War! What Is It Good For?

Conflict and the Progress
of Civilization From Primates to Robots

By Ian Morris

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 512 pp. $30.

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Paul Jablow

Although it isn't organized that way, Ian Morris' sweeping, ambitious work stretches chronologically from the time the first shark ancestors grew teeth until the drone era when someone at a computer screen in the U.S. can terminate someone else who might (or might not) be a terrorist half a world away.

His thesis may not be elegant but it is elegantly simple: "Over the long run, [war] has made humanity safer and richer . . . war is hell but the alternatives would have been worse . . . .

"By creating larger societies, stronger governments, and greater security, war has enriched the world.

"By most estimates, 10 to 20 percent of all the people who lived in Stone Age societies died at the hands of other humans."

In the 20th century, he says, no more than 2 percent of deaths have been war-related, even when you count Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Holocaust.

Larger governments, he says, crack down on killing because well-behaved subjects are easier to govern and tax, even after those in charge have taken their cut. And he says this has been the case ever since the development of farming between roughly 5,000 and 10,000 B.C. made war productive by making large and stable societies possible.

"[Ronald] Reagan," he writes, "once joked that 'the ten most terrifying words in the English language are, 'Hi. I'm from the government and I'm here to help.' But the ten scariest words are, 'There is no government and I'm here to kill you.' "

He says the most peaceful eras have been when there has been a "globocop" to keep order, the main examples being Rome, Britain, and the United States.

Whether or not one buys into his thesis, Morris, a professor of history at Stanford University, takes us on a fascinating ride through weaponry and battle tactics over the centuries.

The passing parade includes spears, chariots, cavalry, horses, developments in archery and armor, and evolving land and naval battle tactics. "Iron swords were the ancient equivalent of AK 47s," he writes.

Some of the most chaotic eras were those when horse-mounted barbarians ruled the steppes, until the development of usable guns by more technologically developed societies evened the scales somewhere around the 17th century. Before that, guns were too unreliable to ward off pirates and other marauders. The earliest versions, not surprisingly, were probably more dangerous to their users than to their intended victims.

There are also side journeys into such anthropological esoterica as the alpha male chimpanzee's being the species' equivalent of the globocop, and the implications of differing testicle sizes in various strains of chimp.

Morris exhibits little patience with theories that humans are by nature either peaceful or warlike. His answer, essentially, is "it depends" on the payoff.

The Roman empire put on bloody gladiatorial spectacles, but also provided soil to nourish Stoicism and Christianity. Margaret Mead may have evoked a naturally peaceful society in Coming of Age in Samoa, but there are indications that the natives, amused by her interest in sexuality, were pulling her leg.

When he gets to the present, Morris warns that "the next 40 years promise to become the most dangerous in history."

The U.S., he says, is losing the economic edge needed to maintain its role as globocop and there is no replacement in view.

He feels a cyber- or space-based version of Pearl Harbor is probably less likely to lead to World War III than localized nuclear war in the Mideast that draws in the rest of the globe, World War I style.

Until then, he says, the U.S. needs to avoid being bled white by wars that do not involve its vital interests.

One possible hope for the long run, he speculates, is the development of a virtually new strain of post-human with chemically, genetically, or electronically altered brain chemistry that will allow the Pax Americana to be replaced by a Pax Technologica.

Morris manages to state that case without sounding totally loony. But by that time, he had made plain that he has forsaken the firm ground of archaeological and historical data for the thin air of sheer speculation.

Wisely, if only to cover himself, he recounts a 2011 speech by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at West Point.

"When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagement, our record has been perfect," Gates told the cadets. "We have never once gotten it right."