The purpose of war

Updated Thursday, 9th April 2015
War! What is it good for! Actually, Ian Morris suggests that it might make life generally less violent. He explained how to Laurie Taylor.

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Laurie Taylor:
A soldier on deployment in Afghanistan. In the distance, a shepherd herds his sheep. A soldier on deployment in Afghanistan Although the specific horrors of that war and its aftermath are still very real to many people a new book invites us to step back from that personal perspective and to look at war as part of a broader pattern of evolution. Only when we do that, says the author, when we take a global long-term perspective, are we able to see that war can actually be good for us.

Well, that book is called War: What is it good for? The Role of Conflict in Civilization. And its author, who now joins me on the line from Stanford, California, isIan Morris: who is Willard Professor of Classics at Stanford University.

Ian, you use the expression in your book pretty early on - "productive war", just explain, before we go into your long historical survey, explain what you mean by war being productive.

Ian Morris:
Yeah, well first thanks for having me on the show again to talk about this new book. But yes I think everything about the history of war is full of paradoxes and this is something that strategists always say – war is paradox all the way down. And war of course is basically about killing people and destroying things. And yet what I found was that when you moved up from the level of what it’s like to experience a war and live through an actual war and started looking at it over a history that runs for thousands of years over the entire planet you see some very surprising results.

One of the biggest of them is this totally unexpected side effect that started happening about 10,000 years ago, which is what I refer to by this sort of weird title productive war, that war started to produce this very positive side effect. And what we see is increasingly when one group of people falls out with another if it comes to fighting one of the groups if they start winning the fight will end up absorbing the other group into a single larger society.

As this happens you get bigger and bigger societies formed, a weird side effect comes out of it which is that the people running these societies come under all kinds of pressure to pacify the group and it’s not because they’re nice people, I mean these are the masters of violence, the ones who are taking over these larger groups, but the more that they can pacify the society they rule and get everybody to wake up the next morning and go out to work quietly and pay their taxes and not be stabbing each other and burning each other’s farms down all the time, the more successful rulers are in doing that the more they prosper as rulers, the more money they have for the things they want, the less likely they are to be overthrown.

So the long term side effect that comes out of this over about 10,000 years is that rates of violent death go down and down and this process is driven overwhelmingly, I think, when you look at all of the evidence, overwhelmingly driven by war, it’s really hard to find convincing examples of people agreeing to come together, form a bigger society, put aside their rights to use violence against each other without war driving the process along in the background.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean this remind me – I think it was back – about three years ago, 2011, that we had Stephen Pinker on the programme describing his book where the argument about reduction in violence from the beginning of time to the present day he was making that same argument. There are parallels here, aren’t there, with Pinker’s argument?

Ian Morris:
Yes, yes, I’m a great admirer of Steve Pinker’s book but as he himself I’m sure would be the first to say it’s not like he was the first person to spot this trend. There’s been a lot of arguments about this going back many years now and in fact the first person who really started to push the idea that violence had been declining and the world was becoming a more civilised place was a German sociologist named Norbert Elias who back in – published a book called The Civilising Process and Elias’s big point was like say – say you pick up literature written four or five hundred years ago – and I had this experience the first time I was asked in high school to read a Shakespeare play, I opened Shakespeare and what struck me reading The Merchant of Venice was less the beauty of the language and more how angry everybody was, the slightest insult somebody would pull out a dagger and stab each other.

Elias was looking at the literature for four or five hundred years ago and saying well the big thing that’s changed is that people have become less prone to use violence to defend their honour, to get what they want in arguments. And Elias unfortunately had the worst possible timing in the world, he published his book on this in 1939, just as World War Two broke out, so people were not in much of a mood to be told that European society had been getting more civilised.

Laurie Taylor:
And I want to just concentrate – actually I remember being taught briefly by Elias at the University of Leicester many, many, many years ago. Now of course your emphasis here though is upon the importance of the invention of government, so in a way it very much takes its cue, I think, from – from Thomas Hobbes’ study of Leviathan, so let’s just remind us now of exactly what Hobbs said because I think this captures what you are wanting to say about the important role of government:

Extract from Hobbes’ Leviathan:
During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Now it’ll be fair to say, wouldn’t it Ian, that what you do is that by looking across over the whole of history you see the ways in which that growth of government is correlated with the reduction in violence – is that a fair assessment?

Ian Morris:
Yes, yes, again all of these arguments go back a very, very long way. And when Hobbes was working out his argument – this is back in the middle of the 17th Century just as England was collapsing into civil war, 100,000 of his fellow countrymen get killed – and so Hobbes is asking himself well how does this happen, why aren’t we running around killing each other all the time.

The answer that he kind of reasons his way to, because there’s really very little evidence for him to work with, is that governments – what he calls Leviathan after the scary monster in the Book of Job – he says, governments that are as terrifying as Leviathan can scare people straight. And that’s the only way to stop people from fighting.

I think that yeah there’s been 350 years of argument about this and I think the big difference now though is that unlike Hobbes we’ve now got a lot of historical and archaeological evidence, we’ve got much more sophisticated methods and now I think we can use this evidence to demonstrate that Hobbes does seem to have got the argument pretty much right.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean you want to say that if we go right back to the beginning – I’m not going to go through the whole of recorded history – but people talk about – I mean it was really advent of farming that made war productive, just explain that beginning point to me.

Ian Morris:
Yeah well I think humans are in many ways we’re very much like other animals, that we’ve evolved so that we have the potential to use violence to solve our problems if we think that’s going to work, like pretty much any species of animals we can fight over things. And so for hundreds of thousands of years you get humans – modern humans and their ancestors had been using violence to settle their problems.

But through almost the whole of this period there have been very few people in the world, there’d been hunter gatherers moving around a lot in a very empty landscape, so if two tribes go to war, one starts losing, you usually have the option of moving away and going and hunting and gathering someplace else. But starting 10 to 12,000 years ago when agriculture begins in what we now call the Middle East the world starts filling up with people very rapidly and this – I think the story of human violence is very like other kinds of evolutionary stories about biological evolution, that what happens is we respond to the environment around us and as the environment gets more and more crowded people can’t run away easily, this is when you start seeing groups that are winning a war swallowing up the losing group to form a single larger society.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean it may be a very violent swallowing up and it may be – and the process of pacification may be extremely violent but you want to say that the outcome looked at over a long period of time is an overall reduction in the amount of violence?

Ian Morris:
Yes and it’s a nasty story of course and again this is one of the similarities between the story of war and the stories of biological evolution that the biologists tell, that often the forces driving the stories are really, really unpleasant ones.

But then they have side effects that seem to be the exact opposite of what you might expect. I think this has been very much the case with war, that war has been the major factor driving the creation of these bigger societies, more centralised governments and then the side effect of this has been that the governments pacify the societies and actually the net result is to drive down rates of violent death. We on average in the 20th Century people were something like one-tenth as likely to die violently as they would have been in the Stone Age and now in the 21st Century we’re even safer than that.

Laurie Taylor:
But mightn’t we want to say that something like the European Union, goodness knows that’s been castigated enough for so many reasons, but isn’t this a case of people coming together and deciding that they will have this economic organisation in the hope that it will stave off the prospect of any future wars? I mean this isn’t something which was – only came out the Second World War if you like, after the Second World War but wasn’t generated by war in the way in which other elements in your book are surely?

Ian Morris:
Well yeah of course one of the things I needed to do in trying to tell this story was to look for examples of societies where people had formed bigger groups, more peaceful groups, more prosperous groups without people getting killed and the European Union, of course, is the obvious example to look at here. And I think in many ways, although I grew up in Britain in the '60s and '70s when people from Brussels were always coming on TV and like most people my reaction was always to turn them off as quickly as possible…

Laurie Taylor:
I have to hurry you Ian...

Ian Morris:
… most boring thing that ever happened in history. And I guess what I failed to grasp then was that the whole point was the boredom, that if everything is done through committee meetings people don’t get shot. And I think the EU is this extraordinary experiment, hundreds of millions of people have come together without people being shot in the streets and they’ve agreed to give up some of their freedoms and one of the things they get in return is peace.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay and there I’m going to have to stop you, I’m going to have to stop you with that sort of alternative to your thesis but it’s fascinating to talk to you about that. Thank you so much Ian Morris.

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on May 14th, 2014 on BBC Radio 4. You can listen to the programme online.



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