The Lessons of War

by Ray Grigg

Wars, as far as we can tell from archeological records, have been fought for at least 50,000 years. Indeed, throughout our human history we have become remarkably accomplished at waging wars — with rather remarkable results, according to Ian Morris, an historian, archeologist and classicist from Stanford University in California. Morris explores this fascinating subject in his book, War! What Is It Good For?, and in an article of the same title in NewScientist (Apr. 19/14).

Morris argues that the strategy of war began to change about 10,000 years ago when the losers were not displaced or slain but integrated into the societies of the winners. This was done for practical rather than humane reasons — in the sedentary cultures of the early Agriculture Age larger societies meant more power. Violence within these societies was suppressed by stronger governments, and the imposed peace had the beneficial effect of producing order, safety and prosperity. The wars that did occur may have been bigger but they were less frequent, and they were wars intended for conquest rather than slaughter.

Morris supports his argument with interesting statistics. Judging from the skeletons found in archeological digs, he concludes that about 10 – 20% of Stone Age people — those living prior to 10,000 years ago — died violently from wounds inflicted by others. The feuding seemed to be incessant and widespread. With the shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture, two primary changes occurred: populations that once doubled every 12,000 years were now doubling every 2,000 years, and an agrarian lifestyle meant people could not be easily displaced.

Rising populations of immoveable people so altered the purpose of war that by about 3,100 BCE much of the Nile Valley of Egypt had consolidated into a single society. A millennium later, a similar social structure pervaded the Indus Valley of India, and a millennium after that the Yellow River Valley of China was bound together by the Shang Dynasty. The same process then took place in the Mediterranean region with the Roman Empire.

Violent deaths in these new social structures fell to 2 – 5%. The death rate rose again to the 5 – 10% range over the next millennium when the steppe nomads such as Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan created social chaos throughout Asia and Europe. When the effectiveness of their horse warfare was countered by 17th century guns, Europeans were able to export their own brand of wars and social subjugation to their expanding colonial empires. Despite the world wars of the last 100 years, the rate of violent death remained in the 1 – 2% range. Since 2000, according to UN studies, it is 0.7% and falling. Morris’s model suggests we are on a clear trajectory to greater peace and safety.

Encouraging as these statistics are, Morris’s conclusion is sobering. “The unpleasant truth seems to be that while war is probably the worst way imaginable to create larger, more peaceful societies, it is pretty much the only way humans have found [to do so].” Over a 10,000 year period, “war made states, and states made peace.” According to Morris’s thinking, people did not become peaceful because they were guided by some lofty moral imperative. Rather, they were forced to be peaceful by the consequences of wars — we have so far averted nuclear annihilation because the promise of “mutually assured destruction” has kept us from unleashing the missiles. “It is a depressing thought,” Morris writes, “but the evidence again seems clear. People almost never give up their freedom, including their ‘right’ to kill and impoverish each other, unless forced to do so; and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war or fear that such a defeat is imminent.”

Morris’s thinking would suggest that professional and olympic sports are forms of ritualistic warfare which are socially sanctioned expressions of our inner urge to fight. The economic system we call capitalism, when reduced to its competitive essentials, can be understood as warfare civilized by those enforced constraints that keep its real character from turning societies into either triumphant winners or abject losers — whether capitalism would “kill” people is a moot point but, if the 1% of the richest will control 50% of all wealth by 2016, this gives credence to Morris’s argument that capitalism is quite willing to “impoverish” the defeated.

Apply Morris’s ideas to our relationship with nature and the implications are much more chilling. If our inherent disposition is to be at war with nature, what is the likelihood that we will voluntarily initiate a comprehensive peace? Does our character exclude the possibility that we could ever realize the order, safety and prosperity resulting from a global society of all species living together in some kind of harmonious ecological balance? Will our warring and competitive inclinations commit us to a behaviour that will inevitably lead to calamity for both ourselves and nature? Or, when poised on the brink of “mutually assured destruction”, will we belatedly realize that the only peace available is a tense and tenuous one of our own making?

Ian Morris provokes some introspection that is worth exploring. Should we disagree with his analysis, a different assessment may help to clarify our thinking and further improve our prospects. Since we are apparently warring less with each other, perhaps our next objective should be more peace with our planet.