The Barbarian’s Book Review: “War! What Is It Good For?”, by Ian Morris
Ian Morris is an Englishman, an archaeologist, and currently a professor of history at Stanford. I recently read his latest book, War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots, published this year. If nothing else, it was worth it because his theory of the benefits of war is certainly something so completely different that Monty Python definitely missed out on a good skit.
Morris proposes that there are two types of war, productive and non-productive. Productive war results in the creation or enlargement of a nation-state, empire, government, or all three. He calls it productive because, over the long term, murder rates drop way down and prosperity for most people in the empire goes way up when compared to their situations in either stateless or hunter-gatherer societies.
The case for the latter is derived from archaeology, which has dug up so many prehistoric human skeletons whose original owners met their demise at the hands of other humans. Morris provides a bunch of examples, from the incredibly preserved Ice Man discovered in the Alps a few years ago(who was definitely killed by arrows) to Sacred Ridge in Colorado, where in about 800 CE at least 35 villagers and their animals were all massacred, the former by being scalped first. So the myth, popular in some political circles, that Europeans taught Native Americans scalping is so much balderdash.
Clearly, Morris argues, prehistoric peoples were not the peaceful islanders portrayed by Margaret Mead in Coming of Age in Samoa, not even the Samoans, who built hill-forts and have sagas about raids of one clan or tribe or the other on their not-so-distant relatives. A world or area without stable government is a very violent place(he doesn’t point to Somalia for some strange reason, though he does compare Tito’s Yugoslavia to the same region in the 1990’s). Even the Bushmen of southern Africa often waged raids and ambushes against their fellows. Recent studies of chimpanzees raping and murdering each other suggests that the violent war gene goes way back in our ancestry.
Morris estimates that people who lived in areas without the benefit of a government suffered a murder rate of somewhere around one in ten, compared to modern, civilized, death rates of maybe one in a hundred at most, even when the world wars of the twentieth century are thrown in. Since all of the states and empires throughout history have formed after periods of war, from the ancient Egyptian, Persian, Roman, and Chinese ones to the later British and American ones, the types of war that allowed these empires to form, grow, and establish states with relatively lower murder rates and relatively higher prosperity for their citizens and subjects are actually relatively good things.
Non-productive wars, on the other hand, are like the “barbarian” invasions that destroyed the Western Roman Empire, or the Viking raids, or Genghis Khan’s swathe of destruction through a third of Eurasia in the 1200’s, all of which destroyed formerly stable societies.
I think Morris certainly has a point about the advantages of living in places where the government has a legal monopoly on violence and where one can travel, trade, and simply live without much fear of being bushwhacked, not to mention little civilized luxuries as reliable food, clothing, shelter, indoor plumbing and electricity, over those of Stone Age or modern Somalian living conditions. But even granting his conclusions about declining murder and rising prosperity rates in various nations and empires, he’s setting a rather low bar by concluding that war is sometimes a socially and maybe even morally a good thing.
In the later chapters he discusses the world wide benefits, as he sees them, of first the British and then the American Empires’ role as “globo-cops” who routinely intervened, militarily or economically, around the world to maintain the stability on which their own prosperity depended. He calls the American Empire “the last best hope of Earth,” and then speculates that future wars will be limited and robotized, eventually becoming obsolete when humanity has evolved into a new cybernetic species where everybody is linked in with everybody else and we’re all living in some sort of high-tech free market society.
As a historian, I’ve always felt that both individuals and governments can only be fairly judged by the standards of their own times, and not by our current values. For example, King Cyrus of Persia was an absolute monarch who didn’t hesitate to raze Babylon and kill a good number of its inhabitants, but was also the first ruler to grant freedom of religion and did succeed in establishing a stable, relatively prosperous, and comparatively just empire which lasted for centuries. Far more recently, it cannot be argued that the inhabitants of Western Europe, the United States, and Canada were better off before World War II than in the 30 years after the war, and certainly better off than the former under Nazi occupation. By that rather narrow definition, the American Empire certainly had its beneficent moments.
Somehow, I doubt that many people in Central America feel the same way, or those of Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos.
What Morris barely touches on are economic factors. He just assumes that “open-market” societies are better, and that capitalism is simply the best system which we humans have ever contrived or are capable of contriving. He mentions the Crash of 1929 and resulting Great Depression, but claims that no one really knows what went wrong. He is equally vague about the bubble-burst of 2008. He completely lost me right there.
We know exactly what went wrong in October, 1929 and again in 2008. A stock bubble based on faith and wagers that the value of stock would just keep going up forever collapsed when enough people realized that the stock was fantastically overvalued and tried to sell it off so they might be able to save at least a portion of their investments. Word quickly got out that the stocks weren’t even worth the paper or silicon chips they were written on, and Poof! We also know why the crashes were allowed to happen by Morris’ celebrated governments–the capitalists who were making boatloads of money by moving money and stock around had way too much control over those same governments, so much so in 2008 that governments, American and European alike, just created more money out of ones and zeroes on computers and looted assets from their own citizens in order to save the super-rich from their own folly.
It was just another example of Ben Franklin’s axiom that absolute power corrupts, absolutely. Whenever too much power, political, economic, or even religious, is concentrated in too few hands Bad Things happen. If history teaches us anything, it is surely that. Shakespeare saw it clearly; that’s one reason we still watch his plays.
Ian Morris does not even bring that little point up, but why should he? He’s got a good gig at Stanford, and the capitalist system clearly continues to benefit him, so he’s not going to say anything negative about the goose so long as it keeps laying those golden eggs for him.
While I certainly learned some things which recent archaeology has discovered, and that was enough to make my reading of the book worthwhile to me, I do not believe that we humans cannot come up with a system better than capitalism any more than I believe that the destruction of capitalism can be entirely peaceful. And I certainly don’t believe that we have to become some new, cybernetic species to eliminate wars amongst ourselves. David Swanson, please accept a hat-tip from me on that one.
Call me a starry-eyed optimist who has taken Star Trek too much to heart if you like, but I believe that my species as it is can do better than capitalism and imperial wars. Morris doesn’t, and I think he doesn’t because he never bothered to see capitalism for what it actually is–a system whose only goal is more profit sooner. I find that sad, but hardly surprising.
He isn’t the only academic who fails to do that, after all.
Picture from Andy Wright licensed under Creative Commons