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War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the…

War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from… (edition 2015)

by Ian Morris (Author)

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1806103,271 (3.93)2
"A powerful and provocative exploration of how war has changed our society--for the better "War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing," says the famous song--but archaeology, history, and biology show that war in fact has been good for something. Surprising as it sounds, war has made humanity safer and richer. In War! What Is It Good For? the renowned historian and archaeologist Ian Morris tells the gruesome, gripping story of fifteen thousand years of war, going behind the battles and brutality to reveal what war has really done to and for the world. Stone Age people lived in small, feuding societies and stood a one-in-ten or even one-in-five chance of dying violently. In the twentieth century, by contrast--despite two world wars, Hiroshima, and the Holocaust--fewer than one person in a hundred died violently. The explanation: war, and war alone, has created bigger, more complex societies, ruled by governments that have stamped out internal violence. Strangely enough, killing has made the world safer, and the safety it has produced has allowed people to make the world richer too. War has been history's greatest paradox, but this searching study of fifteen centuries of violence suggests that the next half century is going to be the most dangerous of all time. If we can survive it, the age-old dream of ending war may yet come to pass. But, Morris argues, only if we understand what war has been good for can we know where it will take us next"--… (more)
Title:War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots
Authors:Ian Morris (Author)
Info:Picador (2015), Edition: Reprint, 512 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:war, war and civilization, military history

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War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots by Ian Morris



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Ian Morris has tackled a taboo subject here. "Everybody" seems to agree that war is; undesirable, causes immense suffering, disruption of societies, destruction of lives, families and property....in fact, there are no winners and everyone loses in a war. But Morris steps back from the picture of war as experienced from those involved and takes the big-history view. His main thesis is that stone age man (read persons) ....maybe 10,000 years ago had a 10-20% chance of dying a violent death. During the period of the ancient empires .....around 2000BC to 600AD the chance of dying a violent death had dropped to around 2-5% and in modern times, despite the carnage of WWi and WW2, the chances of dying a violent death have dropped to around 1-2%. He then pursues the question; Why? what has happened to drop the violent death toll?
He concluded that there have been (what he terms) "productive wars" where the "winner" has been able to unite a large number of previously warring tribes or states. These smaller warring states were rather dangerous for individuals.....with high rates of violent deaths. But the peace brought by a larger, united empire (and the need to tax the empire and gain benefits from it) meant that international trade could expand, agriculture could be developed, cultural accomplishments were expanded, travel was safer, investment could be made in infrastructure, ...roads water supplies, irrigation etc. The Pax Romana is the archetypal example of this. On the other hand, there have been unproductive wars where the reverse happened: central authority broke down, war-lords emerged, travel was unsafe, trade plummeted, wars increased in frequency, investment in infrastructure declined.
He refers frequently...maybe too frequently to the Hobbsian idea of Leviathan.....a super powerful monarch or leader...who could intimidate all the would-be threats to their power. Ideally they would be elected by consensus. It is this state of Leviathan that leads to the benefits described by Morris.
But the path to these states has not been smooth nor continuous. The ancient empires; Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Mauryan, Han. All seemed to fall prey to nomadic tribes without fixed headquarters.....which subsequently brought about the collapse of these empires.
There are some real issues with Morris's methodology. He acknowledges that his numbers for just about all the "violent-death-rates" are pretty much speculative. He also (conceptually) averages out death rates over a long period. So death rates from a medieval siege, for example, might have been very high....especially when the Mongols killed every living thing in the city....but Morris tends to estimate them over the lifetime of the empire that emerged from such conflict. Likewise, Australian deaths, in WWI were about 62,000, and wounded gassed etc., were about 156,000 from a population of 5 million. (or a simple death rate of 1.2% but if you include injuries it rises to over 4%...and Australia had no civilian casualties). Mind you, if you were around 18-44 years old in Australia in 1915 then your chances of a violent death would have been much higher. Some 39% of the male population between the ages of 18 and 44 enlisted for service in WWI and 65% of those who "embarked" were killed or injured. This would indicate a killed or injured rate of around 25% for this group. The injury figure is interesting because, presumably, a number of the injured later died from their war wounds (it has been estimatesd as around 60,000)...and certainly the "cost" to the nation in terms of the personal trauma, and shell-shock etc, was probably as significant as the direct deaths on the battlefields. Morris also makes the point that the majority of deaths in war were often caused by disease (dysentry, cholera, plague, etc.) and I wonder how these are accounted for. Are they regarded as "violent deaths? Basically, his numbers look very "approximate" to me. They are both difficult to define and difficult to measure. However, one curious thing is, that even with the deaths of, say, 75-85 million people in WWII, ..this only represented about 3% of the world population at that time. Though Belarus lost about 25% and USSR lost about 12%. The UK only lost about 0.8% and USA only 0.3%....Australia 0.4%. And, of course, Morris takes the long term average say of somebody born in 1900 and having a life expectancy (at that time) of say 60 years....and calculates their chances of a violent death over that period. So the world population approximately doubled over that time from 1.6 Billion to 3 Billion (despite two world wars) ...and Morris, of course is looking at the chance of a violent death with this vastly increased population. Anyway, despite dodgy data he is talking about order of magnitude differences so probably the basic thesis is reasonable.
He manages to encapsulate a lot of really interesting facts, including such things as the development of the first guns and their rapid spread throughout the world.The fact that the world was very close to nuclear annihilation in 1983 when a Soviet Deputy Chief for combat algorithms named Stanislav Petrov took the decision that their early warning system (showing a Missile launch by the US and recommending that they launch a counter attack) was a false alarm. They guy basically saved us all. But it highlights the extreme danger that we all live under from the nuclear weapons available and the fallible humans with their fingers in the trigger. One other interesting section was about the decline of the UK as a "Global cop" and its replacement by the USA.
He also suggests that all areas of the world went through roughly similar stages of development with warfare:
1. Cultivation
2. Domestication
3. Fortification
4. Cities-states-bronze
5. Discipline (Phalanxs etc)
6. Chariots
7. Empires and massive numbers (Though the americas hadn't reached stages 5-7).
He is a bit repetitive ...his diagram of death rates over time is repeated at least three times. And I found myself scratching my head and wondering whether he was putting forward a recommendation for wars. Though, I guess, what he would say he is doing is taking a completely objective view of wars and concluding that there have been "productive" wars that have led to long term peace and prosperity...and there have been unproductive wars that have led to the opposite effects. He also ranges into a bit of speculative forecasting about what might happen in the future in terms of conflicts and the role of the USA. I guess, this is to be expected but it's no longer history.....it's prophecy!
Quite a thought provoking book with a lot of interesting information ...and close to 100 pages, of notes, further reading and bibliography. Happy to give it 4.5 stars. ( )
  booktsunami | Nov 19, 2019 |
This was a very intriguing book -an intriguing argument- that is well put together and argued. It is a disturbing thought that wars, of a certain kind anyway, might be ultimately useful and ultimately responsible for modern societies with all their goods. It isn't a theory that can, in my mind, ever be really tested (we can't rerun human history), but it does serve as a very enlightening alternative view. Perhaps war is not *solely* terrible and perhaps war does not serve 'no purpose'.

Of course, one can easily see how this same argument could be used to justify almost anything... as long as a government does't jail and/or execute too many protesters, apostates, minorities, etc. then it is arguably a 'good' government as long as it delivers lower violence and increased wealth and health to everyone else. Basically, a version of the argument/though experiment leveled against Utilitarianism (or, at least, naive Utilitarianism.)

But still very interesting. Five stars. ( )
1 vote dcunning11235 | Oct 17, 2016 |
Got this book on a whim at the airport.

Morris' yardstick for "good" in "what is it good for" is "declining rates of violent death".

If the flaws in that line of reasoning are obvious to you, you will cringe many times over when reading this book. What's more, it could have done entirely without the opinionating, taking a more objective stance — the book would have come out much more readable and enjoyable.

That aside, it can be a good read if you are interested in an overview of human development and world history, with side journeys into subjects such as the development of (academic wars within) cultural anthropology, game theory, the how & why of the stability of various empires, chimp vs bonobo behaviour, the effects of technological breakthroughs such as ironworking and cotton-spinning, military history, economic history, and hunter/gatherer societies.

It's a comprehensive piece of work on interrelations between the aforementioned subjects, and written with style too, but if you are unconvinced by Morris' opinion you'll be needing a strong stomach. On the other hand, his opinionating certainly instigates discussion — which may or may not end violently, depending on the friends you could be discussing this topic with ;-) ( )
  wicher | May 23, 2015 |
I ended my review of Ian Morris' last and highly readable book with a wish in 2012 "One can only hope that his next book will not follow Niall Ferguson down the conservative rabbit hole." Unfortunately, Morris burrowed even deeper, to a depth actually that should be uncomfortable to any ethical human. If an author sees the necessity to defend himself twice in a book that his argumentation is very close to that of Adolf Hitler, he would have better reconsidered whether he had fully thought through both the message and the consequence of his book. Especially as the second defense ends with the key difference that Hitler did not succeed with his ideas. Morris' pleads a "might makes right" that is seldom heard in modern society. History is written by the victors and the native Americans and Armenians may bitterly complain about their respective genocides but this will not change the facts on the ground.

As most conservatives, Morris is completely incapable to acknowledge the suffering of others (while quick to draw the victim card himself about the nasty things he had to endure in pre-Thatcher Britain). Morris thinks war serves the purpose of social-Darwinist purging the weak to make space for the wonders of the Übermensch. The war machine pushes for the establishment of larger and better government which leads to higher development. I think Morris' claim is deeply flawed: Good government can exist and prosper without wars. I'd even argue that the relative shelter from war helped Britain and the United States in their take-off. The case of war as an inventor neglects the giant opportunity cost. Instead of spending 3 trillion for Bush's futile war in Iraq, the money could have provided many a hungry child in the US with food and health care.

A truly vile book but unfortunately not alone as a product of bad thinking by the courtier class in Harvard and Stanford. Best to ask Condi Rice how the "birth pangs" in Lebanon are doing.The civil war in Syria must be music in Professor Morris' ears.

(As always with Campus, the quick and dirty German translation which came on the market even earlier than the original US edition is atrocious, but in this case fits the quality of the book.) ( )
2 vote jcbrunner | Jan 31, 2014 |
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