War is good for us!

Eventually, that is. Unless we are killed, starved, raped, maimed, robbed or otherwise damaged in the process.

The proposition is simple:

War has been good for something: it has produced bigger societies, ruled by stronger governments, which have imposed peace and created the preconditions for prosperity.

Through war humanity is now safer and richer than ever before.

That’s the central thesis of historian Ian Morris’s book War! What Is It Good For? according to his article in the New Scientist (paywalled). (There is a similar article in the Chicago Tribune.)

Mind you he says “war is probably the worst way imaginable to create larger, more peaceful societies” but “it is pretty much the only way humans have found.”

From our position in the 21st century we see the 20th century as the most violent ever. Indeed, Morris says, we killed between 100 and 200 million of our own kind. Yet 10 billion lives were lived in that century, meaning the the death rate from violence was only 2 to 3 per cent.

By contrast in the Stone Age an estimated 10 to 20% of people died at the hands of another human. Comparable was the experience of the Serbs in WW1 where one in six perished.

In traditional societies:

Most of the killing was on a small scale, in homicides, vendettas and raids, but because populations were also small, the steady drip of low-level killing took an appalling toll.

This graphic shows ‘progress’ over the millennia:

Violent deaths _29650201_450_cropped

Since 2000, the United Nations tells us, the risk of violent death has fallen still further, to 0.7 per cent.

Ten thousand years ago people lived on average 30 years and got by on the equivalent of less than $2 per day. Now the respective global averages are 67 years and $25 per day.

Morris says that virtually every species is programmed for violence. Fukuyama in his The Origin of Political Order quotes archaeologist Stephen LeBlanc:

Much of noncomplex society human warfare is similar to chimpanzee attacks. Massacres among humans at the social level are, in fact, rare occurrences, and victory by attrition is a viable strategy, as are buffer zones, surprise raids, taking captive females into the group, and mutilation of victims. The chimp and human behaviors are almost completely parallel.

Humans, however, with more lethal weapons were more deadly.

Jared Diamond in his book The World Until Yesterday has several chapters on war, but I’d like to quote a study he cites of homicide over the period 1920-1969 amongst the !Kung people in the Kalahari. The !Kung are recognised as peaceable people.

The study identified 22 killing over 49 years, or less than one every two years. It’s just that the population under study was only around 1500. That makes the homicide rate triple that of the United States and 10 to 30 times that of rates for Canada, Britain, France and Germany.

Killing was a norm and in that society.

The graphic shows an increase in violent deaths during what Morris terms the ‘age of migrations’, from AD200-1400. This was a time when Fukuyama would say social/political organisation in Europe had moved beyond the tribal, but had not yet achieved the form of the modern state. It was not a time when the state competently and fairly extracted taxes from all and applied them consistently for the general good. Tom Holland in his book Millennium describes how rulers saw it as their mission to Christianise the heathen but they did this by plundering and bringing home the loot. There was a zero sum attitude to economic growth. You accrued great wealth by taking it from other people.

Castles became popular in the tenth century, not to guard against external threat, but as a base to plunder and extract tribute from the surrounding countryside. Knights were the primary agents, mailed thugs and at that time, Holland says, by definition in a state of sin.

People became increasingly competent at conducting war, with a map that was extremely fluid. During the Thirty Years War German territories lost about a third of their population. In Brandenburg, the seed state of Prussia, it was a half. Yet between times there were periods of peace and prosperity, with an increasing idea that the competent state was there to serve the welfare of the people.

Morris says we used war and killing, because for humans it was the only way. What he doesn’t appear to emphasise is the other side of human nature, the co-operative, altruistic side, which on his evidence is gradually triumphing.

By some counts we have only had the modern state in its full form since WW1.

I could be doing Morris an injustice, as I have not read the book. In The Wall Street Journal Felipe Fernadez-Armesto has some reservations.

6 thoughts on “War is good for us!”

  1. Very plausible arguments – with lots of verifiable facts to back them up – and, I would say true in many, many cases BUT what about the alternatives?

    What about hunting? What about fishing and gleaning and gathering? These require co-operation. Without co-operation we would still be knuckle-walkers, pursued by leopards, bears and wolves (sorry folks, wolves are fashionable but they do have to eat too). Co-operation, common enough among other beasts and birds (just ask the neighbouring magpies), was brought to a high pitch by hominids
    and became foundation stones of most aspects of human society, both good and bad,.

    b.t.w.,Knights and robber-barons (and later, castles) might have given a bit of protection to artisans and the clergy (well, a few literate people might have been handy to keep alive at times) but overall they, their system and constant warfare stopped the recovery of Europe from after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire right up to the time when the Portuguese fishermen got adventurous – a thousand years of stagnation with an occasional brilliant shaft of light in all the gloom. Likewise, all the industrial wars, from the American Civil War onwards, stpped a lot of progress: think of how the cost of the Viet-Nam War put an end to lunar exploration and of how the follies of Emperor George II The Foolish killed off the space shuttle.

    War isn’t just hell – i’s a damned waste of resources and opportunities.

  2. Similar arguments of looking for the good in war are made in support of Neo-liberalism and market fundamentalism.
    As if nothing good would have been invented, no wealth would have been created, no good governments would have been formed or no one would be as healthy without a completely different course of action, such as resolving conflicts and planning society with sentience – co-operation – as both of you say.

  3. I was interested in the stone age figures in relationship to what I saw on Groote Eylandt. I can remember one year when 3 people from the 1500 strong Aboriginal community were killed in one year – Which works out at a 10% chance of being killed over a 50 year lifetime. The deaths were a mix of women killed by men and men killed in fights with weapons. Generally, the male deaths occurred in spear fights. However, one of the Lalaras who worked for me was killed with a screw driver as payback for killing one of the Wurramurras. A figure of 30% death by violence is commonly quoted for Arnhem land.
    To some extent Aboriginal customs worked to reduce the death rate. For example, payback in the form of spearing through the thigh with a barbless spear could end a cycle of payback. On the other hand explaining unexpected death on witchcraft and obligations to seek revenge wouldn’t have helped.

  4. John D: I think those figures could well applied to those of our ancestors in Europe, Africa or Asia or wherever only twenty or thirty generations ago, perhaps later.

    Just adding two more alternatives to war as a driver of progress:

    RIVALRY (I didn’t want to use the word “competition’ since, in the Australian context, that word is associated with sneaky ways of robbing customers, of imposing duopolies and rigged oligopolies and of destroying what little free market is left in the market) I want to be better that the other fellow or have more than he has. Sometimes, this led to silly extremes, such as the higher and higher family towers in the Venetian Republic or the American railway building craze…. but think of what the tea-clipper and trans-Atlantic rivalry did for shipbuilding; think too of how the Cold War morphed (in part) into the Space Race, where the throw-weight of the rockets became a few orders of magnitude greater than was ever needed for propelling nuclear bombs halfway round the world.

    RISK-TAKING: Good way of ending up deader sooner – but if you can get away with it, there are sometimes substantial rewards. The downsides of risk taking are Gambling, definitely not rewarding at all (unless you own a casino) and Crime, which often doesn’t pay. The attitude of “I think I can do it – or get away with it” has done more for progress than war ever did.

  5. There is no doubt that the conflicts of the 20th century accelerated the development of air travel. However, it is worth noting that the plane was invented at a time of relative peace. Ditto with the atomic bomb. The science was driven by curiosity and academic competition with out anyone thinking they were developing a weapon.
    The expansion of society beyond the hunter gatherer band depends on a number of things. For example:
    The availability of a reliable food source that allows more people to live close together. (Ex: Seafood, domesticable animals or plants with the potential for agriculture.)
    Improvements in labor efficiency of food production. This frees more people to do something other than produce food.
    Development of centralized storage to deal with crops that are harvested at one time of the year.
    Moving from an obligation economy to trading and money based economies.
    Change from social organizations that depend on people knowing each other and who is obliged to do what for whom.

  6. Several good points, John D.

    Centralization of authority and influence does have a profound effect on societies – take an example in our own backyard: the marked contrast between how Melanesian and Polynesian societies work, (alright, I am oversimplifying a bit).

    Another thing that is better than war for advancing humanity: CURIOSITY. “I wonder what will happen if I do this?” or “I wonder what’s on the other side of those mountains”. This is very different from Risk Taking.

    Two things that are as bad as war for keeping most us in poverty, misery and ignorance:
    (I) ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION: Look at what happened, for instance, to Mediterranean arable lands in Roman times (though the Romans only inherited existing destructive farming practices) and to forests up to the 20th Century so that every ruler, petty or great, could chuck up ornamental buildings – and have naval wars.

    (II) SQUANDERING WEALTH ON VANITY: Look at what happened to all the wealth generated and concentrated by The Enclosures and The Clearances in Britain, by Slavery, by the Spice and Tea Trade, by expanding European empires all over the world. Very little of it was spent wisely until the late 19th Century. Most of that mountain of money was blown on such things as “stately homes” which are little different from today’s ugly, horribly expensive and grossly inefficient bludgertoriums and idiots’ palaces, on ridiculous ornaments and adornments, on luxury past-times. I’ll go so far as to say that the Industrial Revolution was delayed, hindered, became cruel and never reached its full potential because the bulk of available money was wasted on transient vanity.

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