Is War Good for Anything?

War! What is it Good For? is a 2014 book by historian Ian Morris. Taking a long view of history, Morris argues the following paradoxical hypothesis:

By fighting wars people have created bigger and more organized societies that have reduced the risk that their members will die violently. (Is War Good For Us?)

Morris adopts the view that individual hunter-gatherers living in small, Stone Age societies, had a propensity for solving their problems violently. Like Steven Pinker, he accepts the premise that about 20-30% of hunter-gatherers died violently at the hands of other hunter-gatherers.

Starting about 10,000 years ago, a new phenomenon emerges: the victors of war begin to incorporate the losers of war into increasingly larger societies. Our species starts down a road of amalgamation. In turn, expanding societies require complex government structures and administration.

The bigger a state becomes, the more its leaders are naturally incentivized to reduce in-society violence — governments want people to work and pay taxes, not clobber one another. As a result, the pacification of the masses becomes a central objective for whoever is residing at the centre of power.

The unintended consequence of violence, therefore, has been to drive the rate of violence down: “War made the state and the state made peace.” Big states not only constrain their own citizens from acting violently, but they can also act to constrain the violent behaviour of other states. These complex states “raise the cost of violence” so high that physical aggression becomes less and less a legitimate option when you get mad at your neighbour.

Morris sees the growing emergence of the state over the past 10,000 years as the primary reason why the odds of dying violently in the 20th century were only 1-2% (even when accounting for all the wars that occurred in the century).

As states fostered conditions conducive to peace, they inadvertently created environments where science, innovation, and technology could take root, ultimately creating the wealth, prosperity, and comfort many of us enjoy today. However, “war has been so good at these things that it is now putting itself out of business,” says Morris. Given the ever-increasing effectiveness of our weaponry, an all-out war in the 21st century could obliterate humanity altogether.

What is war good for? Perhaps it is ‘good’ because it has created the opportunity for us to live in such sophisticated societies that we can sit here in relative safety and contemplate our own cultural evolution into the future. Has war given us the security to dream of a world where war is a thing of the past?

What do you think of Ian Morris’ hypothesis?

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