Lead book review

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, ISBN: 9781846684173

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.

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.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • SmoovB

    “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”

    So much doubt has been cast upon the catastrophic anthropogenic global warming theory by so many prominent scientists that any writer who includes this as though it was “settled science” essentially poisons the rest of his essay. If he is unreliable such a key area (and possibly beholden to a very specific — many would say pernicious — post-modern “progressive” ideology) then why believe anything else he says?

    • Tony Prost

      Who are these scientists? I think you over gauge their prominence.

      • saksin

        Richard Lindzen, climate scientist at MIT, is one of them.

        • Tony Prost

          A 2014 article in The Guardian, written by John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli, stated that Lindzen was “arguably the climate scientist who’s been the wrongest, longest.”

    • Al_de_Baran

      The phrase the writer uses is “climate change”, not “anthropogenic global warming”. Please take your silly one-note ideological battles elsewhere, or at a minimum develop an iota of reading comprehension before engaging.

    • SaintMarx

      The author expresses all those as potentialities, not certainties. Furthermore, nowhere does he equate “climate change” with ” catastrophic anthropogenic global warming theory”, so your critique attacks a staw man.

    • Tim

      ‘A new study by James Lawrence Powell found
      only a single dissenter
      out of 9,136 authors who denied that global warming was man-made.
      Powell looked at more than 2,000 studies published in peer-reviewed
      journals from November 2012 through December 2013 and came up with just
      one that didn’t believe in man-made global warming.’


      That’s one (1). A staggering coincidence that you stumbled across that very same one in your exhaustive research, and wisely thrust it above the opinion of every major scientific body, military, and insurance company on the planet. They’re all planning as if anthropocentric global warming is a reality, but you know better. I bet the CIA, for example, would love to hear you explain how they’ve fallen for the worldwide Marxist warming conspiracy. Your insights could save them a lot of money.

      To call what you’re doing ‘cherry picking’ would be soft-pedalling: It’s more like plucking a minute speck of dust out of a galaxy’s worth of empty space. The Spectator’s comments section: always half-funny, half-terrifying.

      • Chris Bond

        Good thing a “consensus” among scientist does not equal scientific proof. If it did, then the theory of evolution would have been dismised for failing to be in line with the consensus. Don’t forget Newtonian physics. It’s almost as if from 2012 to 2013 the editors refused to countenance any article raising issues or disputing the issue, or maybe the author only looked at publications which were pro-climate change.
        Come back when you have proof. Notice that word PROOF. Also learn what science is. Newton would have punched you in the mouth if you tried to explain to him science was based on consensus.

        • Tim

          I love the chutzpah of this bizarre, aggressive response. ‘Come back when you have proof’, indeed. As I’m sure you know, science does not provide ‘proof’ of anything–it merely verifies lines of evidence to converge on a conclusion with an increasing degree of probability.

          Regarding science, you’re putting the cart before the horse in rather spectacular fashion. Consensus in science is based on concilience–i.e., as I said before, the verification of (usually) multiple lines of evidence. The world’s scientists don’t all wake up one morning and decide to reach consensus about a given issue because they’re being bribed by a shadowy worldwide government, or because they think it’d be fun.

          And yes, Newton was a rather unpleasant chap. Fortunately, his ideas, like AGW, are supported by multiple lines of evidence.

          • Chris Bond

            Instead of trying to untangle the torrent of nonsense you have just unleashed, I will merely pose a simple question to you.
            In the Galileo affair, do you believe you would have been on the side of galileo or the Catholic church? Now I don’t know about you, but it seems your argument and temperament seem to align squarely with the Catholic church.
            And who said anything about an organised conspiracy? it very easy to see how this religious like mania could occur and be reinforced repeatedly. One study comes out making a tentative hypothesis that CFC are causing the Ozone layer to disappear (odd this isn’t mentioned anymore, any reason?). Subsequently policy starts being made to get rid of CFC in case it is right (which it wasn’t but hey – The balls rolling now). Then other researchers start seeing how much funding the CFC guys are getting, or the CFC researchers decide they need more money, so they begin writing more self serving material. Other areas of “climatology” see this and say – wait a minute, this is becoming a bit of a cash cow, lets get in on this. Then some politicians and bureaucrats see how this is beginning to scare the public and gain traction, which is great – another excuse to tax people, so they fund more research. This is really snowballing now. Then the left wing lunatics seeking to push socialism stop and think, hum, what if this is a way to undermine captialism (or what they imagine is capitalism) and it hits another level of stupidity. This all resonates with liberal progressives, because it fits the part of the brain which seems to be stimulated by millennialism. (because after all, progressive liberals are really just a Christian sect). At this point, to go against the “consensus” is nothing short of career suicide, so the best you can do is a) denounce it all as a massive fraud and lose your job (better then Galileo’s house arrest, but same effect) b) go along with the psychosis knowing it is fraud (you’ve got kids to feed) or c) let yourself be absorbed into the rapture because it feels warm, it feels good, your are doing good work. You are spiritual.

          • Tim

            Yesterday, Einstein; today, Galileo. Seriously, though, I’ll address the points above.

            The ‘mainstream science is exactly like the Catholic Church because it oppresses my minority opinion’ argument has a serious flaw: it can be used to defend absolutely anything. Anti-vaccination, HIV denial, Homeopathy, you name it: everything can be grandiosely recast as a David vs. Goliath narrative, in which a plucky band of renegades bravely fight back against a corrupt orthodoxy.

            Your choice of the CFC/Ozone example’s particularly unfortunate: the chemistry behind it’s not disputed by any accredited scientist on the planet, as far as I’m aware.

            Here’s a brief description from the Bureau of Meterology: http://www.bom.gov.au/lam/Students_Teachers/ozanim/ozoanim.shtml

            There’s also a slightly more detailed version from UC Davis: http://chemwiki.ucdavis.edu/Physical_Chemistry/Kinetics/Case_Studies%3A_Kinetics/Depletion_of_the_Ozone_Layer

            The equation’s quite simple:
            Cl + O3 → ClO + O2
            ClO + O → Cl + O2
            O3 + O → 2O2 : Overall reaction

            (In other words, the chlorine in CFCs is strong enough to rip a stable O3 (ozone) molecule apart to bond with one of the Oxygen atoms, then free itself as two of these Oxygens bond with each other, and continue on to destroy many more.)

            After you’ve successfully refuted this basic, high school-level equation, the scientific world is your oyster. I’m absolutely intrigued to see what on earth you’re basing this ‘CFCs don’t actually destroy ozone molecules’ conspiracy theory on. If you can support this extraordinary claim, a Nobel surely awaits!

            Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to reimmerse myself in the Rapturous warmth of my own liberal spirituality.

          • disqus_rtvBfrLi1m

            Tim, you can’t win with guys like Chris Bond. They are the epitome of the very human desire for total wish fulfillment, a desire perhaps inflamed by living the safe and cushy life that is The West in 2014. Science, even basic common sense, doesn’t matter because the combination of info-techno overload and a staggeringly well-funded disinformation campaign gives them too many ways to tangle themselves in their own words and declare that that which they don’t want to be true – our collective responsibility for our own precarious situation – is not true. There’s also an element of the corporate sucker here, an aspect of being taken in by the “brand” and happily letting that separate them from the pack. They’re like people paying $400 for pre-ripped Diesel jeans. No matter how many times you show them a $60 pair that fits better and is worn through real use, they will insist that their expensive jeans are better because the people whom they WANT to listen to – the hand of the market, the plutocrats, etc – have told them such. There’s nothing to be done with them, except to maybe encourage them to look deeper into what is sparking their anger. We just have to focus on their kids. The ship has sailed.

          • Tim

            Wow, a rational response. Am I on the right site?

            You’re probably right. I originally thought ‘astroturfer’, but they’re usually pretty easy to spot — as they’re paid, they can calmly plonk down debunked point after debunked point until you lose your mind.

            I don’t think Chris Bond is like that. The slow buildup of rage, combined with his zealous summoning of a zombie scientist to rough me up, suggest there’s a real person behind all the guff.

          • Chris Bond

            Firstly, Ozone is not stable. It is inherently unstable, and your equation is quite correct in lab conditions. But, it may escape your notice that the stratosphere and atmosphere is slightly more complicated, with slightly more variables. But that is the beauty of it. Start with a little truth and build on that.

            Secondly, you keep falling back on the opinions of “accredited scientists” and not on any observed and proven facts, which says it all really. It is always – a model built by scientists says A, or Scientists from Havard think A, or there is a consensus on A.

            Switch trust in these scientist for faith, and scientist for religious scholar, and you would have no discernible difference. The abuse of science’s name sickens me.

            We might as well be discussing Gods effect on the production of apples.

          • Tim

            That is true–in my haste I phrased that backwards re reactivity. But do you really believe this equation ceases to apply outside lab conditions? If this were actually true, the Great Global Ozone Fraud has been kept suspiciously quiet.

            Also, the motivations of a vast cabal of scientists fabricating research in order to get everyone to change the propellants in their deodorants and toilet fresheners seem slightly unclear to me. Whatever it was, I’m sure they’re laughing maniacally now down at the World Domination HQ they built after cashing in their suddenly lucrative shares in Acme Alternative Propellent Co.

  • Jzero

    “Clearly, the quality of a decision cannot be solely judged based on its outcome, but such a point seems to be voiced only by people who fail (those who succeed attribute their success to the quality of their decision).” ~ Nassim Taleb

    What could be the alternative history to this tale of war? Could any one of the “tens of millions killed in the short term” been another Einstein, or Buddha? Can we entertain the possibility that if we were not so busy trying to kill everyone else, we could have been discovering new ideas at a much faster pace?

    • Tedd

      I can relate to your point. I often think about the geniuses or potential leaders who did not survive wars, and what they might have accomplished.

      But we’re dealing with large numbers and general trends here. As tragic as war is at the level of the individual, it does not seem at all unreasonable to me to speak of its benefits as well as its costs, historically speaking. When I look back at history there does not seem to be a place where I would be willing to draw a line and say that none of the wars after that point helped in any way.

  • Jack

    It’s clear that Morris is too old for war service. Only old men talk up the value of war over peace.