wrong with that? What are you getting at with that?

David Shields (16:13):

For 20 years from the first Gulf War until through 2013, I would be struck by at least a couple of times a week and sometimes several times a week, I'd be struck by pictures of war that sort of fed my war porn addiction. It was really these pictures were surpassingly beautiful. They were basically war as, what would you call them? Kind of 20th century modernist masterpieces, picture after picture, photo after photo, it seemed to me to be virtually appropriating Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, Richard Diebenkorn. It was just stunning to me how much of the war had been abstracted away from any kind of raw, naked, visceral horror and it's sort of uploaded into a realm of very abstract horror.

David Shields (17:13):

At the opening line of the book is an epigraph from Edmund Burke, who says that horror is very beautiful when kept at a severe distance. And it seems to me that these pictures function to disseminate a certain kind of ideology, sub-textually. Namely that we sort of tell ourselves as the readers of the paper that we're informed and somehow semi-concerned citizens and that we have properly bleeding hearts. But in reality, these pictures keep the war at, you might say, psychic arm's length.

Charles Monroe-Kane (17:51):

I was struck by two things. One, that they nearly weren't as graphic as I thought they were going to be. And two, that they're very, still very powerful. What do you want? Do you want more carnage? What do you want us to see?

David Shields (18:04):

General Sherman said war is hell and these pictures portray war as a sort of very pretty heck. First of all, I want us, as citizen readers, to bring enormously needed skepticism to the cultural work that these pictures do. And then I want us to depend far less on institutions that work hand in glove with the US government. And third, struggle more with its happy willingness to print pictures that just sworn in a kind of corporate folk art.

Charles Monroe-Kane (18:44):

I hear what you're saying, but I can imagine someone saying, "You know man, they're only photographs, what's the harm?"

David Shields (18:49):

On the one hand you could say, "What's the problem? So what?" The Times runs 365 pictures every year and here's a picture, but I looked at literally 9,000 front pages of the New York Times through microfilm and microfiche from 1991 through 2013 and we found a thousand color war photos color picks started in October '97. We found a thousand color war photos and of those thousand, 700 fulfilled my criterion of pictures that, in my view, aestheticized horror. And I found precious few examples, that to me, in my view, conveyed the raw horror. So you could say, "What's the harm?" But I guess the book is trying to argue what sub-current is running underneath that picture? Is there an irreducible glamor? Where is the horror? Where is the cost?

Charles Monroe-Kane (19:54):

Is that policy or it was just happening kind of on accident?

David Shields (19:57):

I think that's the $64,000 question. This book is not an investigative book in a sense that I've uncovered 47 internal memos at the New York Times in which Dick Cheney and John Kerry have sent memos to the New York Times. And they said, "If you ever print a picture of a dead soldier, that you will be denied access to the higher levels of government." I don't have any such proverbial smoking gun and I think it's an open question as to what's happening. Have all these photographers simply gone to school on the Western pictorial tradition and they can't help but take pictures of war as romance, as glamor, as beauty, as glory? Have the photo editors gone to school on the same tropes? To what degree does the New York Times instantiate its own authority by having access to the US government? To what degree does that access depend on the Times, in my view, pseudo covering the war? Lyndon Johnson said during the Vietnam war, "I can't win this war without the support of the New York Times." And then I follow up by saying, a New York Times picture is worth a thousand mirrors.

Charles Monroe-Kane (21:28):

There's a lot of images from those wars that we've seen, just still images. Have they seduced us?

David Shields (21:35):

To me, these pictures are effective seduction because if these pictures appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal or USA Today or the New York Daily News, there's no story because people understand those papers to be right word leaning, military leaning, Fox News as Murdoch as papers whose agenda is quite clear. But the Times as brand is weirdly a kind of quasi neutrality and I think seduction is particularly problematic when we don't know the agenda of the seducer and I even feel somewhat complacent. I wish I had gotten this book done 10 years earlier, but I felt seduced for too long and this book is an attempt to break that seduction.

Anne Strainchamps (22:39):

David Shields is the author of War is Beautiful, The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamor of Armed Conflict. Charles Monroe-Kane talked with him. And if you want to see some of those photos they were talking about, visit our website at It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (23:25):

Like a lot of people, I have complicated feelings about America's withdrawal from Afghanistan. For me, it kind of boils down to one question, did we do more harm or more good by being there? And that's why I'm really interested in the Canadian historian, Margaret MacMillan who's just published a sweeping book that covers the entire human history of war and asks an even bigger question, does war bring out the bestial side of human nature or the best? Her book is called War: How Conflict Shaped Us. And a couple of her takeaways, war is a uniquely human occupation and it's not only or not solely destructive. Uncomfortable as it is to admit, war has also galvanized social and political improvements and sparked scientific advancements. Steve Paulson dug a little deeper.

Steve Paulson (24:25):

So do you I think human beings are inherently violent?

Margaret MacMillan (24:29):

This is a huge debate and I think I come down the side that we're not inherently violent, that we may have violent tendencies. Evolution has left us with a certain collection of tendencies and reactions and when we're afraid, we do have a tendency to lash out. A tendency to use violence on others. But I don't think that means that we are necessarily violent. Often we see examples of altruism and peoples living together in the past. I think what is more important and why people fight, and I'm thinking of war not just random, one-on-one fighting, why people fight in wars is organization, ideas, cultural values. The more organized we are, unfortunately the better we seem to get at fighting and war is actually very organized. It's not the sort of brawl that you might get outside a bar or the random violence you might get when someone feels frightened.

Steve Paulson (25:19):

So if war is a tendency that we have, maybe not that we all just want to go out and be warlike, but it's something within our DNA, what does that reveal about what it means to be human?

Margaret MacMillan (25:33):

Well, I'm not sure it is in our DNA. I think our propensity for violence may be in our DNA, but when you think of war, it is [inaudible 00:25:39] and it's often calculating. People don't just rush helter-skelter into war. They think about it. They plan for it. They train for it. And it takes off in a great deal of effort, the military know this, and a great deal of training to turn people who may not want to kill others and may not want to risk their lives into those who will fight. And I suspect, and this is just a suspicion, that once we settled down and became agriculturalists, then it was harder to pick up and move away. If you're nomadic, you can pick up and move into unoccupied space and get away from those who threaten you, but once you've settled down, it's much harder to move because you have something to defend and of course you have much more that someone else might want to take.

Steve Paulson (26:21):

And this is an age old debate, of course. Isn't this what Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes argued about a few centuries ago? Rousseau being the person who's saying, "Oh, we're sort of naturally peaceful." And Hobbes says, "No, we're not."

Margaret MacMillan (26:33):

Yeah, Rousseau said really the trouble with us came when we began to get organized and that social organization has led us into becoming more confrontational with each, whereas Hobbes said, if you were to go back to the ancient world, the primitive world, you would find it very nasty indeed, because there would be no central government and no way of controlling the impulses of people to fight with each other. What Hobbes saw is actually a good thing was the development of a big state, the Leviathan, which had a monopoly of force, which could therefore maintain order in its own territories and defend its people against those who would try and take it over or destroy it.

Steve Paulson (27:11):

Do you think Hobbes was right?

Margaret MacMillan (27:14):

I think Hobbes was right in some ways, but where I think he was wrong, and I do share his pessimistic view, but where I think he was wrong is that he thought that it'd be impossible ever to have international society. That the international order would always be an archaic and always be sort of dog against dog or cat against cat. And I think that was too pessimistic a view. I think we have been thinking for a long time about how we build international institutions and how we build international norms and ways of treating each other, which will obviate get rid of the need for war. Who would've predicted a hundred years ago that the former enemies of, say Britain, France, and Germany, would be living together and cooperating with each other? It would have seemed an impossible dream.

Margaret MacMillan (27:57):

And so I think we have to bear in mind that it is possible to move beyond war as a way of settling differences among nations. We can use other means. We can use courts, we can use arbitration. We can use sanctions, international law, which has become very important. The possibility is there, but what we also have at the same time is the possibility for war.

Steve Paulson (28:16):

Yeah, there is another historical counter-example, perhaps, in terms of if we want to contrast human beings with another species, and that's our ancient cousins, the Neanderthals, who were as big as the humans of the time, maybe bigger, but they did not seem to be as well organized socially, probably didn't live in as big groups and of course, there's been this long running debate or question about why did the Neanderthals go extinct? Why did we survive? And it maybe plays into what you're saying, is that ancient humans were better organized and therefore more war-like and perhaps wiped out the Neanderthals.

Margaret MacMillan (28:56):

Yeah. Well, it's a possibility, isn't it? The better organized you are, horribly in a way, the better you are at making war because when you think of what it takes to develop warriors, and it does take training and you then have to get them the weapons, you have to provide the weapons, you have to feed them, you have to make sure they get in the right order to the right place at the right time. And of course, with modern war, it gets more and more complicated when you think of the huge logistical support that is needed for modern war. It is, I think, a question of organization. Big wars, long wars, deadly wars, wouldn't be possible without tremendous organization.

Steve Paulson (29:35):

So it actually does suggest that there are evolutionary advantages to being war-like. That the groups willing to wage war against other people have prospered.

Margaret MacMillan (29:46):

Well, they have often prospered up to a point, and you could argue as Hobbes has argued. And in fact, others, Charles Tilly, I think, has argued very persuasively that war has helped to create biggest states, which can in fact benefit those who live within their borders because they provide more stability and security. When the Roman empire was built through war and partly maintained through war, but those who lived inside the Roman empire enjoyed a higher standard of living, could travel freely because the roads were safe and the seas was safe. Trade could move through all the Roman territories again because of the security it offered.

Margaret MacMillan (30:20):

And I think it's very striking that people wanted to move into the Roman empire, not out. And I think that's because life was better inside that big organization. Somewhere behind it lay the threat of force and of course the Roman borders were maintained by soldiers. But you could argue that building up bigger political units, even in brutal ways and even if they're not particularly nice to their own citizens, is probably creating a better environment than living in a state of anarchy with sort of constant low-level wars and raids going on.

Steve Paulson (30:53):

Now, there is a counter-argument that has surfaced in recent years, most noticeably from Steven Pinker, who has argued that human beings are getting less violent, especially since the enlightenment. What do you make of his argument?

Margaret MacMillan (31:06):

Well, it's a very interesting argument. And of course, he makes it with great research, great evidence, and great subtlety. Many societies are getting less violent. We tolerate public violence much less. We no longer have prize fights where people batter each other to death. We no longer have people matched against animals. We no longer have public executions. And in most developed societies and many less developed societies, the homicide rates are way down. Your own country, the United States, is something of an outlier there. But generally I think his argument that we are becoming more peaceful in the ways in which we deal with each other in domestic societies is right, but I don't think that's war and I think war is something different.

Margaret MacMillan (31:50):

There's a very interesting counter argument by Charles Wrangham called The Goodness Paradox, which [crosstalk 00:31:56]-

Steve Paulson (31:55):

So you mean Richard Wrangham.

Margaret MacMillan (31:57):

Oh, sorry, Richard Wrangham, yeah, sorry. The Goodness Paradox in which he argues that we have in fact probably become nicer and less violent as individuals. And he has this very interesting argument that in a sense, we may have domesticated ourselves by our choice of mates and by breeding out or simply not reproducing those who are most violent among us or actually perhaps killing those who are most violent among us, rather than in the way in which wolves have been domesticated into nice friendly dogs who sit on your lap. And what he's argued, however, in the process of domestication, we may have become nicer as individuals, but we've also become better at organizing and we've become better at using purposive violence that the paradox he points to is that we may have got better at making war even as we've become rather nicer people.

Steve Paulson (32:43):


Margaret MacMillan (32:44):

It really is.

Steve Paulson (32:46):

Yeah, can we generalize about how most wars actually get started?

Margaret MacMillan (32:52):

Well, I tried to. There many reasons, you get all sorts of reasons, someone insults someone, someone marries someone, a mistake happened. But I think if you look at it, and I may be wrong, but I tend to see it as greed. You have something that someone else wants, maybe that's territory, maybe that's silver or gold or whatever, and on the other side of that is fear, that you may go to war out of fear that someone's about to attack you or you may go to war because you feel you have no choice but to go to war because you fear for your very survival. And then the final category is, I haven't got the right term for it, but I called it ideas and ideologies. It's the things we think and believe in that can lead us to make war. And religion, of course, can do that.

Margaret MacMillan (33:31):

If you want to build a paradise on earth or if you want to achieve your salvation in eternity, you may go to war because death will have less peril for you. You'll feel less frightened of death and you'll feel you're part of a much greater cause and nationalism can be the same sort of thing. You will fight for a nation and die for a nation, perhaps, because you feel you're fighting for something bigger than yourself or you will fight as many peoples have done and including of course in the United States, you'll fight in a civil war because you have different views within the same society of what that society should be and who should control that society.

Steve Paulson (34:06):

And those tend to be the bloodiest wars, right? The civil wars.

Margaret MacMillan (34:09):

I think they tend to be the worst, civil wars and the wars of ideologies, whether it's building socialism on earth or paradise in the afterlife, because you believe you're doing something for the greater good of humanity in the longer run, and so anyone who opposes you is almost a moral imperative to eliminate those people because they are standing in the way of a greater project and so you should feel no compunction in removing them from the face of the earth. In a civil war, you're not just fighting those soldiers out in the field or the sailors out on the seas, you're fighting the whole society because it is wrong. And so even the children are wrong. Even the old people are wrong. There's no one innocent in such wars, at least that's the belief.

Steve Paulson (34:51):

Now we've been talking about the horror of war, but there is another side to it, which you go into at some length in your book, and that, actually a lot of good things come out of war, scientific advancement, sometimes more social equality, societies can get restructured. How far would you take that argument?

Margaret MacMillan (35:13):

Well, I'm always cautious with it because I get people getting quite cross as they should, but I think they misunderstand me saying that war is a good thing for us and I don't think that at all. But I think it is noticeable in history that it sometimes takes a very great challenge and great crisis to get us collectively to do things that we wouldn't think of doing in normal times because they're too expensive or too difficult or too disruptive. And a war is one of those challenges which brings out those responses, so too is a pandemic. I've been reflecting very much on the current pandemic where you see governments which had been talking about austerity and getting rid of deficits and balancing the books suddenly spending money with a free hand because it is necessary. Huge amounts of money had been invested in trying to find vaccines and treatments for the COVID-19 and I think war can do that as well. It simply makes possible things which aren't possible in peacetime.

Steve Paulson (36:05):

Can you give a few examples of that?

Margaret MacMillan (36:08):

Yeah, sure. Well, medicine. A great many medical advances have come about as a result of war. They might've come about anyway, but we'll never know. New drugs have been developed in war, penicillin, for example, which was discovered in the inter-war years of the 1920s was considered too expensive to produce and then the second world war came along and suddenly it's not too expensive when you want to keep those who are fighting for you alive. And society as a whole has benefited enormously from penicillin.

Steve Paulson (36:37):

So if violence is part of human nature and we seem to have this propensity to start wars, I guess I'm wondering, can we ever overcome these inherent urges within us or will we always be warring animals?

Margaret MacMillan (36:54):

No, I think we can overcome them and societies change. I'm so struck by the way in which Germany has changed. Germany was a society that in the 19th century, when it was first made a country and in the 20th century, was imbued, or at least parts of German society were imbued with militaristic values and an admiration for the military in a sense which the military shared that the military with the noblest and best part of the nation, and that's completely gone. Germany is a different society and a different country. I think what's happened in Europe is very, very significant. Most European countries have moved well away from military values and have moved away from thinking that war is a useful tool of state. It is now, I think, unthinkable that any European country would go to war with another European country. It doesn't achieve anything. So I do think it's absolutely possible and indeed very hopeful that we can move into societies and ways of thinking which don't see war as something that should ever be used.

Anne Strainchamps (38:01):

Historian Margaret Macmillan talking about her book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us. And you can find a link to Steve's full interview with her in Nautilus Magazine. Just go to our website at

Anne Strainchamps (38:17):

So if humans are getting better and better at waging war, how are we doing at waging peace? Next up, the remarkable story of Liberian peace activist and Nobel Prize winner, Leymah Gbowee. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (38:42):

It's tempting to think that war is inevitable, that human beings are just too violent, too aggressive to maintain any kind of lasting peace. Does it really have to be that way?

Speaker 15 (38:54):

[inaudible 00:38:54].

Leymah Gbowee (39:02):

Liberia had gone from bad, to worse, to ridiculous.

Anne Strainchamps (39:09):

Librarian peace activists, Leymah Gbowee.

Leymah Gbowee (39:14):

People were inventing new ways of killing people. Pregnant women were being [inaudible 00:39:20]. People were using plastic bags to drop in people's eyes and melting hot objects over people's bodies, so it was a terrible time. There was no regard for women or their place in society or their lives. It was just easy to humiliate, rape, and to oppress them.

Leymah Gbowee (39:50):

There is something about being pushed to the wall. You have two options, to either give in or fight back. One thing that I can say was that we knew we would die, but the question was, do you want to die without even trying or do you want to die and let the history be that you died trying? We didn't think that we would bring peace, but we knew that we will give the world another side of the conflict. So when we step out, it was about changing the narrative about war.

Anne Strainchamps (40:41):

Back in 2003, the civil war in Liberia had been going on seemingly forever. There were unspeakable atrocities on both sides. And then, Leymah Gbowee, basically stood up and said, "Enough." She gathered the women of Liberia together in a non-violent protest and it ended the civil war. Not only did her efforts lead to the ouster and imprisonment of the dictator, Charles Taylor, she also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Steve Paulson wanted to know why when things looked so hopeless, Leymah thought she could make a difference?

Steve Paulson (41:18):

There were so many things that you were up against, and one of them was that Charles Taylor had prohibited any public gatherings of protesters, but you and these other Christian and Muslim women in your movement gathered every day and there were thousands of you demanding peace, demanding an audience with Taylor, why didn't he arrest you or why didn't he have you killed?

Leymah Gbowee (41:40):

Well, that is the question that many people still ask till today but I say one thing, what I've come to learn is that when you have brutal dictators and violent people, they have no response for non-violence. So, it totally took him off guard. It would have been easy for us to come out and throw rocks and then he will have a reason for killing us, but how do you kill a group of people who sit there with a banner that says we want peace now?

Steve Paulson (42:12):

So, incredibly dangerous, obviously. You said earlier that you assumed you would die during this protest, how scared were you?

Leymah Gbowee (42:21):

There wasn't a lot of fear. In the initial stage when we started, yes, there were moments where I got afraid, but every day as we stepped out to protest and every day as I got to know the women we were protesting with and know their stories, every day, that confidence grew, the courage grew, and a lot of things, but there was very little fear by the time we entered the second week of protesting, let alone by the second year.

Steve Paulson (42:49):

When did you think that you might actually have a chance to bring down Charles Taylor, to remove him from power?

Leymah Gbowee (42:56):

When he agreed to meet us, because he had resisted and said no. When he agreed to meet us, something profound happened that day, we got to the executive mansion and the soldiers said they have been instructed that if we're less than 25, we should not be allowed into his mansion. And then I asked, "What if we're more than 25?" And then they laughed because at that time there was so much fear around this figure, Taylor, that no one expected that more than 25 women will show up to protest him. And I said, "What if we're more than 25?" And he said, "Then you can come in." At that moment, we sent message up to where the women had lined up, over 2,500 of us, and said, "Come down." And the soldier saw that sea of white and they were like, "Wow, these women are really serious."

Steve Paulson (43:48):

It's an astonishing story, and partly what you're saying is that he, and pretty much everyone else in Liberia, was just assuming that you would be terrified to go in and meet with him. Somehow you managed to turn that around. You seemed to get through that terror.

Leymah Gbowee (44:05):

That day when we went to see Taylor, for me standing up to speak to him, I just told myself, because they had given me a statement to read, by the time I got up there I said I'm not going to read this statement because it's too sterile, it's just too neat for this man. I have to speak the truth about the situation of all of us women, we were refugees, we're internally displaced, we're victims of rape, we're living off of the streets. People and their children were dying on a daily basis. Our daughters and sons were being conscripted as small boys into his army, into the armies of the rebel. So, I had to tell him this is the reality of the Liberian people. This is the reality specifically of women of this country. And there was no fear in that telling. All that was there was a huge sense of anger that this one man has put us in all of this mess. That was what I was thinking on that day.

Steve Paulson (45:00):

Well, eventually you brokered a peace deal, amazingly, a peace deal between Charles Taylor and the rebel warlords. You forced Taylor out of power and he was later arrested for war crimes. Your movement led to the election of the first woman president in Africa, truly a remarkable story. And it's remarkable partly because it's so rare. Almost always it's the generals, not the peace activists who win. And I guess it raises the question of whether peace really can defeat war in any systematic way?

Leymah Gbowee (45:33):

Well, I think where we need to come in this word, especially now, is to understand that good can always overcome evil and peace can definitely defeat war. War, if you go back to the Liberian story, it was just a matter of time that peace was going to take over, peace was going to win because-

Steve Paulson (45:54):

Why would that be just a matter of time? It would seem that it could just drag on forever.

Leymah Gbowee (45:59):

Well, it would seem that it would drag on forever, but I tell you one thing, that even those with the guns, they always pick up the guns not in the name of war, and you need to remember that. When people go to war, they're always saying, "We're fighting in the name of peace," which is ironical, because there's no way fire can put our fire. So if you're going to war because you want peace, if someone offers you the perfect alternative to what you're killing yourselves for, you're bound to reach out and grab it.

Steve Paulson (46:33):

But there are an awful lot of leaders, of historians, of philosophers, who say war is inevitable, that we've always had war. From the beginning of history, it seems to be a part of human nature. Are you saying war is not inevitable?

Leymah Gbowee (46:47):

I can tell you one thing for free, because of the way the world has come to glorify violence that's why people think that war is inevitable. I think if we persistently and consistently throw out peace as the only alternative, because gone is the easiest way and the cowardly way of solving problems.

Steve Paulson (47:10):

You mentioned that it's usually the men in power who conduct these wars. I'm assuming you would say that women have a particular role, a special role to play in preventing war.

Leymah Gbowee (47:21):

Oh, definitely. The way I talk about it when I go to places of conflict is that in communities where you have a lot of the recruitment taking place, the women are the ones who know every young person and so the metaphor I want to use is it's her house. If it is dark, she can walk in and touch anything. And if you decide to fix her house and leave her out of it, you're leaving a very vital component of that fixing out of it.

Leymah Gbowee (47:55):

The woman know, of all of the fighters, who you can talk to and which way, and bring them back to a point of understanding. You keep them out of the room, you keep the conscience of those men out of the room, you keep the history of their lives out of the room, you keep the interaction in a community out of the room. And I think it's important for people to understand that. That, that process of bringing the country back to stability needs the involvement and intervention of every member of the population. If you're leaving 50% of the population out of the process, it's like trying to see a whole picture with one eye cover.

Steve Paulson (48:36):

You see what you're advocating here is being realistic. This is not just pie in the sky idealism. You think this works.

Leymah Gbowee (48:44):

I think so. I believe it in my guts. And the reason why I'm saying it is, please help me understand. A few years ago, we're getting rid of Sadam Hussein. Today, we have ISIS. A few years ago we got rid of Gaddafi. What we see in Libya is a total mess. A few years ago, Syria started with just protests and then one arm group got in, another arm group got in and what we see now is another mess. Yemen and all of the bombings that have been taking place by the different high power countries. If violence could end anything, our world would be a peaceful place. What we've seen in this short period from 9/11 till today is a world that is even more dangerous. You want to go to concerts, you think twice. More than ever before in the history of the world, everyone lives with a deep sense of fear. If violence could solve any problem, why don't we have global peace?

Steve Paulson (49:49):

That is a very good question. Wow, you are so inspiring. Thank you. Thank you so much for coming in and talking with us.

Leymah Gbowee (49:59):

Thank you so much for having me.

Anne Strainchamps (50:07):

That's Leymah Gbowee talking with Steve Paulson. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her role in ending the brutal civil war in Liberia. She's the founder and president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa. And I think Leymah's words resonate more strongly than ever this week. I don't know about you, but it helps me to remember her message and that there are people like her in the world.

Anne Strainchamps (50:35):

That's it for our show today, but there is always more on our website. At, you can sign up for our newsletter and don't forget to subscribe to the podcast. To The Best Of Our Knowledge is produced at Wisconsin Public Radio by Charles Monroe-Kane, Mark Riechers, Shannon Henry Kleiber, and Angelo Bautista. Our Sound Designer and Technical Director is Joe Hardtke. Our Executive Producer is Steve Paulson and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening.

Speaker 17 (51:05):


Last modified: 
September 10, 2021