War! What Is It Good For? | Ian Morris

Summary of: War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots
By: Ian Morris

Introduction

In ‘War! What Is It Good For?,’ author Ian Morris explores the paradoxical nature of warfare and its effects on the progress of civilization. This thought-provoking book discusses how military needs have driven humanity’s most important innovations, and how wars have led to the development of entire nations and states. Despite its destructive nature, war has historically prompted societies to improve organization, administration, and security within their borders. Through a deep dive into the history of conflict, Morris challenges common perceptions of war while presenting its surprising benefits in fostering advancements and stability in the long run.

The Dual Nature of War

War has brought about numerous destruction and despair, yet it is inextricably connected to innovation. Technological advancements driven by military needs have led to some of humanity’s most significant inventions. Bronze and iron, for example, are the results of military research. Wartime applications of gunpowder led to the discovery of new recipes that brought about even better ones. War also promotes competition among rival nations, which in turn leads to constantly evolving technologies. While technologies created for noble purposes can be applied to war’s ignoble ends, the reverse is also true.

The Paradox of Productive Wars

Wars can lead to the formation of larger groups and productive empires.

Wars are often seen as destructive forces that bring nothing but chaos, death, and destruction. However, wars have played a significant role in shaping human societies. Productive wars have created larger groups and led to the formation of empires, which ultimately created more stable societies with increased trade and less violence.

Human history is filled with conflicts that favored larger groups. As societies shifted from hunter-gatherer traditions to settled agriculture, conflicts over resources became inevitable. The larger groups emerged victorious and assimilated their former adversaries into their own culture and empire.

Great empires such as the Roman Empire, the Han Dynasty, the Mauryan-Empire in India, and the British Empire were all formed through war. These empires had positive consequences for the rest of the world, including increased stability, trade, and cultural exchange.

In a productive war, one group becomes larger, and the defeated group is either assimilated or adopts the winning group’s culture. While wars remain a paradox, they have played a crucial role in our history, leading to the formation of empires and ultimately contributing to more stable societies.

The Role of Violence in Progress

Violence and war are deeply rooted in our nature as evidenced by the behavior of our biological relatives. Anthropologists also note higher levels of violence within indigenous cultures, and history provides few examples of peaceful unification of states. Even our free markets rely on the threat of violence. As such, states work peacefully together only because of the looming threat of violence that compels them to abide by the law.

War: Catalyst for Societal Improvement

Wars drive innovation and force states to improve their organization and administration, resulting in societal progress.

Contrary to popular belief, war has a subtle but beneficial effect on society – it improves the organization and administration of states and leaders. Professional armies require a significant amount of funds that can only be raised by well-organized states. For instance, to raise money via taxation, a state must have a functioning bureaucracy that creates and runs complex governing organizations. Essentially, a fighting nation will fail early on if it can’t organize its troops and subjects.

The Red Queen Effect, named after the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, is a phenomenon that spurs development in warring nations. No matter how great their inventions, organization, and fundraising, warring nations are constantly in competition with others whose innovations match or trump their own. This competitive environment supports new and better methods of warfare and drives innovation.

European states provide a historical example of how almost continual warfare resulted in constant innovation. Each military innovation from one state was countered by new methods of defending against it. This process led to the development of better cannons, which were then countered with better castle walls. Although European wars lasted for centuries and often had unclear victors, when these states sought to colonize other parts of the world, they had a tremendous military advantage. In conclusion, war drives innovation and fosters societal progress.

The Paradox of War

How war helps nations expand and organize to maintain safe trade is explored, and the impact on people residing within the nation’s borders is highlighted. Violence, when used to suppress trade, gives way to increased trade and new opportunities for prosperity. The need to succeed in war and maintain peace motivated states to standardize currency and trade laws, reducing the motivations behind violence. Hence, the paradox of war is that violent wars expand nations, and force them to organize if they want to have a chance of surviving, providing the means and motivation to quell violence and foster safety. This book delves deep into how trade, prosperity, and violence are inter-dependent on one another and how one factor stimulates or suppresses the others.

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