Thursday, October 2, 2014

Conflict and the Progress of Civilization

War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots by Ian Morris

War is one of the greatest human evils. It has ruined livelihoods, provoked unspeakable atrocities and left countless millions dead. It has caused economic chaos and widespread deprivation. And the misery it causes poisons foreign policy for future generations. But, argues bestselling historian Ian Morris, in the very long term, war has in fact been a good thing.

 War is the only human invention that has allowed us to construct peaceful societies.

Moreover, the march toward a more peaceful humanity from the Stone Age to the 20th century has not been steady but full of wild zigzags. In particular, Morris calls the anarchy of the Middle Ages the culmination of a millennium of "counterproductive wars that followed the breakdown of the ancient empires."

Hard as it may be to believe, in general, imperialism has advanced humanity by making it safer and wealthier, and by aspiring to a universalism beyond tribe and ethnicity. Hitler's attempt at imperialism burnt out after a few years because of his very extremism, whereas Rome, ancient Persia, Venice, Holland, France, Great Britain and America have all fostered, more or less, human development through various kinds of imperialist or imperial-like enterprises. And they have all done so in significant measure through war.

Imperialism has led ultimately to what Morris calls a "globocop," a role that the United States has played, however imperfectly, since the collapse of the Soviet Empire. America may get into Middle Eastern quagmires, but its Navy and Air Force, not to mention the reputation of its land forces and intelligence apparatus, project power sufficiently throughout the world so as to reduce the level of conflict and so far eliminate major interstate war.

The United States, for its part, has become the complex and productive society it is largely thanks to the rigors it has passed through in planning for armed conflict, especially World War II and the Cold War. Morris might have added to his text that mass college education, the explosion of suburban life and civil rights for minorities were all expressions of the further democratization of American life that would have been hard to imagine without the national unity enforced by having to fight the Nazis and the Japanese.

For we still live in the relatively benign aftermath of World War II, in which the greatest interstate war in history has led to 70 years without interstate war between the great powers. The 19th century in Europe, between the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of World War I, was a similar period when many people lost their sense of the tragic only to be shocked by what came afterward. We can only hope that Morris' defense of war actually proves accurate so that we can continue to enjoy relative peace.

Pic - "Father Of Us All"