Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 23 January 2019

War is a friend only to the undertaker? Historian Ian Morris thinks war has been good for humanity

Morris's contentious thesis is that, far from being completely negative, war has on balance been a boon to humanity, advancing progress and prosperity.
A Titan 1 Booster Missile body is blown apart by a high-powered laser during a test in New Mexico on September 6, 1985, conducted under President Reagan's Star Wars program. AP Photo
A Titan 1 Booster Missile body is blown apart by a high-powered laser during a test in New Mexico on September 6, 1985, conducted under President Reagan's Star Wars program. AP Photo

In this year of remembrance and looking back at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, which killed some 15 million people and unleashed a cycle of violence and instability that led to the deaths of millions more in a second global conflict, it is not a bad idea to ponder the question Ian Morris – borrowing of course, from the famed song by Edwin Starr – puts forth in the title of his new book. What on Earth could war possibly be good for?

According to Morris, apparently everything. In an argument of grand sweep and surely controversial conclusions, Morris, a professor of history and classics at Stanford and author of Why the West Rules – For Now, takes us on a grand tour of human history, from ancient times to the present day, from ancient Rome and the Incas to the Islamic conquests, the British Empire and the age of Pax Americana, looking at how war shaped civilisations and made progress unfold.

His argument, in short: war is good. War, Starr sang, is “friend only to the undertaker”. Not so, says Morris: war, the author counters, “has not been friend to the undertaker. War is mass murder, and yet, in the greatest paradox in history, war has nevertheless been the undertaker’s worst enemy. Contrary to what the song says, war has been good for something: over the long run, it has made humanity safer and richer. War is hell, but – again, over the long run – the alternatives would have been worse.”

Morris is aware of how perverse his argument may sound; but he is game to defend it – he insistently states and restates his thesis as if to bludgeon his readers into submission – across his 400 pages of text. Combining archaeology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, military history and strategic theory, Morris spins out an elaborate case for the centrality of war in advancing progress and prosperity across the centuries.

Warfare, Morris contends, has led to the creation of larger, more complex societies that ensure the safety of their citizens by imposing peace and enforcing laws. In turn, large societies, over the long run, have created the conditions for economic growth and better living standards.

The historical process, he concedes, is hardly pretty: “The winners of wars regularly go on rampages of rape and plunder, selling thousands of survivors into slavery and selling their land. The losers may be left impoverished for generations. It is a terrible, ugly business. And yet, with the passage of time – maybe decades, maybe centuries – the creation of a bigger society starts making everyone, the descendants of victors and vanquished alike, better off. The long-term pattern is again unmistakable. By creating larger societies, stronger governments and greater security, war has enriched the world.”

Morris refines his argument by introducing the notion of “productive war”. In these sections, his account reads like a mishmash version of Jared Diamond’s bestselling book Guns, Germs, and Steel. In this view, geography, not culture or ideology, is destiny. In the “lucky latitudes”, as Morris dubs them, development proceeded along similar lines. Farming and the infrastructures created by agriculture led to settled, concentrated, more dense societies, which create effective means to fight an enemy. If societies find themselves on the losing end, they are “absorbed into the enemy’s more effective organisation”.

The rise of “Leviathan” – the state – organises these societies, quells internal arguments, lowering the rate of violence, taxes the citizenry and allows economic energies to flow. This was not a phenomenon, as some historians have argued, unique to the West. Morris finds similarities across cultures and empires, whether ancient Roman, Chinese Han, Mamluk, the Ottoman Empire, the Maurya Empire of ancient India or Hawaii in the 16th century.

Morris also stresses the various innovations in military technologies, from fortification, bronze arms and armour, military discipline, chariots and troop formations. The Chinese invented guns and gunpowder; but it was the Europeans who perfected their use in battle. But not because of western superiority. Again, geography dictated such innovations, Morris argues. Southern China gave rise to the gun; it was the region where forts predominated and prime ground for gunnery. Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries contained similar features – forts, broken landscapes and armies where infantries featured prominently. “In this environment,” Morris observes, “tinkering with guns to squeeze out small improvements made a great deal of sense, and by 1600 so many improvements had accumulated that these European armies were becoming the best on earth.”

The rush of dates and data Morris deploys can make your head spin. He is a man in a hurry; where facts don’t support his case, he feints and dodges, or resorts to conjecture and guess work. His mantra is repeated frequently. Leviathans create conditions for prosperity and war ultimately leads to the betterment of all. War! What Is It Good For is one of those “well yes, but …” books. In his attempt to impose patterns and design on the last 15,000 years of history, Morris suggests that if you plug in input X and variable Y, you will get result Z. He reduces history to a function of this equation.

There is also a spectre haunting the pages of this book – the spectre of imperialism. Morris has written, without calling it exactly this, an account of the rise and fall of eastern and western empires since humankind first organised itself into complex communities. Rome is an interesting test case for Morris. The Roman Empire, after all, had gladiators that put on gruesome spectacles of death. “The empire that Rome’s wars created,” Morris writes, “was no utopia, but the tone of mass surviving writings … does suggest that it made its subjects safer than they had been without it. And it also, apparently, made them richer. With pirates and bandits suppressed, trade boomed. To move its armies and fleets around, the government built state-of-the-art roads and harbours, which merchants used too. In return, Rome taxed the traders and spent most of the money it raised on armed forces.”

And on and on through the ages. As Morris moves closer to the present day, he traces the rise of the British Empire, which played the role of “globocop” (another one of Morris’s catchphrases). Echoing the arguments of Niall Ferguson, Morris sketches how British overseas expansion created a free-trade economic zone, investing capital abroad – in South America, India and elsewhere – driving economic expansion. Backing all this up was the threat of violence. Rival powers – the United States, Germany – chafed against the British. But the system worked – until it didn’t and the whole thing collapsed with the coming of the First World War.

It is now the United States that plays the role of “globocop”. Morris rehearses various scenarios in which, like the British Empire, America slowly declines as other rivals rise. He goes into speculative mode, looking into the future. In another of his startling observations, Morris worries that the next 40 years, if they unfold like the period between the 1870s and 1910s, “will be the most dangerous in history”. The relative decline of the US, the rise of China, the dangerous instability of southern Asia, the Middle East, Iran, failed states, climate change, plus shifts in the global economy have set the stage for potentially catastrophic ­developments.

Morris spins out wild surmises. The future will not mean the end of war; but humans will not necessarily be fighting it either. In a scenario that reads like it was scripted by Google, Morris writes of orbital flotillas in space, “­coordinating swarms of hypersonic robot planes and guiding ground battles”. It gets worse. Robot wars are certainly a possibility; more likely, he writes, “we should expect massive cyber, space, robotic, chemical and nuclear onslaughts, hurled against the enemy’s digital and antimissile shields like futuristic broadswords smashing at a suit of armour, and when the armour cracks, as it eventually will, storms of fire, radiation, and disease will pour through onto the defenceless bodies on the other side”.

H G Wells could not have concocted a more frightening vision. Still, Morris strikes some hopeful notes. Only by understanding war and its role in human history may we hope to avoid it. “If we really want a world where war is good for absolutely nothing, we must recognise that war still has a part to play.”

Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.


Updated: April 10, 2014 04:00 AM