War! What is it (maybe) Good For?

It is a maxim that war is bad and peace is good; everyone know this.  In his book “War! What Is It Good For’: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots” dares to ask the question, is War good for something?  The surprising answer is yes with two HUGE qualifications.

What can War Possibly be Good For?

The answer is that by allowing for the destruction of moribund civilizations, new civilizations, societal structures and technologies emerged.  Because of this, when the smoke clears, the resultant societies are better organized, beneficiaries of technological innovations and wealthier than their antecedents.  In other words, Morris’ thesis is that ‘… over the long run, it (war) has made humanity safer and richer.  War is hell, but – again, over the long run – the alternatives would have been worse.’ (page 7) [1]

Fort Henry Guard reenact a training exercise.  Author's collection.

Fort Henry Guard reenact a training exercise. Author’s collection.

This is the first qualification, war is good for something but only over very long time scales with lots of suffering and misery in the middle bits.  To explain this, Morris has four parts to his thesis:

1. War as an Organizing Force

Perhaps unsurprisingly the first part is that war has given humans cause to organize.  There is nothing that focuses the mind or the organizational needs of the group than a marauding band from two tribes over.  This in turn likely influenced such things as our evolution to communicate and our underlying social nature.  As well, as society increased in its organizational complexity, there was an inverse use of force.  Thus “If you were lucky enough to be born in the industrialized twentieth century, you were on average ten times less likely to die violently… than if you were born in a Stone Age society. (page 8).

Essentially as rulers of one tribe took over another, they tended to incorporate the losers into larger units of organization.  As well, the rulers imposed a monopoly on the use of force – restricting its use to the elite and the government.  This is why you are much safer in the twentieth century notwithstanding world wars, genocides and other nastiness.

2. War the Best We have Come Up with … So Far

Morris’ second point is that war has been successful because, well, everything else has failed or faltered in the face of war.  Morris recognizes that this is a depressing state of affairs but ‘People hardly ever give up their freedom… unless forced to do so, and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war or fear that defeat is imminent (page 9).

3. War is Good for Business and Personal Wealth

Larger societies created by war have in turn become wealthier – over the long run.  After the smoke clear, the societies created with bureaucrats to collect taxes, impose laws, enforce contractual relationships, etc.

4. War is Out of Business

War is putting itself out of business it has been so successful.  ‘… in our own age humanity has gotten so good at fighting … that war is beginning to make further war of this kind impossible.’ (page 9).  Historically, war was always an option with a likelihood of success that could be estimated and calculated.  In 1914, the Germans and their allies made this calculation and bet heavily that they would win.  Four years and millions of lives later, the bet was lost.  One hundred years prior to this Napoleon made a similar bet and lost at a Belgium town now immortalized as his Waterloo.

Who Comes Up with this Stuff?

As it turns out archaeologists and anthropologists.  Certainly there is always room for interpretation but Morris’s thesis rests and the general consensus of these sciences and fields of study.

Morris does an excellent job inter-twining the current research with a very deep dive into history.  This includes are nearest living non-human relatives the great apes.  In particular he compares us with the social and morphology of gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.  As it turns out, chimpanzees are nearest to our temperament and bonobos are perhaps what we can aspire to “Unlike what goes on among chimps, however, bonobo sperm competitions (note, this section dealt with strategies for passing procreation) are almost entirely nonviolent. … Male bonobos win the sperm competition not by fighting each other but by making themselves agreeable to females.” (p. 305).

Great Work, Up to a Point

The second qualification is how do we get out of the ebb and flow of building up societies and then have them torn down by war?  While Morris does a great job and seems to have an excellent grasp of the history, biology and connections to make his case.  Where he falls down, in my opinion, is the human end game.  What he suggests is our way out of war is the singularity.  In case you have not heard of this, it is when humans and machines merge and we transfer our consciousness into an uber-computer living out our existence in peace.

Well that is the plan anyway.  More than likely, I suspect that once we get there, we will discover that our human instincts for competition will kick in but without the physical outlet. Soon we will have the same challenges but without the benefit of an untimely death –  a perpetual cyber hell existence.

Religion – A Missing Ingredient

Beyond not quite believing the end-game Morris has proposed, another criticism I have of his book is his lack of focus on religion as part of the supporting cast for war.  History is full of examples of religion providing the social construct that allows humans to do terrible things to each other.  I can understand that Morris may have been a bit squeamish getting into this debate (with real personal risks depending upon which religion you pick on – ask the editorial staff of the French Magazine, Charlie Hebdo), nevertheless he misses an important driver of not only war but also peace as well.

Despite the Conclusion, Well Worth the Read

Because of the historic breadth of the subject matter, Morris has done an excellent job providing context of not only war but our current geo-political system in context.  This includes the concept of the European ‘Five Hundred Year War’ against the rest of the globe.  From 1415 to 1914, Morris explains how European ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ not to mention organizational skills and missionary zeal, allowed Europe to colonize or dominate most of the rest of the globe.  This domination only came to an end when Europe tore itself up in the mud of Flanders and the First World War.

In the end, while I may disagree with this end argument, getting there is well worth the read.  As well, this is not a book that glorifies war.  Morris takes extreme pains in this book not to minimize the impact war has on the people involved.  As well we recognizes that while the spoils go to the victors (the Romans, the Barbarians invading Rome, the invading Muslims, the crusades trying to displace the invading Muslims, indigenous people displaced through colonization, and on and on…) – this should not minimize the suffering of the losers.


[1] All page references are from the Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2014 edition.