Ian Morris, a professor of Classics at Stanford, argues in the Washington Post that, in the long run, wars make us safer and richer. Perhaps it is just too difficult to make such a counterintuitive argument within the limited space of an opinion column, but his piece is one big mess.
The essence of his point is that modern people are much less likely to die violent deaths (at the hands of other humans) than stone-age people were, and that the reason for this is because we have formed large societies. In order to form large societies, we needed a long series of subjugations where the vanquished were not killed but brought into the conquerers’ system. To accomplish this, governments were formed with the primary job of pacifying their subjects through a variety of means, including law enforcement. Therefore, war and coercion are not the evils that they may seem to be at first consideration. He might have added religion to the mix here, but he didn’t.
One might ask why he wrote this column in the first place. Does he think we aren’t fighting enough wars? To get some idea of his motivation, you have to read to near the end, where he appears to compare the United States to the British Empire and suggest that we need to have the stomach to be the global sons of bitches the whole world needs us to be.
Like its predecessor, the United States oversaw a huge expansion of trade, intimidated other countries into not making wars that would disturb the world order, and drove rates of violent death even lower. But again like Britain, America made its money by helping trading partners become richer, above all China, which, since 2000, has looked increasingly like a potential rival. The cycle that Britain experienced may be in store for the United States as well, unless Washington embraces its role as the only possible globocop in an increasingly unstable world — a world with far deadlier weapons than Britain could have imagined a century ago.
American attitudes toward government are therefore not just some Beltway debate; they matter to everyone on Earth.
Why is this piece such a mess?
First, retracing the history of societal formation and noting that war and coercion were indispensable tools in those formations doesn’t obviously tell us anything about whether or not we can improve people’s safety or make them richer by using war and coercion today.
Even in his piece, Prof. Morris notes that war may not make societies bigger and stronger, even in the long term.
For 1,000 years — beginning before Attila the Hun in the AD 400s and ending after Genghis Khan in the 1200s — mounted invaders from the steppes actually threw the process of pacification into reverse everywhere from China to Europe, with war breaking down larger, safer societies into smaller, more dangerous ones.
In fact, he begins his piece by referencing a retrospectively naive book written in 1910 that predicted that war had become obsolete. But he doesn’t explain how World War One made people safer or richer.
I think we can see in places like Congo, Syria, Sudan, Libya, and Iraq that the absence of sufficient force can make people less safe and much poorer. Perhaps the people in those countries would benefit if someone came along who was strong enough to subjugate all the warring factions and make them live peacefully together. But, of course, these theoretical strongmen would have to kill and threaten to kill a lot of people in order to accomplish their goals. And that would definitely not make people safer or richer in the short term.
To some degree, Prof. Morris seems to be arguing in favor of larger societies that use bigger governmental organizations because these bring more people together and protects them better than smaller societies with less coercive capability. He could have made an argument in favor of the nation-state as an innovation that brought more peace than war. But he chose to argue that war is, in itself, even in this day and age, a positive good. War is Peace, in other words.
And America needs to bring the peace.