I have only read a handful of pages of the introduction to this long, weighty book, but I can honestly say I have never disagreed so profoundly with so much in so many different ways as I do with this author. To be precise, if the introduction is a faithful summary of the book as a whole then I disagree with it in numerous ways. Whether this is going to get in the way of actually finishing the book remains to be seen of course.
The astonishing thing for a book of popular history is that it takes as its central thesis the argument that Edwin Starr was wrong. More specifically, it argues that war, far from being good for absolutely nothing is at the heart of the development of civilisation. War builds society while at the same time driving behaviours that make war less likely and less damaging. War creates larger, more prosperous, and safer communities, and seems to have been the only way to create such bigger societies. At the same time war is now in the process of putting itself out of business. Strange that we happen to be living at such a turning point in the development of human history, the one time when war, having been the driving force behind social change and improvement, suddenly becomes obsolete. The end of history anyone?
Morris, to be fair, does seem to genuinely believe his thesis. No-one could be as cynical as you would need to be to think up a controversial and hard to prove position as he has here, dedicating the hundreds of hours of research required to support his arguments. (I assume that the following 400 pages or so aren’t filled with Garfield cartoons or such, but follow the pattern of densely written argument found in the introduction. Time will tell.)
Morris is so spectacularly wrong, in such a variety of ways, that it is quite hard to find a starting point. Let’s begin with the classic mistake of associating two things that happen at the same time and believing they are related. So wars (of many different forms) have characterised human history since the last ice age, and the beginning of modern civilisation. At the same time human civilisation has developed, population has grown, forms of Government have become more complex, and in essence we have become more “civilised”. Are the two things related? It’s impossible to disprove a theory like this. If you point to periods of peace and prosperity where society has taken a leap forward, well that’s just people reaping the rewards of earlier conflict. And periods where society has descended into barbarism – preparing the ground for the next step onward and upward. The problem here, you will have spotted, is that the exact same set of arguments could be used to prove the oppostive point – that war harms society, and the peaceful resolution of conflict or the avoidance of conflict, in those rare moments when it is tried, is what allows society to prosper.
The second thread of Morris’s argument is that over time people have become less violent, and that deaths as a result of warfare have declined – as a percentage of the population. This argument is reference in Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel, and I probably ought to read what I said about it then, but that would be cheating. I now think, irrespective of what I argued then, that the only way this point can be demonstrated is by cheating – cheating with the definition of warfare for example. The thesis becomes confused here – war builds societies, which allow people to prosper, but war is declining, becoming less lethal. Some of the wars we learn about in history involved professional armies a few tens of thousand strong, drawn from populations many times their size. I will need to see what evidence Morris presents before going much further on this point, but for now I am not persuaded.
Societies build, become larger and more prosperous, for many different reasons. Technology is obviously key, for example, in the Industrial Revolution. Morris probably would argue that war enabled the conditions in which technology could play its part, and I would concede that war has proven the catalyst for many technological breakthroughs. But was the spinning jenny developed as a response to the threat of war? Did we send battalions of steam engines or Internet enabled laptops into conflict against the French, the Germans, or anyone else we felt threatened by? You can argue war is at the root of these changes. Take the agricultural revolution – we needed more food to feed a growing population which happened because we were at peace because we had won previous conflicts, or alternatively because of a growing empire, won by war – you see, the theory fits whatever the circumstances, which means ultimately it is useless.