- Hardcover: 512 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (April 15, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374286000
- ISBN-13: 978-0374286002
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.6 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 73 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #599,227 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots Hardcover – April 15, 2014
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*Starred Review* This erudite yet compulsively readable history of war (and actually much more) by archaeologist-historian Morris (Why the West Rules—For Now, 2010) takes the provocative position that, over time, the value of war, despite its horrors, has been to make humanity both safer and richer. He covers a vast span, from primitive (Morris enlists anthropological studies of chimpanzees and early “protohumans” to explain aggression) and ancient civilizations to the “American Empire.” War’s impact in terms of lives lost (as a percentage of national population) has lessened, Morris demonstrates, and its long-term effects have been, as he puts it, “productive.“ The thesis is elegantly advanced (there is something to marvel over or even chuckle about on almost every page). Morris is as comfortable referencing Edwin Starr, who sang the song from which the title derives, as he is Thomas Hobbes. Only large centralized states, Hobbes’ Leviathans, forged by war, can secure stability. Simply put, “War made the state, and the state made peace.” Throughout this rare mixture of scholarship, stunning insight, and wit, Morris cites the widely divergent opinions of past philosophers and scholars, and, though he makes his case convincingly, future (and, oh yes, the future is projected) students, readers, and critics of this book are likely to continue the fascinating argument Morris raises here. War! What Is it Good For? appeals to (indeed, may broaden) the large audience that has made Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), much quoted in it, a modern classic and should join it on personal and library bookshelves. --Mark Levine
“[Morris's] pace is perfect, his range dazzling, his phrasemaking fluent, his humor raucous…[A] rattling good book.” ―Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Wall Street Journal
“[A]n exuberant and wonderfully entertaining tour de force of history, archaeology, anthropology, geography, evolutionary biology and technological and military speculation that improbably combines a hardcore intellectual seriousness with a larky, almost blokeish note that would go down just as well on Top Gear as it clearly does at Stanford.” ―David Crane, The Spectator
“[Morris's] argument is brilliantly made, argued across a huge sweep . . . It is a magnificent and stimulating read, and should be given to anyone involved in the business of war and peace, or the human fate in any respect--and already a book of the year.” ―Robert Fox, The Evening Standard
“Morris's effort is in a different league . . . He is a much wittier and more self-deprecating writer than most of his competitors, has a sharper eye for facts and ancedotes, and steers well clear of preening bombast . . . Clear, acute and counterintuitive, his book is a pleasure to read.” ―Dominic Sandbrook, The Sunday Times
“Big ideas spill out on almost every page of War! This is that rarest of books, one that both entertains and challenges.” ―Alan Cate, Cleveland.com
“This erudite yet compulsively readable history of war (and actually much more) by archaeologist-historian Morris (Why the West Rules--For Now, 2010) takes the provocative position that, over time, the value of war, despite its horrors, has been to make humanity both safer and richer . . . Throughout this rare mixture of scholarship, stunning insight, and wit, Morris cites the widely divergent opinions of past philosophers and scholars, and, though he makes his case convincingly, future (and, oh yes, the future is projected) students, readers, and critics of this book are likely to continue the fascinating argument Morris raises here. War! What Is it Good For? appeals to (indeed, may broaden) the largeaudience that has made Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), much quoted in it, a modern classic and should join it on personal and library bookshelves.” ―Mark Levine, Booklist (starred review)
“A disturbing, transformative text that veers toward essential reading.” ―Kirkus (starred review)
“An ambitious, epoch-spanning study of violence writ large across time and place . . . A fascinating and stimulating work sure to compel readers of anthropology, archaeology, history, and futurity.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Ian Morris' evidence that war has benefited our species--albeit inadvertently--is provocative, compelling, and fearless. This book is equally horrific and inspiring, detailed and sweeping, light-hearted and deadly serious. For those who think war has been a universal disaster it will change the way they think about the course of history.” ―Richard Wrangham, author of Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence and Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
“Perhaps you think that you already know everything about the history of all peoples on all the continents for the last 15,000 years. Even if you do, you'll still get a fresh perspective from this thought-provoking book. With this volume and his previous Why the West Rules--for Now, Ian Morris has established himself as a leader in making big history interesting and understandable.” ―Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
“That war is the antithesis of everything we cherish in our modern civilization is that one rare idea nobody would dare disagree with in polite company. Nobody except Ian Morris that is. This delightful, erudite and thought-provoking book challenges some of our core beliefs. Morris argues, fairly convincingly, that far from being its antithesis, war is the mainspring of our civilization, and we are far from the last chapter of the history that war has made. You will be surprised, informed, entertained and most importantly challenged by this book.” ―Daron Acemoglu, coauthor of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
“We now live in a far safer, healthier, and more prosperous world than any of our ancestors ever did. Ian Morris has drawn upon a breathtaking array of data from paleography, anthropology, history, psychology, and political science to demonstrate the unpalatable but inescapable truth that we do so thanks to what has for centuries been seen as mankind's greatest scourge: war.Written with all of Morris' habitual narrative flair, this brilliant book will surely change forever the way we think about human conflict and what we should attempt to do about it in the future.” ―Anthony Pagden, author of Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West
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Of the accompanying ‘detours’, the most interesting (to this reviewer) were the thorough debunking of the theory that there is a unique ‘Western way of war’ and Morris’ explanation of why Europeans developed guns much more quickly than the Chinese despite the latter having invented and used them well before they reached Europe. Those who have read ‘Why the West Rules’ will be unsurprised to hear that Morris’ explanation regarding the second of these detours is largely based on comparative geography, with political conditions constituting a secondary if nevertheless important factor. Yet the role of geography in shaping Morris’ overall argument is much less important in this book that it was in ‘Why the West Rules’.
Instead, biology is the key factor underlying Morris’ conclusion in ‘War: What is it Good For?’. Having provided a longue durée history of war in human societies, Morris turns his attention in the book’s latter chapters to the evolutionary reasons underlying why various species evolved to utilise violence. He seamlessly ties this discussion into the emergence of warfare within early human societies, returning to his core argument with the added benefit of an interdisciplinary perspective.
In the final chapter Morris turns his attention to the near future, relatively speaking (although he does not define an exact timeline for many of his speculations, he regularly goes out to between 2020 and 2050 CE). This component of his discussion was the weak point of the book. Having spent six chapters establishing a comprehensive argument about the role of war in human society over a very long period of time, in the final chapter Morris’ emphasises the transformative nature of technological advances. His argument that due to new technologies the next few decades are likely to be very different to the hundreds of centuries that came before them seems overly-optimistic. Even though his overall argument provides some compelling reasons for optimism about the future, this final chapter would have been much more convincing were it based on the same historical and evolutionary arguments mounted in the rest of the book and not on a sudden turn towards technological determinism.
Finally it should be observed that Morris has written this book for a generally educated lay readership. Academic and military readers may find themselves frustrated or unconvinced due to the light style of the prose, the constant detours from the core argument, the use of very simple examples (occasionally these are overly-simplistic, especially where Morris discusses tactics) and the limited supporting data provided in some sections of the book. Yet despite these aspects, the inclusion of endnotes, a guide for further research and a bibliography have allowed Morris to maintain basic academic standards in an unobtrusive way. Readers who want to access this extra information can do so, without it constituting an off-putting element for other, more casual readers. For this reviewer the accessibility of Morris’ approach has been worth the sacrifice of the additional detail that is usually found in academic studies and it is hoped that the accessibility of this book will help to generate wider interest in the field of longue durée military history.
Due to the fact that this analysis is done at a very high level, combined with the facts that the argument is not that original and has been elucidated upon in much greater depth in the past by previous authors, the book is really only of value to the novice. This is despite the fact that the book is over 500 pages in length (and the audiobook version 14 CDs in length).
The book’s main weakness is that it does not analyze enough the many factors that accounting for this process. For example, institutionals that war has indirectly lead to in the process of state creation are barely discussed. These include, among other factors, the creation of tax collecting institutions and bureaucracies to administer both that function and many other functions of the state. The institutions that states had to facilitate to increase their income, both directly (i.e., trade development and facilitation, the development of industry and science) and indirectly (the promotion of education and public health, institutions that provide legitimacy and state stability [i.e., English expansion of the voting franchise in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and First World War]). Etc., etc., etc. The book is simply too weak in its examination of these institutional factors.
One would think that a book of this length would have been able to cover these factors. Unfortunately, one reason it does not, is that it goes on too many tangents. For example (and ironically) a too detailed discussion of weapons and military tactics instead of the impact of war on state institutions and the institutions mentioned above.
For these reasons this book is really of value only to the novice. For that audience the book would rank as a three to three-and-a-half-star book albeit even for that audience the book may lack the necessary depth. For the more knowledgeable student of history (especially of the development of state institutions), however, this book would be more in the range of a two to two and a half star.
Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel," but with a specific focus on how social Darwinism (through war) has created effective governments. Any description I provide sounds hopelessly simplistic. The prose is concise (American-like), the philosophy entertaining (like Paul Johnson) and the logic and justifications compelling.
Most recent customer reviews
Oh yes, two stars for an intriguing beginning.