Book review: War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots, by Ian Morris.
This book’s main argument can be broken down into two ideas:
- War creates powerful leviathans and occasionally globocops.
- The resulting monopoly on the use of violence is important for (or necessary to) creating low-violence societies.
(2) overlaps a lot with Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker’s version is sufficiently better that reading Morris’ version adds little value.
(1) is an old idea (“war is the health of the state”) that seems mildly controversial in its stronger versions. But Morris is relatively cautious here, admitting that many wars were destructive.
He goes around labeling many wars as productive or not, in a way that had me wondering whether he thought that was observable while the wars were in progress. When he got to World War II, it became clear that he considered that at least sometimes impossible: World War I initially looked harmful (ruining Britain’s globocop status), but when seen in combination with World War II he is able to classify it as productive (enabling the US to become a globocop).
Morris sometimes hints at a stronger version of (1) that would say leviathans or equivalent civilizing institutions couldn’t have been created without war. Morris never attempts to make much of an argument for such a strong claim. He does provide some arguments for the hypothesis that wars sped up the creation of peace-keeping leviathans. Whether that makes some wars good depends heavily on what would have happened without those wars, and Morris provides little insight about that.
If Morris were interested in testing his claims, wouldn’t he have discussed Switzerland? Swiss involvement in war over the past 200 years seems to consist of just a civil war in November 1847 with fewer than 100 deaths. Morris’ beliefs seem to imply Switzerland has lots of violence, yet Swiss homicide rates are unusually low (lower than the rest of western Europe). Maybe responding sensibly to the threat of war provides the benefits that Morris talks about, with few of the costs?
Much the book’s claims seem reasonable: wars did have some tendency to create stronger leviathans, and those leviathans did have some peace-keeping benefits. Yet those claims don’t come close to demonstrating the existence of “productive war”.