What War Is Good For

David Crane reviews Ian Morris’s new book War: What is it Good For? The Role of Conflict in Civilisation, from Primates to Robots, which posits that “in the long run, the very, very long run, ‘productive war’ has always made the world a safer and richer place for the losers as well as the winners”:

It is conceivable, in theory, that there are other ways of taming man’s capacity for violence, but if the European Union (hiding behind the American Leviathan) has at least temporarily succeeded in boring and regulating a continent into relative docility, pretty well the only force through history capable of creating the Leviathans big and strong enough to cage William Golding’s ‘beast within’ and bully, bribe and coerce the levels of violence down is, paradoxically, war. ‘Lord knows there’s got to be a better way,’ Morris quotes the song,

but apparently there isn’t. If the Roman empire could have been created without killing millions of Gauls, if the United States could have been built without killing millions of Native Americans … if conflicts could have been resolved by discussion instead of force, humanity would have had the benefit  of larger societies. But that did not happen … People hardly ever give up their freedom, including their rights to kill and impoverish each other, unless forced to do so, and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war, or fear that such a defeat is imminent.

This winter, The American Scholar asked Morris to pose questions about the future of conflict. One of his open queries:

Late in the 20th century, anthropologists learned that feuding and war were extremely common among the world’s last surviving Stone Age societies. On average, something like 10 to 20 percent of people in these societies died violently, and archaeologists suggest that similar rates applied in prehistoric Stone Age societies. In 20th-century industrialized societies, by contrast—despite two world wars, the use of atom bombs, and multiple genocides—just one to two percent of people died violently. And as Steven Pinker pointed out in his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, in the 21st century the rate is, so far, well below one percent. Why, even though our weapons keep getting more destructive, has the risk that anyone among us might die violently fallen so much? Can that trend continue?