War: What is it Good For?

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

At the heart of Ian Morris’s War: What is it Good For? lies a startling statistic and the counterintuitive thesis that flows from it:

We are used to looking back on the 20th century as comfortably the most violent in all human history — the silver medal usually goes to the 14th — but if Ian Morris (a fellow at Stanford University) is to be believed, the century that could wipe out perhaps 50 million to 100 million in two world wars and throw in the gulags, the Cultural Revolution, civil wars, government-orchestrated famine, trench-stewed pandemics and any number of genocides for good measure was, in fact, the safest there has ever been.


It would seem from the growing evidence of graves that Stone Age man had something like a 10–20 per cent chance of meeting a violent death, and if you factor in the anthropological evidence of surviving 20th-century Stone Age societies, then, as Morris puts it, Stone Age life was ‘10–20 times as violent as the tumultuous world of medieval Europe and 300–600 times as bad as mid-20th-century Europe.’

(I suspect that summary oversimplifies.)

You’d think there’d be a better way to tame Man’s violent tendencies, but so far Leviathan — birthed by War — is the best we’ve found:

If the Roman empire could have been created without killing millions of Gauls, if the United States could have been built without killing millions of Native Americans … if conflicts could have been resolved by discussion instead of force, humanity would have had the benefit of larger societies. But that did not happen … People hardly ever give up their freedom, including their rights to kill and impoverish each other, unless forced to do so, and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war, or fear that such a defeat is imminent.


  1. Toddy Cat says:

    “United States could have been built without killing millions of Native Americans”

    What the Hell is this idiot talking about? The United States was not built by killing “millions” of Indians, or anything like it. Total casualties on both sides in all the Indian Wars from colonial times up until 1890 were abut 30,000 on each side, and could have been lower. Lots of Indians died from epidemics brought by whites, but there was nothing that could have been done about this — the second contact was made between Europeans and Indians, the diseases started to spread, and it wouldn’t have mattered if Custer and the Seventh Cavalry had all been pacifist hippies waving flowers. Even then, most of the dead were in South and Central America. BS like this does not make me want to read this guy’s book.

  2. Neither were millions of Gauls killed in the romanization of the Gallic tribes, for that matter.

  3. Zhai2Nan2 says:

    There were at least three white-related sources of Native American deaths: (1) formal wars, (2) epidemics, (3) low-intensity war atrocities without orders from government.

    There were, furthermore, many other sources of death that cannot be blamed on whites. (E.g. the self-destructive internecine warfare of local tribes, etc.)

    I will post about the demographic decline of the American aborigines after I get done posting about the Boer War.

    Broadly, I will claim that the English did a bad job of diplomacy with the American Indian; the French would probably have done a better job.

  4. We don’t have to wonder, really; we know how the French interacted with the various aboriginal tribes of North America, because they had extensive colonies at the same time as the British. That said, their economic motive was extraction of natural resources more than colonization, and they were dealing with different tribes.

  5. Bruce says:

    Scipio, is the “Caesar killed a million Gauls, enslaved a million more” proven false? I’ve believed it for years. Round number, sure.

  6. Typical Roman exaggeration or “historical showmanship” if you will. The best modern estimates are still in the hundreds of thousands, mind you, but not a million and certainly not millions dead.

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