War: The Beneficial History of Conquest(?)
By Heath Shive
The only constants in life are death and taxes. And nothing quite blends these two constants better than war.
War is always expensive (and thus needs taxes) and always lethal (and thus requires death).
There seem to be 2 dominant emotions about war. War is either a grotesque evil or a glorious expression of ideals.
But is war good for anything?
And according to nationally renowned history professor Ian Morris, the answer is yes – as long as the war accomplishes one thing.
What thing is that?
To the history of war!
Savage Past, Peaceful Present
In the 1990s, anthropologist Lawrence Keeley (author of War Before Civilization) showed that the Stone Age societies that still existed in the 20th century were shockingly violent. Feuding and raiding typically carried off 1 person in 10 or even 1 in 5.
Ian Morris cites that by most estimates 10 to 20 percent of all people living in Stone Age societies died at the hands of other humans!
Primitive humanity was ultraviolent!
Ian Morris makes this comparison. After World War Two, between 1950 and 1974, just 1 Scandinavian in 5,000 and 1 Briton in 4,000 died violently, and while the American homicide rate – 1 in 700 – remained higher than Europe’s, it had still fallen 50 percent since the 1930s.
How did humanity decrease its violent death rate by 99% over the course of a few thousand years?!!
The answer: War.
Conquest Is Good?
Ian Morris wrote the fascinating book War! What Is It Good For? The book is over 400 pages long, so it’s hard to summarize his theory in a blog article. But here it is.
In the ancient past, humanity was comprised of hundreds of tribes – each with a territory defined by a border.
Since war is overwhelming fought along borders against external foes, the more borders that exist the greater the number of wars.
But a funny thing happens when your tribe is conquered by an empire! Your tiny wars stop, the tribes are overwhelmed by a new over-arching political identity, tranquility is enforced, and the society becomes more prosperous.
The Romans were militant and aggressive, but after the Romans conquered your smaller state, you were part of the empire. The Romans conquered you…then protected you. War moved away from you to the new border and peace followed – the Pax Romana.
In ancient China, there was the classical period of the Seven Warring States. All of these States were conquered by the Han Dynasty, which imposed peace and created a Pax Sinica (Morris’ words).
Once India was a jumble of dozens of competing rajah states. Then the British Raj conquered the entire subcontinent. Death rituals from suttee to thuggee were abolished. Following the last War of Indian Independence (or Sepoy Mutiny, depending on whom you ask), the subcontinent had 80 non-war years – time enough to form a comprehensive national identity. The British Empire disintegrated…but India did not, and remains one united nation to this day.
The Roman Empire, the Han dynasty, and the British Raj were no paradise – but they were considerably less violent than their predecessors.
This is Morris’ theory: War only becomes a net positive if it results in the expansion of the nation-state.
So according to Morris' theory, any war or conflict that does not expand the nation-state is a loss. Death and taxes are a constant. It's bad enough to lose tax revenue to war. To lose the lives of your people too...
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Morris, Ian. War! What Is It Good For? : Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.
Keeley, Lawrence. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Oxford University Press (New York), 1996.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.