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.