Magazine article Geographical

War: What Is It Good for? the Role of Conflict in Civilisation, from Primates to Robots

Magazine article Geographical

War: What Is It Good for? the Role of Conflict in Civilisation, from Primates to Robots

Article excerpt

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

by Ian Morris

Profile Books, hb, 25 [pounds sterling]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.