Detail of Trajan’s Column, Rome Ken Welsh / Alamy
War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots, by Ian Morris, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 495 pages, $30
Is war good for anything? In the long run, the Stanford historian Ian Morris argues, it’s good for almost everything. In War! What Is It Good For?, Morris makes the case that war has played an essential role in mankind’s development and in the growth of human well-being. The book endorses not just strong government but imperialism; as applied to recent history, this translates into strong support for the historic role of the British Empire and the current global policies of the United States.
Morris isn’t one to shy away from big, sweeping theses. In Why the West Rules—For Now (2010), he took on the much-studied subject of why modernity first appeared in northwestern Europe and has been dominated by that part of the world and its offshoots. Its sequel, The Measure of Civilization (2013), proposed a metric for assessing how “developed” any particular historical culture was.
His new book’s argument is rich and subtle. That is not to say it is convincing. It has a number of crucial ambiguities and at least one central thesis that is very controversial and, like all good theses in history, subject to empirical disproof. The story also has an important missing element, one that makes sense of things the author otherwise has difficulty fitting into his argument. Adding that missing element—the way that resource constraints limited human options until innovation took off in the 17th century—gives us a different, more accurate picture.
These reductionist views of world history are ‘one after another’ and they don’t work. The influence of war on history is obvious, of course. But the dynamic that drives development is par excellence visible in the macro effect discussed in World History and the Eonic Effect (WHEE).
This is hard for historical sociologists to grasp because their basic assumptions are cockeyed. The development logic behind world history is visible in the model given in WHEE: directionality is missed because it emerges from a mainline that follows a sequence of transitions, small sections of civilizations, not their totality. But any hint of directionality is banished from sociology which is completely off the mark on the subject of emerging civilizations.
Technology is only a secondary process in world history, and as such a crucial part of a larger and more complicated picture. Study the way in which the macro model (WHEE) harmonizes the analysis of not just technology/economy but the overall emergence of civilizations, religions, art movements, philosophy, politics, and much else. We cannot say looking at, for instance, the Classical Greek world that technology produced this: Archaic Greece: the clue. This massive period of innovation and flowering had nothing to do with technology, despite the concordance of iron age weapons.