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The Brighter Side of War?

Ian Morris searches for the upside in his latest book

May. 15, 2014
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War is a strange, sad affair, but as Ian Morris argues in War! What is it Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), it may turn out to be a very helpful one and actually bring about greater times of peace and prosperity. Madness, you say? Morris claims otherwise. He posits that many times war serves a productive, egalitarian purpose (albeit at the horrifying expense of innumerable destroyed lives) by effectively (very relatively that is) putting the kibosh on smaller, protracted skirmishes that enable infinite bloodshed. Horrible as it sounds, it does make sense to a degree.

And that is the theory behind “productive war.” According to Morris, by absorbing tinier, feuding groups into larger, more harmonious ones, a standard homogeny appears, governed by a singular “Leviathan.” And once a Leviathan is established, the land consequently becomes peaceful since it has absorbed all contradicting forces.

Morris traces the arc of human embattlement beginning with small bands of ancient man skirmishing to the eventual evolution into organized militias. And those militaries became highly organized, imposing discipline, formations and battle plans—leaving the crude premise of rampant men beating each other with sticks and stones far behind. Successive developments in weapons led to the bow and arrow which could keep everyone at a bit of a distance—for awhile; then the discovery of bronze led to deadly sword making and protective armor, and the stumbling upon iron allowed for mass manufacture of said implements.

Horses came into the fray, first as bearers of chariots, then, as the animals were bred into larger manifestations, soldiers hopped on them, and cavalries were born. These fast-moving armies could wreak havoc upon foot soldiers and rival forces had to respond in kind. And if horses weren’t enough, India used armored elephants, which could either be a pro or a con depending on which way they decided to head once the fight was on.

The advent of gunpowder changed the game again and imagine how that empowered the forces that held those new-found crude guns; it was an Asian invention but capitalized on quickly by the Europeans. The 20th century saw the birth of air warfare and mechanized tanks.

“What next?” one may have asked but surely didn’t want to know. And that true game changer was the atomic bomb, soon to be superseded by the far more immensely destructive hydrogen bomb. And that’s when something very interesting occurred. These weapons of ultimate mass destruction have ensured, at least for the time being, that all-out war has become far too scary to engage in. And, so far, there hasn’t been a global conflict like World War II, when that tremendous force was used for the first and, so far, last time. And, overall, if it’s of any consolation, violent death has decreased approximately tenfold since prehistoric times (since the Stone Age specifically) and we now have complex systems of law and order (too complex for some).

Morris, whose previous book is titled Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, has conjured a fascinating overview of the history of warfare, and it is amazing that we’ve been through all of that crazy carnage and will experience more of the same; yet, much of that tumultuous fighting has made and will make the world a safer place.


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