Book Summary: “War: What is It Good for?” by Ian Morris


War: What is It Good For?

Title: War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots
Author: Ian Morris
Scope: 4 stars
Readability:4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system (add link to this page).

Topic of Book

Morris assesses the role of war in human history, particularly its relationship to internal conflict and economic growth.

Key Take-aways

  • Early human history was very violent. Violent raids and murder rates were much higher than today.
  • After the invention of agriculture, war has made humanity safer and richer. It did so because it forced people within each of the societies at war to cooperate more closely.
  • War has forced people to create larger and more organized societies. That organization has limited the violent conflict within societies (i.e. murder and violent crime).
  • The rulers of societies that win wars found it necessary to create stability and order in the new conquered region in order to extract resources (taxes and rent). This also reduced violent conflict within societies.
  • This reduction in violent conflict within societies enabled economic growth to occur, which enrichened us all.
  • Nations are increasingly unlikely to go to war, so societies must find other means to reduce internal conflict and increase economic growth.

Important Quotes from Book

Contrary to what the song says, war has been good for something: over the long run, it has made humanity safer and richer. War is hell, but—again, over the long run—the alternatives would have been worse.”

“There are four parts to the case I will make. The first is that by fighting wars, people have created larger, more organized societies that have reduced the risk that their members will die violently.”

“Beginning about ten thousand years ago in some parts of the world, then spreading across the planet, the winners of wars incorporated the losers into larger societies. The only way to make these larger societies work was for their rulers to develop stronger governments, and one of the first things these governments had to do, if they wanted to stay in power, was suppress violence within the society.”

“My second claim is that while war is the worst imaginable way to create larger, more peaceful societies, it is pretty much the only way humans have found.”

“My third conclusion, though, goes further still. As well as making people safer, I will suggest, the larger societies created by war have also—again, over the long run—made us richer. Peace created the conditions for economic growth and rising living standards.”

 “In the long run, governments only survive if their rulers learn when to stop stealing, and even learn when to give a little back.”

 “Men who mastered violence carved out kingdoms, but to run them, they had to turn into managers.”

“in all the archives of ancient history it is hard to find a single convincing case of people agreeing to come together in a larger society without being compelled to do so by violence, actual or feared.”

“This was the classical world’s answer to Rodney King: No, we can’t all get along. The only force strong enough to persuade people to give up the right to kill and impoverish each other was violence—or the fear that violence was imminent.”

 “In the two or three centuries after the Battle of Plataea, a band of rather similar empires grew up across the Old World from the Mediterranean to China. All were large, peaceful, stable, and prosperous. Across the oceans, smaller but still formidable states also ruled parts of Central America and the Andes.”

“In each empire, rates of violent death declined sharply, and people put their plowshares to good use, prospering in a golden age of relative peace and plenty.”

“The reason that war gave birth to Leviathan in these lucky latitudes, while life outside them remained as poor, nasty, and brutish as ever, is that farming made war productive”

“The consequence of crowding that matters most for the story in this book, though, was what defeat began to mean for fighting farmers. Gradually, over the course of millennia, it became clear that losing a conflict in a settled, crowded agricultural landscape was a very different proposition from losing one in a fluid, fairly empty landscape of foragers.”

“The crowding that farming created in the lucky latitudes was one of the most important things that has ever happened to humans”

Unable to run away from enemies, they either create a more effective organization so they can fight back or are absorbed into the enemy’s more effective organization.”

Only when climate change generated farming and sent people in the lucky latitudes down the road toward caging could war become productive, with winners incorporating losers into larger societies.”

 “For centuries, wars of conquest had (over the long run) been productive, creating larger empires that gradually made people safer and richer.  

“Each region in the Old World’s lucky latitudes went through a similar sequence of revolutions in military affairs:

  1. Fortifications
  2. Bronze
  3. Discipline
  4. Chariots
  5. Iron-armed infantry

“War has been good for making humanity safer and richer, but it has done so through mass murder. But because war has been good for something, we must recognize that all this misery and death was not in vain.”

“Europeans are from Venus because Americans are from Mars. Without the American globocop protecting the peace, Europe’s dovish strategy would be impossible. But on the other hand, without European dovishness, the United States could not afford to go on as globocop.

“Now, the new globocop’s success is moving the world toward what I have called the ultimate open-access order, in which the invisible hand may have no need for the invisible fist. That will mark the culminating point not just for the American globocop, but for all globocops. Right now, the United States is the indispensable nation, and it must lean forward, but as it approaches the culminating point of globocoppery, the United States will need to pull back. The Pax Americana will yield to a Pax Technologica”

“War has made the planet peaceful and prosperous; so peaceful and prosperous, in fact, that war has almost, but not quite, put itself out of business. Hence the final paradox in this paradoxical tale: If we really want a world where war is good for absolutely nothing, we must recognize that war still has a part to play.”

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