War! What is it Good For? by Ian Morris

A work of amazingly bad scholarship and poor critical thinking. Morris spends the better part of 400 pages trying to prove that war has been the primary engine of human advancement, and that war - not democracy, not the rule of law, not the cooperative instinct - has made us safer.

A weaker version of his thesis - that some wars make the world safer, or that war has acted as a natural selection pressure on human states, weeding out those that fail to ensure the greatest prosperity for their citizens - would be both interesting and justifiable. At every turn, though, Morris refuses to take a reasonable position, pushing his thesis far past the point at which it can be defended.

It doesn’t help that each chapter is full of historical inaccuracies. Sometimes he’s recasting historical events to suit his thesis, such as when he insists the Roman Empire “split in two” in 220, when in fact only the administration of the Empire was divided; the Empire itself was considered whole for hundreds of years after. Other times he skips over inconvenient facts, like when he insists that the years after 1100 were “centuries of decline” for Europe, despite the evidence that over that period wages rose, new inventions entered use (e.g. the water mill) and life for the common people (the majority) got better. Or when he waxes poetic about “prosperous plantations” founded by the Portuguese on Madeira and the Azores, leaving out the numerous slaves imported to work on those plantations.

Sometimes Morris makes up his own facts. In several places he compares rates of violent death across time periods, but these rates are mostly (his own) guesswork. And what a surprise, his guesses support his thesis that rates of violent death have declined as states have gotten larger.

At one point he actually admits that his numbers might be wrong, but then claims that it’s for future scholars to come up with better numbers and refute him, which is one of the most brazen admissions of copping-out I’ve ever read. Why add to the body of careful scholarship, when you can publish a controversial thesis without evidence to back it up?

Other places where Morris makes inexcusable mistakes:

  • His take on the Muslim caliphates founded in the seventh century: "Hardly anybody took notice of them."
  • On American Revolutionary soldiers, who nearly lost the War of Independence multiple times: "[they] ran rings around the rigid, ponderous professionals"
  • He characterizes Communist China as a Soviet client prior to 1972, and that Nixon "broke them away" from the Russians. In reality, the Chinese Communists and Soviets had always been at loggerheads, and formally denounced each other in 1961. China invited Nixon to visit as part of its gradual opening up to world trade, a fact well documented in any modern book on Chinese history.
When he's not twisting the facts to support his opinion, he's ignoring other interpretations of the things he does get right.

For example, he actually does have evidence that rates of violent death in private disputes dropped under the Roman Empire. His interpretation is that only fear of punishment by the Roman government kept people in line, so the Roman wars of conquest were justified. He ignores the fact that every society has means of adjudicating conflicts, some more violent than others, and that perhaps having access to something like the Roman courts was all that conquered peoples needed to put down their arms.

Also, Morris doesn’t address the possibility that the rate of violence stayed constant, but shifted to state violence instead of private violence. I might lose my hand because I was found guilty of theft by a magistrate, instead of having it cut off by a rival, but the hand is still gone.

Later he wants to distinguish between productive and unproductive wars. Productive wars are wars that create larger states - bigger is always better for Morris - and unproductive wars break up large empires into smaller ones. This leads him into contradictions when discussing the many wars fought by steppe nomads against settled peoples: he calls them unproductive wars because they broke up the empires formed in Europe and along the Mediterranean, even though they created some of the largest empires in the world (the Ottoman and Mongol both come to mind) that also stimulated trade by eliminating brigandage along the Silk Road, connecting China to the Mediterranean via overland routes.

The cycle of boom and bust (productive war followed by unproductive war followed by productive war) he wants us to believe in is easily interpreted as being proof that war is not productive, that expansion of government by violent means is intolerable and unsustainable. Trade expansion and good government become possible at the exact moment that rulers abandon war as the primary means of seeking prosperity and power.

I won’t even address the conclusion of his book, where he claims that the US needs to keep spending large sums on its military and playing global cop until the Singularity arrives and makes war obsolete. It’s such a sudden lurch off the rails of his narrative and over the cliffs of delusion that I have to believe it was inserted by the editor as a prank.

I did learn some things, though:

  • If you're a British professor, you can get poorly-argued historically inaccurate books published, so long as they're also controversial
  • There's a segment of the US and British elites that still want to believe colonialism was justified
  • It's possible to write modern books on history without catching up on recent scholarship
Ron Toland @mindbat