- - Monday, August 18, 2014


By Ian Morris
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30, 493 pages

This has certainly been the year for books that stir controversy and passion.

French neo-Marxist economist Thomas Piketty became an instant global celebrity with “Capitalism,” which argues that the world’s wealth must be forcibly redistributed from those who created it to those who would like to consume it. New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade sparked a firestorm with “Troublesome Inheritance,” which argues that very real genetic racial differences prompt the widely diverging cultural responses that separate humans from each other.

Now comes Ian Morris with humor and a swath of historical data to argue that the 15,000 years of bloody warfare that have killed countless millions have actually made us safer, wealthier and longer-lived. If you started off reading the front page of this newspaper, you will be excused if your first reaction is that Mr. Morris must have a screw loose.

But he doesn’t. The British-born Mr. Morris is a distinguished and much published historian and archaeologist at Stanford University and the author in 2010 of the critically acclaimed “Why the West Rules For Now.” Although this book does not refer directly to the disturbing multifront crises that range from the Ukraine throughout the Middle East all the way to the Afghanistan frontiers, it offers a cautionary warning about the hesitant responses of Western leadership both in this country and in Europe.

Mr. Morris begins his argument by recalling the day when the world almost destroyed itself in a global nuclear holocaust — but didn’t. That day, he claims was Sept. 26, 1983, when the Soviet Union’s computer early-warning system suddenly flashed that a nuclear warhead had been launched toward Russia from Montana.

One man, a low-level code official, refused to authorize the go-signals for Soviet retaliation and the whole “Dr. Strangelove” scenario was avoided. His point? That the development of ever stronger and often warlike governments over the centuries contained the very mechanisms that make us more pacific than our anthropological ancestors.

He begins his argument by noting a host of anthropological studies that estimate that in the Stone Age, between 10 percent and 20 percent of people alive then died at the hands of other humans. Yet during the past century, which saw two world wars, genocides and government-induced famines killing between 100 million and 200 million people, more than 10 billon lives were lived. In other words, just 1 percent to 2 percent of the 20th-century population. That means one is only one-tenth as likely to die from violence these days than in Stone Age times.

Here is how Mr. Morris advances his main argument that “what has made the world so much safer is war itself.”

“Beginning about ten thousand years ago 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.”

The transition from Stone Age violence (which involved a lot of single combat or raids by small bands) to Roman oppressions or civil wars (such as the English or our own) or brutal conquests (again, our own against American Indians, or the struggles in the Middle East) are horrifying in their intensity.

Surely, there must be a better way. Mr. Morris wishes it were so, but the evidence seems to argue that “[p]eople hardly ever give up their freedom, including their rights to kill and impoverish each other, unless forced to do so, and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war or fear that such a defeat is imminent.”

He goes further and argues, “Governments have made us safer and war is pretty much the only way we have discovered to make governments, then we have to conclude that war really has been good for something . By creating larger societies, stronger governments, and greater security, war has enriched the world.”

His fourth and final conclusion goes back to that fail-safe night in 1983 when the world stood on the brink of Armageddon but slept through it, nonetheless. War has become so efficient and deadly that it is in the process of putting itself out of business. ” [H]umanity has gotten so good at fighting — our weapons so destructive, our organizations so efficient — that war is beginning to make further war of (the 1983 kind) impossible.”

On an upbeat note, he muses about our 21st century, where astounding changes are taking place, including in the role of violence. “The age-old dream of a world without war may yet come to pass — although what that world will look like is another matter altogether.”

Of the three “hot books” of this season, “War” is by far the most readable and logically constructed. It also is the most likely to stir controversy because Mr. Morris‘ arguments are so counterintuitive. However, if you like to be taken out of your comfort zone, then Mr. Morris does that with style. Perhaps the most challenging of the thoughts his arguments generate in the reader’s mind is how futile our current leaders seem to be in their hesitant flinching from the hard task of winning peace — by war, if need be.

James Srodes’ most recent book is “On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Made Our World” (Counterpoint).

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