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War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots Hardcover – April 15, 2014

4.0 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*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

Review

“[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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (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: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #483,309 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 14, 2014
Format: Hardcover
One of the hallmarks of a great work of history is a bold and controversial claim which is then supported by a heavily documented and fascinating text. Ian Morris, a professor of Classics and History at Stanford University, has demonstrated with War! What Is It Good For? that he fully deserves to be numbered among modern masters of the craft of producing brilliantly counter-intuitive history. I found War! What Is It Good For? to be both absorbing and provocative, filled with impresive analyses of the past and predictions for the future and supported by meticulous notes, suggestions for further reading, and a long and detailed bibliography.

It is a truism that war is a "Bad Thing," wasting resources and human potential and, even when it is brief and relatively unbloody, leaving the world much worse off. Morris does not necessarily disagree here (it is an enormous exaggeration to maintain, as have some, that he is a war-monger), but his main thesis holds that war has been beneficial to humans throughout history by encouraging the development of bigger, more complex societies with governments powerful enough (Morris aptly calls them Leviathans) to enforce law and order, thus allowing civilization to expand and prosper.

Morris amplifies and expands on this thesis in a series of five chapters tracing humanity's warlike ways from prehistory through the end of the Cold War. He freely makes use of such paradoxical terms as "productive war" and provides a series of fascinating and colorful anecdotes to illustrate his claims. I enjoyed his cross cultural comparisons and appreciated his refusal to fall into the trap of "Western exceptionalism," even in Chapter 4 which covers Europe's rise to global power. The final two chapters are probably the most important.
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This is a highly interesting and well-writtten book, which I can recommend to history buffs and people who are interested in how the world got to be the way it is. But be warned; this book is extremely "politically incorrect" from multiple standpoints, even including my own. If you are a pacifist or just an ordinary peace-loving citizen who views war as a necessary evil at best and never a positive good, you'll be horrified by this book. If you share the view that the last several centuries of human history have consisted of a struggle between evil white European colonizers and exploiters and noble, victimized "indigenous peoples", you'll be outraged. And as for me, I'm a libertarian, a believer in the virtues of smaller and less powerful governments, so I'm not exactly comfortable with the author's conclusion that one of the things war is good for is creating bigger and more powerful governments. But Ian Morris makes a case for his heretical viewpoint that is hard to dismiss.

It's not that Morris is unaware of the death, destruction, and horror that that war has caused throughout history. Nor does he deny that most wars have been started by would-be conquerors who are, morally speaking, little better than "stationary bandits"-- bent on plundering the people of a particular geographical area on an ongoing basis rather than, like ordinary bandits, robbing and then moving on to rob other people elsewhere. And Morris doesn't claim that all wars are beneficial to humanity. He makes a sharp distinction between what he calls "productive" and "counterproductive" wars. Productive wars, in his view, are those that result in the establishment of large, powerful and stable governments.
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Ian Morris,

While I agree with your premise, I'd like to suggest a minor refinement to your theory.

It is not that states are bigger, but that the more homogenous the rules are within any geography the lower the transaction costs (friction of cooperation), and therefore the decrease in risk and increase in velocity of trade. And with the increase in velocity of trade comes the resulting wealth.

This is perhaps too much economic-speak for your audience but it is the causal reason behind your observation. I think that given certain examples: Greece, Rome, and England, your argument is true. But I think the counter examples are the Mongols, Arabs, the Russians and the Turks. All of which are predatory and extractive governments.

What troubles me about your argument is that as you've positioned it, without this clarification that it's the homogeneity of rules and whether the rules are extractive or constructive, then it's not exactly true. Because the highest trust, most economically advanced regions of the world - Northern Europe - did not evolve from or into large states, and instead maintained a large number of very small states, all of which adhered to the same ethical rules.

It was the large state that was created by Napoleon, and his invention of "total war" combining credit, conscription and total mobilization of the state for the conduct of war, that destroyed the small state model by forcing the german principalities to unify into the german empire. It was this series of actions that eventually led to the great european civil war that appears to have brought european civilization to an end.

Large states are an inhibition on progress, not a contributor to it.
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