On Wars by Michael Mann: Book Review

I read this 607 page tome asking questions about war and power so you don’t have to

Annie Windholz
9 min readJan 29, 2024

Should you question war? One hundred percent, especially if you’re like me and live in the country with the world’s most powerful military that is actively shipping weapons abroad for other countries to use. Do you need to read this book to understand why war doesn’t make sense? No, but it will give you some good talking points and data to make your case.

A U.C.L.A. sociologist and historian, Michael Mann digs into the “why” of war without getting hung up on tactics or weapons, “except when they influence the answers to the questions [of why]”. This book started out less like a history book and more of a philosophy and psychology book. Mann gives a nuanced perspective, but his personal position is clear from the start:

“War is a peculiar activity: it is designed to kill a very large number of people , and this surely requires a very high level of justification. Self-defense is generally considered such a justification, but we will see that this is quite an elastic concept…for whom exactly was war rational in the sense of beneficial? The answer is often almost no one.”

Early on Mann also quotes the Nazi leader Hermann Goering in his Nuremberg prison cell before his execution:

“Of course people don’t want war… but it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship… Voice or no voice, people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

Beef with Steven Pinker

I’ve heard criticism of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, and I was interested when Mann started speaking directly to his issues with Pinker’s thesis that the world has become less violent over time. Mann writes:

“Optimism is understandable within recent Western Europe, from which war was virtually abolished after 1945, but only by excluding the former Yugolslavia and Ukraine from that zone. The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 blasted apart such European complaceny. It is also odd that the four optimistic liberals are 3 American citizens (Mueller, Goldstein, and Pinker) and one Israeli (Gat, an army major).”

I think it’s very important to point out that the countries with the largest military budget have the philosophers who are saying the world is getting less violent. Less violent for whom is the important question. Mann also goes on to discredit Pinker’s statistics:

“[Steven Pinker] says war deaths averaged 15% and amounted to “up to” 60% of the total population, whereas in modern nation-states war deaths have been 5% or less. His 15% is too high. His maximum of 60% is much lower than the maximum of modern cases of genocide — over 95% or natives in North America and Australia, while in the twentieth century the Nazis disposed of 70% of Jews, the Ottoman Turks and Kurds about 70% of Armenians, and the Hutus about 60% of the Tutsis. So war was not more intense in prehistoric times.”

Those waging war always “justify” war

Mann breaks war into three categories: wars of aggression, wars of defense and wars of mutual provocation or escalation. He also defines four main types aggressive war:

  1. in and out raiding
  2. using military power to change or strengthen regimes abroad to make them compliant (a form of indirect imperialism, and much of what the US does abroad)
  3. conquest and direct rule over slivers of border territory
  4. conquest and direct rule of territorial empires.

Mann also notes that advances in technology have not made war “less violent”, but might in fact give license and moral authority for leaders to more easily endorse more violence toward others. Think of it like how GMOs are designed to be able to withstand lots of roundup, but that doesn’t mean roundup is good for humans to ingest still. I feel like this is how war technologies like drones and modern medicine have empowered leaders continue with violence.

“Military medicine has produced a major decline in those dying of their wounds… yet weapons, especially airpower, have increased civilian casualty rate, and it is now routine to define the total population of a country as the enemy”

What is “brutality”?

Mann differentiates between what Americans see as “ferocious” killings abroad, and then names our own military’s use of drones and long distance missiles as “callous” killings. “Ferocious” killings are done mainly in civil wars and poor countries with limited supplies, while “callous” killings are done by rich countries with supplies for mass destruction. They are both killings, but living in the US our government acts like the sanitized “callous” killings are more moral, which is of course hypocritical and untrue.

“As Pinker, Mueller, Goldstein, and Gat observe, Westerners shudder at torture, rape, and hacking of body parts — but not at our own long-range killings. We try not to see them. We prefer not to go into an abattoir and see the mangling of animals. We prefer not to see torture, and we may turn a blind eye if our side does it. We do not see any of these sights. But we still eat meat, and w still make war with missiles and drones… We are horrified at the decapitation of civilians inflicted by the Islamic State, not at the callous killing of civilians by our air forces. Among drone “pilots”, the enemy is seen only through satellite images on computer screens.”

Mann then ties this view of “callous” versus “ferocious” killing to history:

“The Mongols are crucial for Pinker. He claims they were far deadlier than any other human group. He estimates they killed 40 million person in total… the real total is unknowable… Compare President Harry Truman’s dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to persuade Japan to surrender. Both were justified by the perpetrators as saving further lives among their own troops. We find the Mongols worse because their killing was ferocious body hacking, whereas Truman’s was long-distance callous killing, to which we have grown accustomed.”

While I totally agree with this example as far in that killing is killing and those killing will always justify their actions regardless of technique or technologies, I wish Mann had noted here that Truman didn’t actually need to drop the bomb to end the war, that it was a justification but not a necessity as the war was already ending. This was the first time I disagreed with this book’s telling of history (admittedly I skimmed a lot of the history, so there is probably a bit I might disagree with), but it doesn’t take away from the general statements about war tactics Mann is trying to make.

More recently, Trump decreased troops abroad but increased military spending and had a 50% increase in nuclear weapons spending. More than 40 countries (+ guerilla movements like Hamas and Houthis) have drones, mostly supplied by the US, China, Israel or Iran. Mann argues that the drone program has made war more “palatable” for the American public. Many more people might be dying abroad, but far fewer US soldiers are. And that sits fine with the mainstream public in the US, or at least how they are sold it in the news, and sitting here complicit in the US it makes me sick.


“Imperialists claim that they bring the benefits of civilization to the conquered- as have the Chinese, Roman, European, Soviet and now American rulers.” It’s easy to see that the US practices imperialism abroad as well as at home: for example there are Native people alive in the so called US today that survived boarding schools created to “civilize” them, aiding in destroying their language, families, land and culture.

Mann gives an overview about how the Soviets tended toward helping “self-described leftist states”, and the US helped “conservatives and monarchists”. Mann stresses that “both formally denounced imperialism while pursuing it.”

Discussing current events with the war in Ukraine, Mann notes how “Russian imperialism shocked the world into realizing even in Europe war is not dead.” He goes on to discuss Middle East proxy wars:

“Up to WWII the empires [in the Middle East] had been mostly British, French, and Russian, and they had destroyed the last indigenous empires of the region, the Persian and Ottoman empires. Then the Europeans were displaced by the United States and the Soviet Union… the misfortune of the [intervened areas] were the possession of oil fields and a strategic position between capitalist and communist areas. After the Soviet collapse, the US was left as the major imperial intervener. When the imperial torch passed from the Soviets and the US , they sought only informal empire [in the Middle East], not territorial control, using military interventions to strengthen or replace local regimes.”

Goldstein “sees U.S. forces as being like UN blue helmets (peacekeepers), putting themselves in ‘harms way to maintain peace, to establish conditions for political and economic progress, to be diplomats and educators rather than just ‘grunts’. Washington optimists see this as achievable policy, as do soldiers”.

Palestine/ Israel

Speaking of the US being a major imperial intervener, Mann touches on US backing and funding of the Israeli military and goes on to discuss land expansion of Israel into Palestine:

“On the [Israeli] side, extremism has been boosted by relatively poor immigrant Jews coming from Arab countries, Eastern Europe, and Russia. They seek land and housing and are prepared to seize them from the Arab occupants. Their increasing numbers have improved the electoral fortunes of Israeli conservative and religious parties pressuring for more landgrabs… Since Israeli Jews have the military and political power to seize Arab lands, most of them believe they have the right to do so, in the name of ethnic survival… boosted by access to international capital…”

But that’s a conversation for another time. #FreePalestine #CeasefireNow

American ignorance

The dominant theory of interstate war has been Realism (coined by Henry Kissinger), which uses the concepts of anarchy, hegemony and rationality, i.e… peace will follow is there is one big (hegemonic) leader, but otherwise the world in anarchy is worse off… It’s a fantasy that the US international relations policies rely on and I think Mann has done a good job of discrediting it in this book.

Mann posits that there are three Realist views that have kept US leaders and citizens from understanding war and our place on the world stage:

  1. Most US politicians still believe in an “imperial civilizing mission, a responsibility and capacity to bring order, democracy, free enterprise, and general beneficence to the world”.
  2. A failure to understand cause and effect in enemy hostility
  3. Conservatism and attachment to tradition (especially visible in middle east interventions). Past, not present visions of American power.

Mann describes Russia and China as rising and revisionist (a demand for lost territories) powers while the US is the current dominant imperial power. Currently the US spends twice what China spends on military, and the US has around 600 military bases abroad while China will soon have 3–5 at the time this book was published (2023). In 2021 China had about 300 nuclear warheads, while the US had 4,000.

Mann’s theory of war is that “periods of war alternate with periods of peace”, and that the world is not getting “less deadly” as some recent historians like Steven Pinker have claimed, but that this myth is being pushed by Americans (the ones causing the most war and suffering in the world currently as the hegemonic power).

My personal take

I did get a lot of good information out of this book, but think it could have been shorter and played more to Mann’s strengths as a sociologist rather than a sometimes questionable take on histories at times. A few historical narratives didn’t sit right with me, notably some comments about thecost benefit ratio for the American civil war and also not acknowledging that the bombs didn’t need to be dropped in Japan to end the war.

I appreciate this book though because it was a refreshingly critical book about US foreign policy and military involvement. Usually history books like this found in the US are a lot less honest and follow a nationalistic narrative that is reductive and xenophobic. I believe that as Americans we shouldn’t criticize other countries until we are able to really criticize our own first. And jumping to judge other countries when our military might and monetary power is a privilege that we must hold first and take accountability for before we can think to judge others with less power. The US is seen by much of the world as the big bad wolf on the world stage, and by judging other countries while looking away as our own government kills their civilians is at its most basic level feeding into the imperialist project. America wants you to look everywhere else except here. Decolonize your mind. This book is a good first place to start.

Reach out to me about reviewing your book! acwindholz@gmail.com