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Books feature

War is good for us

A review of Ian Morris’ War: What is it Good For? The Role of Conflict in Civilisation, from Primates to Robots. The 20th century, Morris argues, was the most peaceful in history - and peace is overrated

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

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

Profile Books, pp.495, £25

At the heart of this work is a startling and improbable statistic and the equally surprising and counterintuitive thesis that flows out of it. We are used to looking back on the 20th century as comfortably the most violent in all human history — the silver medal usually goes to the 14th — but if Ian Morris(a fellow at Stanford University) is to be believed, the century that could wipe out perhaps 50 million to 100 million in two world wars and throw in the gulags, the Cultural Revolution, civil wars, government-orchestrated famine, trench-stewed pandemics and any number of genocides for good measure was, in fact, the safest there has ever been.

If sometime around 7a.m. on 1 July 1916, as you waited to go over the top somewhere along the Somme, you had been tapped on the shoulder and told that you’d never had it so good, you might well have been mildly surprised at the news, but you would have been wrong to be. It would seem from the growing evidence of graves that Stone Age man had something like a 10–20 per cent chance of meeting a violent death, and if you factor in the anthropological evidence of surviving 20th-century Stone Age societies, then, as Morris puts it, Stone Age life was ‘10–20 times as violent as the tumultuous world of medieval  Europe and 300–600 times as bad as mid-20th-century Europe.’

This might all have been sad news for a generation that had embraced the rosy idyll of Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa — she had clearly never watched the Samoan rugby team at play — but assuming that it’s true, the crucial question is why? Morris is the first to acknowledge the provisional and very probably inaccurate nature of the statistical evidence, but as the archaeological finds continue to dispose of any Rousseauian dream of man in his natural and uncorrupted state, Thomas Hobbes is not just back in the game — Morris’s way of writing is infectious — but quite possibly the only game in town. Morris writes:

As Hobbes saw it, murder, poverty and ignorance would always be the order of the day unless there was strong government —  government as awesome, he suggested, as Leviathan, the Godzilla-like monster that so alarmed Job in the Bible … Such a government might be a king ruling alone or an assembly of decision-makers, but either way Leviathan must intimidate its subjects so thoroughly that they would choose submission to its laws over killing and robbing each other.

If the answer to a Stone Age prayer  is Leviathan — and the bigger and more powerful the better — then the next question is ‘where does Godzilla come from?’, and that is the question that takes Morris to the study of the role that war has played in keeping us all safer.

[Alt-Text]


It is conceivable, in theory, that there are other ways of taming man’s capacity for violence, but if the European Union (hiding behind the American Leviathan) has at least temporarily succeeded in boring and regulating a continent into relative docility, pretty well the only force through history capable of creating the Leviathans big and strong enough to cage William Golding’s ‘beast within’ and bully, bribe and coerce the levels of violence down is, paradoxically, war. ‘Lord knows there’s got to be a better way,’ Morris quotes the song,

but apparently there isn’t. If the Roman empire could have been created without killing millions of Gauls, if the United States could have been built without killing millions of Native Americans … if conflicts could have been resolved by discussion instead of force, humanity would have had the benefit  of larger societies. But that did not happen … People hardly ever give up their freedom, including their rights to kill and impoverish each other, unless forced to do so, and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war, or fear that such a defeat is imminent.

‘It is a depressing thought,’ Morris acknowledges, but — plucky thing that he is — you have never seen a man get over his depression as quickly as he does here. I have no idea whether he is right in either his argument or conclusions (and I’m not sure he’s always sure either), but after about 50 pages it seemed best to stop fussing  about the Arrow War or the implications of the American War of Independence and just settle back to enjoy an exuberant and wonderfully entertaining tour de force of history, archaeology, anthropology, geography, evolutionary biology and technological and military speculation that improbably combines a hardcore intellectual seriousness with a larky, almost blokeish note that would go down just as well on Top Gear as it clearly does at Stanford.

Morris is as likely to turn to TV’s Caedfael as to Clausewitz — it would be nice to think that future anthropologists might use Midsomer Murders to demonstrate that the average murder rate in a 20th-century English village was 4.3 a week — to his dog Milo or Mohammed Ali as to Mackinder; but for all the jokes, stories and neo-Benthamite calculi he never loses sight of where his argument is going.

The book opens with Agrippa and the Battle of the Graupian Mountain somewhere in the wastes of Scotland. From there, Morris tests and hammers out his theory step by step, ranging from China to Mesoamerica and from the Roman, Mauryan and Han empires to the emergence of the two great ‘globocops’ of modern history — the Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana — to demonstrate that, whatever the ‘short term’ costs (‘they make a wasteland and call it peace’, Calgacus famously declared before the Graupian Mountain), in the long run, the very, very long run, ‘productive war’ has always made the world a safer and richer place for the losers as well as the winners.

This is not much consolation to the tens of millions killed in the short term, of course — and for Ian Morris the ‘short term’ might be a 1,000-year ‘unproductive’ blip — and what happens in the future is still very much up for grabs. In Morris’s opinion these next three or four decades are going to be the most dangerous in human history. But if we do happen to survive not just all the known and unknown threats that Islamism, resources, climate change, China or a resurgent Russia might throw up, but also all the ‘unknowable unknowns’ as well — if, as he says, we get lucky with our timing and do survive all this, then that very biological predisposition to violence that has made us so good at cooperating, organising, innovating and evolving in the pursuit of better ways of waging war and wielding power will finally put war out of business.

Then human beings (or at least the ‘trans-humans’ and ‘post-human’ hybrids that will succeed us in about 2050) will find themselves at the end of the 10,000-year-long trek that has taken our species from Stone Age violence to that mythical Happy Valley of tolerant, inclusive, multi-cultural, crime-free civilisation that social scientists like to label ‘Denmark’. Nice thought, and a terrific book; but tell that to Sarah Lund.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20. Tel: 08430 600033

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