War! What is it Good for? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots, by Ian Morris

Jeremy Black on the provocative thesis that war has permitted the creation of peaceful societies

May 22, 2014

Drawing on recent research on violence among primates, historian Ian Morris argues that there is an inherent bellicosity in humans that requires restraint. In an account that explicitly and repeatedly chooses Thomas Hobbes over Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he follows an interdisciplinary path to advance a provocative thesis: that war is the human invention that has permitted the construction of peaceful societies. Thanks to war, states have been created that have monopolised violence and, as a consequence, have reduced the social acceptability of attacking fellow citizens. As Morris puts it: “Leviathan raises the costs of force, making peace pay off better than violence, and the more peaceful that conditions become, the easier it is for commerce to flourish, increasing the payoffs to be won by conquering.”

Success of this kind is seen as a key criterion for judging the effectiveness of societies, both through time and at a given moment, not least because Morris regards this process of the monopolisation of violence as partly responsible for economic expansion. He places particular weight on the political and economic value of empires and imperial systems, and his assessment shapes his chronology. There is much praise for Rome and for Han China.

Morris follows that argument with a chapter entitled “The barbarians strike back: The counterproductive way of war, A.D. 1-1416”, which ranges across not only Eurasia but also Africa, the Pacific and the Americas. In this period, he suggests, the enormous lead the Eurasians had built up over the previous 10,000 years was steadily whittled away. Indeed, he argues that, given another 300 years, the rest of the world might have caught up with Eurasia, and uses this point to offer some counterfactual suggestions.

As part of a broader treatment of the world, he focuses on Britain and then the US as capable of instituting systems that sought to restrain anarchic violence. He writes of “the five hundred years’ war” from 1415 to 1914 in which Europeans conquered most of the world: “in many places colonial conquest had devastating consequences. But once again, when we step back from the details to look at the larger picture, a broad pattern emerges. On the whole, the conquerors did suppress local wars, banditry, and private use of deadly force, and began making their subjects’ lives safer and richer.”

His thesis of “productive war” is not novel, but the chronological and geographical range, statistical support and interdisciplinarity with which he makes his case is impressive, as well as arresting, at times highly provocative, and always clear. However, there is also a degree of instrumentality in explaining actions, a habit of using concurrence to demonstrate cause, a preference for functionality over ideology when considering motivation, a tendency to overplay the role in war of technology, for example gunpowder, and a practice of arguing by assertion.

Morris’ causal interweaving of war with so many elements of history underlines the extent to which a failure to give due weight to military history as broadly conceived weakens much of the teaching of the subject. Moreover, the appearance of such a stimulating book invites the question of why these broad-span works are rarely produced by British historians, unless, like Morris, they are based in the US. A standard excuse in Britain is the pressure to publish for the research assessment exercise and its successor, the research excellence framework, but this scarcely works here as Morris himself has already produced other major studies this decade. It may well be that there is something in the academic culture among historians in the UK, or the nature of institutional practice, disciplinary power systems and patronage networks, that discourages an engagement such as that shown by Morris.

The consequences are unfortunate, as the skills of the historian are necessary, as part of Morris’ “big picture” approach, for understanding the evidence and ambiguities of the past. In the meantime, this stimulating work, although overly monocausal and systematic, provides plenty of evidence of a powerful intellect willing and able to tackle major themes and to pose challenging questions.

War! What is it Good for? The Role of Conflict in Civilization, from Primates to Robots

By Ian Morris
Profile, 448pp, £25.00 and £20.00
ISBN 9781846684173 and 9781847654540 (e-book)
Published 10 April 2014

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Reader's comments (1)

War can create peaceful societies, but peaceful societies also create war so what is the causal direction of this historical thesis? An interesting further point raised by Morris which is probably correct is that although colonialism was evil, it created good in some respects. For example, one source states that when Uganda was colonized by Britain with all the problems this entailed, at the height of the colonial population, consisting of around 80,000 colonialists all told ( about the size of a modest soccer stadium) a trans Ugandan railway system was constructed in about four years. Despite it's legacy of evil, many durable infrastructures and institutions were left intact.

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