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WAR: What is it Good For? The Role of Conflict in Civilisation, from Primates to Robots by Ian Morris

  • Written by  Jonathan Wright
  • Published in Books
WAR: What is it Good For? The Role of Conflict in Civilisation, from Primates to Robots by Ian Morris
01 Jul
The paradox at the heart of Ian Morris’s book is that warfare ‘has made humanity safer and richer’. Wars were hellish, but the victors created larger, more secure societies

Think, Morris suggests, of the Roman Empire, Han China, Mauryan India or the nations of 18th-century Europe. They battled with foreign enemies but their unusually powerful governments, forged by warfare, were able to limit violence at home. ‘War made the state’ and, at least on the domestic front, ‘the state made peace’. The individual’s overall risk of meeting a bloody end was thus greatly reduced.

The key comparison is with Stone Age culture. Communities were small and lacked stable leadership. There were few constraints on random acts of violence and, by some calculations, between ten and 20 per cent of Stone Agers died at the hands of other humans.

Fast forward to the 20th century. There were between 100 and 200 million war-related deaths, a devastating figure, but this represented only one or two per cent of the century’s global population. The chances of suffering a violent death were a tenth of those faced by our Stone Age ancestors.

The central claim is that warfare was the key mechanism through which larger, more efficient and relatively peaceable societies have emerged, and that in the long run, its unintended consequences and the cultures it engendered saved an awful lot of lives.

The portrayal of Stone Age society is, of course, impossible to authenticate. You can make comparisons with isolated groups in the modern world or unearth an alarming number of ancient skeletons with bashed-in skulls, but definitive conclusions are elusive.

When it comes to more recent, although still very old, civilisations, Morris is on firmer ground. It’s no coincidence that the ‘productive’ potential of war emerged most rapidly in the ‘lucky latitudes’ that allowed for an agricultural boom.

Populations exploded, so there was far more to fight about but, unlike the nomad, the local farmer was reluctant to move on to new pastures. He was either absorbed into a larger society because he had been defeated, or he encouraged the expansion of his own society in order to be on the winning side of history. Either way, this made for more regulated polities that frowned upon home-grown, peacetime violence.

The risk with this kind of thesis is that it can become too schematic. And Morris explains that there were times when the logic of productive warfare collapsed. Civilisations reached their limits of expansion, unpredictable enemies arose and warfare quickly began to do more harm than good. This is what happened from late antiquity to the late medieval period. On Morris’s account, it took the events of the early modern era to set things back on track. The arrival of guns, ocean-going ships and an inter-continental geopolitical playground made warfare once more a sensible option for the European powers.

Morris is no apologist for warfare and this isn’t a book about morality. It’s a historical study and there’s some courage in an author reaching whatever conclusions his research demands.

The calculus of warfare only ever takes us so far, however, especially when contemplating the atrocities of the 20th century. All the percentages in the world don’t diminish the scale of the tragedies, nor would Morris want them to. He would acknowledge that there was a moment when we became far too good at killing and when a nuclear war, conducted by the largest, best-organised nations in human history, could have wiped out most people on the planet.

As for the future, the nuclear threat and other factors (climate change, rivalries between declining and emerging global powers) could make the next century the most dangerous on record. He attempts to calm us with talk of how technology might transform the nature of being human and make the concept of war obsolete, but it’s difficult to tell whether these speculations are serious. A fair conclusion is that this book is too in thrall to the bleak, reductive philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, but it remains one of the most thought-provoking volumes you’re likely to read this year.

WAR: What is it Good For? The Role of Conflict in Civilisation, from Primates to Robots by Ian Morris, Profile Books, £25

Julysub 2020

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