Books

Ian Morris
War: What Is It Good For?

In December 2009, US President Barack Obama flew to Oslo to accept the Nobel peace prize. The Norwegian committee’s decision was controversial. Little more than 12 months into his first term, Obama hardly had time to create a more peaceful international order. If he had created anything during his first year in office it was an aura of hope. When he stood to deliver his acceptance speech, few could have predicted what was to follow. This was no worthy homily on the new era of “co-operation between peoples”. Instead, Obama spoke of the history of war and its vexed relationship with peace. 

As the “Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation” then “in the midst of two wars” (Iraq and Afghanistan), the president declared that he had no “definitive solution to the problems of war”. “We must begin,” he said, “by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.” 

Given the occasion, this was blunt truth-telling. Explaining the rationale behind America’s foreign policy of “enlightened self-interest”, Obama looked to history for guidance. “To say that force may sometimes be necessary,” he reflected, “is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

The history of war has long been the staple fodder of blockbuster broad-brush histories, many of which reach the bedside tables of our political leaders, perhaps no more so than today. As the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War approaches, bookshops are daily inundated with yet another wave of releases on war-related themes. We spend more time remembering war than we do fighting it. War stories constitute the key parables of our time. They define our values. They explain our nation’s birth and they reveal the distinctive qualities that bind us as one people (or so we are led to believe); even more reason, then, to understand the history of war.

Into the fray comes Ian Morris’s War: What Is It Good For?, the latest attempt to cast a “global, long-term perspective” over the history of war from ancient Rome to the modern era. 

Morris, an archaeologist who has recently turned his hand to writing popular trade histories, conveniently perceives “the whole ten thousand-year-long story of war since the last ice age” as “a single narrative” that leads to the end of the Cold War in 1989. Like his earlier book Why the West Rules – for Now, Morris has a provocative thesis and an undeniably materialist perspective and triumphant tone: war has been good for us, he crows repeatedly. It “has made humanity safer and richer”, and as a result, “we are all better off”, especially under the benevolent watch of “globocop” USA. 

Taking Edwin Starr’s 1970 hit anti-Vietnam protest song “War” (also covered by Bruce Springsteen) as his starting point, Morris turns the sentiment of the song’s lyrics on its head. Whereas Starr sang of war wreaking sorrow and despair – a “friend only to the undertaker” – Morris sees war as the engine room of human progress. “By fighting wars,” he argues, “people have created larger, more organized societies that have reduced the risk that their members will die violently.” “Productive war” has actually created the conditions for peace. As Morris continually reminds us, despite two world wars, those who lived in the 20th century were statistically less likely to die from violence than in earlier periods, while today, thanks to rapid advances in technology, “we” are close to putting war “out of business”. 

Morris’s “we” is clearly not the many victims of indiscriminate violence in Africa, Iraq or Afghanistan, nor the thousands who queue daily in the bombed streets of Damascus for food.

As he charts the changes in military technology, from chariots and armoured elephants to cavalry, guns, cannons, automatic weapons and drones, Morris produces countless statistical graphs on rates of violence (some by his own admission “rough and ready estimate[s] with a lot of ifs piled on top of each another”). So large is his span and so clinical his perspective, the vast diversity of geopolitical contexts that have given rise to war are glossed over, let alone the more intimate human experience of war. He appears little interested in the cultural or social dimensions of war. 

Yet how can we understand the history of war without understanding the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment? Declining rates of violence and repeated references to “killing thousands” only tell us so much. When Morris writes that once the conquest of traditional societies was done, “European empires generally drove down rates of violent death”, he fails to grasp the lasting impact of colonisation. For indigenous peoples the world over, loss of land, cultural dislocation and centuries of so-called “protection” at the hands of the state represented a death of a kind. 

In War: What Is It Good For? Morris goes out of his way to write in an engaging, conversational tone. Unfortunately, there is also much glib analysis (“Democracies may be messy, but they rarely devour their children; dictatorships get things done, but they tend to shoot, starve, and gas a lot of people”), shocking revelation (“the twenty-first century is going to see astounding changes in everything) and clichéd prose (“like Hollywood zombies, empires rose from the dead again and again”). 

To begin to understand the history of war, at least in its 20th-century incarnation, far better to read historians such as the late Tony Judt or Eric Hobsbawm. Or for more instantaneous enlightenment, read Obama’s Nobel speech, where he grapples with the “irreconcilable truths” of war and reminds us that “peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict”.  WW

Allen & Unwin, 448pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 12, 2014 as "War: What Is It Good For?, Ian Morris". Subscribe here.