A title on the merits of war throughout history

A title on the merits of war throughout history

War! What Is It Good For?: The Role of Conflict in Civilisation, from Primates to Robots

by Ian Morris

Profile Books, $35 pb, 506 pp, 9781781252963

It is a brave author who produces a book proclaiming the usefulness of war at a time when most of us are thinking about the horrors and wastefulness of World War I. Ian Morris, British by birth but now the Willard Professor of Classics at Stanford, and author of Why The West Rules – For Now (2010), has done just that and is receiving praise for his efforts. What are the merits of his case?

Morris, an archaeologist and ancient historian, grounds his argument on the observation that, over the long term, the rate of human deaths in war has declined. The essence of his argument is: ‘War makes the state, and the state makes peace.’ He traces the development of human communities from tribal groupings to agriculturally based settled groups, through to aristocratically ruled societies, then to oligarchies, and more recently to democracies. With a wide-ranging analysis of wars and warfare over the past ten thousand years, he builds up the evidence for his argument. With each new stage of social development, from tribes through to democracies, the level of violence that people have had to endure has actually decreased. Despite the huge numbers of casualties that individual conflicts, particularly the two world wars, have caused, the overall proportions of violent to non-violent deaths have declined significantly.

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Robert O'Neill

Robert O’Neill has worked in the fields of international relations, the history of war, and strategic studies since 1961. He was Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, 1971–82, Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, 1982–87, and Chichele Professor of the History of War, All Souls College, Oxford, 1987–2001. He served in the Australian Army 1955–68 and was mentioned in dispatches for his work in Vietnam, 1966–67. He was Chairman of the Council of the IISS 1996-2001 and of the Trustees of the Imperial War Museum, 1997–2001.

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