By Andrew Muse-Fisher
On February 11 at UC San Diego, Professor Ian Morris of Stanford University discussed his upcoming book “War! What Is It Good For?”, sharing his frightening revelation that war is ultimately good in aiding in the growth and development of the world as a whole. As disheartening as this conclusion may seem, it is backed by thousands of years of research that predicts reduced violence and continued growth as a result of war and conflict.
To begin, Professor Morris looked at the instances of violent deaths starting around 15,000 years ago during the Stone Age. At this point in time, people had between a 10% and 20% chance of dying violently. Now, that percentage has decreased to around 2%. Rather than defining war simply as a large regional conflict, Morris looked at the rate of violent deaths over time in order to emphasize how war is not always a grand clash of countries’ armies, but also small instances of violence within communities.
Having reached this conclusion, Professor Morris provided three points that formed the backbone of his argument. First, he stated that wars have created larger, more peaceful and organized societies with reduced risks of violence. The foundation for this idea lies in the process of war. In waging war, a country or region needs to be efficiently run and well-equipped in order to defeat the opposition. This often causes organizational reform and an increase in GDP as a country prepares itself to win. Once one side or the other is defeated, a similar conflict is much less likely to arise. This broadly illustrates how in spite of the violent nature of war, there is still room for development without fear of further opposition.
Professor Morris’s second point is that war is the worst way to create larger, safer societies, but it is the only way humans have found to develop them while simultaneously reducing conflict. As the population quickly increased and the regions of the world grew more closely related, this became increasingly true; conflicts between regions were more easily solved through war than through peaceful means. To exemplify this variation between different sized groups, Professor Morris looked at Jane Goodall’s study of chimpanzees and how they frequently wage war on neighboring groups, usually resulting in the death of a majority of the losing group’s chimpanzees. He then contrasted this violent interaction with the peaceful “make love, not war” form of conflict resolution used by bonobos, wherein neighboring groups of bonobos ease tension through sex instead of violence. The practices of the different groups of monkeys demonstrate how war is almost always an option in dealing with conflict; however, in small groups, more peaceful options are equally viable in preventing conflict. Unfortunately, the world has developed to a point where violent means are more feasible than peaceful means in working towards growth.
The final point is that war is so effective that it is putting itself out of business. With each war that occurs, the world is less likely to experience further violence. This occurs for two reasons. The first is that the aforementioned economic and organizational growth creates a sort of satisfaction that diminishes the likelihood of further conflict. The second reason is that at the end of a war of conflicting beliefs or ideologies, the opposition is no longer around to raise dissent or an army to prolong the conflict. In other words, effective war provides a way to ensure the conflict does not or cannot rise again, providing peace down the road. This final point is perhaps the silver lining in Professor Morris’s otherwise somber argument. The hope is that thousands of years of war and death are leading up to a future nearly free of conflict and violence.
What Professor Morris’s argument comes down to is that the ends do indeed justify the means. War provides this world with the kind of economic and political developments that allow it to grow with a reduced likelihood of conflict. As unpleasant as Professor Morris’s realization is, one cannot ignore the decrease in violent deaths or the increase in levels of safety and peace, especially in recent years. This argument should not be seen in favor of war in order to promote growth. Rather, it is an observation of the historical benefits that aid human development and potentially outweigh the costs of war.
Photo by JCB Walsh