No true war is bad?

On Facebook, my frined Timothy Scriven pointed to an opinion piece by classics professor Ian Morris headlined In the long run, wars make us safer and richer It’s pushing a book with the clickbaity title War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.”. Timothy correctly guessed that I wouldn’t like it.

Based on the headline, I was expecting a claim along the lines “wars stimulate technological progress” which I refuted (to my own satisfaction at any rate) in Economics in Two Lessons”. But the argument is much stranger than this. The claim is that war, despite its brutality created big states, like the Roman empire, which then delivered peace and prosperity.

For the classical world at 100 CE or so, the era on which Morris is an expert, that argument seemed pretty convincing. As the famous Life of Brian sketch suggests, Roman rule delivered a lot of benefits to its conquered provinces.

The next 1900 years or so present a bit of a problem, though. There have been countless wars in that time, and no trend towards bigger states. On the contrary two or three dozen states (depending on how you count them) now occupy the territory of the former Roman Empire.

You could cut the number down a bit by treating the European Union as a new empire, but then you have an even bigger problem. The EU was not formed through war, but through a determination to avoid it. Whatever you think about the EU in other respects, this goal has been achieved.

Morris avoids the problem by a “no true Scotsman” argument. He admits in passing that the 1000 years of war following the high point of Rome had the effect of breaking down larger, safer societies into smaller, more dangerous ones, but returns with relief to the era of true wars, in which big states always win. That story works, roughly, until 1914, when the empires he admires destroyed themselves, killing millions in the process.

After that, the argument descends into Pinker-style nonsense. While repeating the usual stats about the decline in violent deaths, Morris mentions in passing that a nuclear war could cause billions of deaths. He doesn’t consider the obvious anthropic fallacy problem – if such a war had happened, there would not be any op-eds in the Washington Post discussing the implications for life expectancy.

I haven’t read the book, and don’t intend to. If someone can’t present a 700 word summary of their argument without looking silly, they shouldn’t write opinion pieces. But, for what its worth, FB friends who have read it agree that it’s not very good.

31 thoughts on “No true war is bad?

  1. The Roman Empire survived on high taxes imposed by Rome. When Emperor Diocletian (Emperor from 284 to 305 AD) wanted to assure this tax flow he introduced the genesis of feudalism. Feudalism then dominated Europe right up until the nineteenth century. Russia, for example, only finally abolished serfdom in 1861. This is but one example of the bad side effects of war in the long run.
    Another is the obvious loss of sovereignty. The loss of sovereignty due to war (true or false) cannot be reversed simply by amalgamating states into larger entities. Look at Catalonia today. They were forced into a new Spanish nation by Franco. When the Catalan parliament declared independence on the 27 October 2017 the Spanish senate deposed them to impose direct rule.
    The thesis that in ‘the long run wars make us safer and richer’ falls down after empirical research. Of course it depends on Professor Morris’s definition of “us safer” . The obvious qualifier is “from what/whom”. But East Timor, West Papua, the Sudan, Iraq, Spain, Libya, Zimbabwe, Colombia….just to name a few ….seem to provide a weight of evidence for the Twenty-First century that disproves this thesis. None of these countries are demonstrably richer. To be shown that they are “In the long run…..safer” you would have to define what this means.
    Perhaps John Maynard Keynes may give a non-economists answer:
    “In the long run we are all dead.”

  2. You could also argue that the Russian and then Soviet/Eastern Bloc states, and the Communist Chinese state were large, “formed by war” and not that great for the development of the regions they covered.

  3. “..You could cut the number down a bit by treating the European Union as a new empire, but”

    But the wealthiest state today, the greatest imperial power, the hegemon par exceptionalism, the safest for its ruling class, the most technologically advanced, with far and away the largest military power ever, and growing, has done little else but plot and wage predominantly aggressive war for four hundred years from colonial European settler times to the present “pax americana”.

    It seems to work thus far. The thesis holds if Morris’ “us” is “them”, that ruling class..

  4. In my book pretty much every war since at least 1913 has been senseless. I say this after supporting the 2003 second Gulf War in error. I suppose Reagan taking Granada off the map that was pretty cool with a low body count. Margaret really had to stand up to the Argentinian Junta, though the British committed a couple of war crimes in all probability, I’ll pay that one. Putin’s snatching of Crimea in the face of insane American provocation was a good war. So some of these little actions were necessary and positive. But for the most part the wars since 1913 have been a disgrace.

  5. I liken war to bushfires, as we know controlled fuel reduction fires can promote growth but wild fires are purely destructive. Same with armed conflict, I believe. Western civilisation only grew because Western Europe was an obscure corner of the world protected from the worst conflicts that were occurring in Eastern Europe and Asia. While the surviving arm of the Roman Empire in the east battled on at Constantinople taking on the hordes coming out of Asia, first the barbarian tribes, then the Arabs, the the Russian Vikings before finally falling to the Ottomans after being fatally weakened by Christian crusaders from the West. Through this period say from 476 to 1453 the West was given time to build its wealth and military strength even though small scale war and pillaging went on but not on the scale that occurred in the Middle East. And of course the West felt confident enough militarily to take on Islam from1099 onward in the failed Crusades.

  6. “ Western civilisation only grew..”. I would say that western civilisation was shaped by war and that resources were diverted by war, impeding growth.

  7. “So birdy, pre 1913 your book has wars marked as ‘sensible’?”

    Not sensible. But many of them were actual wars. Two Princes fighting over an inheritance. As opposed to highly choreographed acts of genocide, pretending to be war. Which is more the post 1913 pattern.

    Take the Battle of Hastings for example. Harolds boys have the best position but they are already exhausted. Williams people had in earlier years had Harold captured and they allegedly got a promise out of him that England belonged to William. Thats a promise under duress even if true, so thats dirty business on the part of these pesky French-speaking vikings. But anyway William thought he had a claim.

    At the end of the day a very big chunk of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy lay dead on the ground. Hardly a peasant amongst them. Now thats real war. Physical violence over disputed territory. Whereas you look deeper into 20th Century wars there are all manner of hidden agendas and dark actors working off-stage. Even before we get to arms providers and lobbyists. Its a very different scene.

  8. War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robot
    The Kansas City Public Library
    Streamed live on Apr 29, 2014
    In a discussion of his new book, Stanford University’s Ian Morris takes the provocative position that despite its horrors, armed conflict has made humanity both safer and richer.
    The Chronicle Review
    The Shape of History
    Ian Morris, historian on a grand scale By Marc Parry February 25, 2013
    “…Yet the British-born 53-year-old is increasingly swapping this world of kale chips and hugs for the company of bankers and spooks. Their interest stems from his 2010 book Why the West Rules—for Now (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which analyzes 15,000 years of data to explain how the West came to dominate the globe over the past two centuries. Its backbone is an attempt to quantify, going back to the end of the last Ice Age, the “social development” of Eastern and Western societies—basically, their ability to get stuff done.

    If that isn’t chutzpah enough, the final chapter goes further. It predicts the future.

    Hence the summons to Langley. Morris gave a seminar about his data to a dozen people connected with the National Intelligence Council, which publishes a global trends report after each presidential election to guide the incoming administration. By Morris’s calculations, the “Western age” will end by 2103, with the East regaining the development lead.

    But Morris encouraged his CIA audience to see the bigger picture. Throughout history, the development of societies has spawned forces that disrupted them. As Morris has written, the empires of ancient Rome and Han China “set off migrations, wars, famines, and plagues that brought them down.” Today development promises to reach astonishing levels. By his calculations, it will grow “twice as much between now and 2050 as in the previous 15,000 years,” and double again by 2100.

    That means the rest of the 21st century won’t be just a shinier, faster version of the present. It will boil down to a race. Either technology will change what it means to be human, possibly rendering most of today’s problems irrelevant, or an Armageddon induced by climate change will destroy civilization first.

    … But like earlier periods of climate change, Morris predicts, “this one will not directly cause collapse.” The truly scary thing is how people might react to the weather. Climate change could unleash famine, enormous migrations, disease, and perhaps even nuclear war.

    And there’s the rub. Past empires were regional. So were the impacts of their collapses.

    “The big scary thing now is that the entire world has become one big experiment,” Morris says. After the Roman Empire fell (later corrected to AD100), he points out, it took 1,600 years for western Eurasia to climb back to the level of development that the Romans had enjoyed. “That’s a pretty catastrophic fall, but of course the Romans didn’t have nuclear weapons. The potential is there for a much more disastrous collapse.””
    “…War has been history’s greatest paradox, but this searching study of fifteen thousand years of violence suggests that the next half century is going to be the most dangerous of all time. If we can survive it, the age-old dream of ending war may yet come to pass. But, Morris argues, only if we understand what war has been good for can we know where it will take us next. (less)”

  9. but the way of war in ancient days was not just to get the loot.

    it was about slaves, millions of slaves.
    those mines and agricultural products and amazing constructions were done with slaves.

    also a plus, a regional tax base.
    farmed out to suitable persons.(who generally did very well thank you)

    our impression of the “good-old-days” is from the writings of the beneficiaries.
    no one else was literate.

  10. It has often been true, historically, that killing some people has made other people richer; but that is hardly a justification.

  11. May said “our impression of the “good-old-days” is from the writings of the beneficiaries.
    no one else was literate” which leaves us driving forwards using a rear view mirror image produced by and for the beneficiaries.

    When will humanity use history to produce topological rules instead of endless arguments of how the past was – as defined by winners and benefiaries – and why the past defines or predicts our future. We have free will yet don’t seem able to use it.

    “Some democratic peace researchers have been criticized for post hoc reclassifying some specific conflicts as non-wars or political systems as non-democracies without checking and correcting the whole data set used similarly. Supporters and opponents of the democratic peace agree that this is bad use of statistics, even if a plausible case can be made for the correction (Bremer 1992,Gleditsch 1995, Gowa 1999). A military affairs columnist of the newspaper Asia Times has summarized the above criticism in a journalist’s fashion describing the theory as subject to the no true Scotsman problem: exceptions are explained away as not being between “real” democracies or “real” wars (Asia Times 2006).” >Explanations >Definitions, methodology and data
    Not even the wayback machine has this article.

  12. Perhaps a look at tax re war;

    “Scott reminds us that until about 1600, the majority of human population lived outside state control; histories that focus on states and forget barbarians are forgetting about most humans alive. 

    …” the role of grain as a state-builder. In this story, the beginning of civilization – like the progress of the High Modernists – wasn’t an advance in human welfare or economic growth. It was an advance in tax collecting and the machinery of oppression; everything else followed.

    “From sunrise till sunset, may the name of Grain be praised”, said the Sumerians. And the ancient Greeks had their Eleusinian Mysteries, where “the mighty, and marvelous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest truths” was the “revelation of the mystic grain”. Can we trace a direct line from there to the sheaves of wheat that feature on fifteen out of fifty US state seals? On the National Emblem of China? The Coat of Arms of the Soviet Union? Does this last one really show the Earth caught in a pincers between two giant stalks of wheat? Should we really make impressionable schoolchildren sing songs of praise for “amber waves of grain”?

    “Read this book, and you may never think about cereal crops the same way again.”

  13. Morris’ argument, at least as presented, is not convincing at all, not even restricted to the Roman empire. In this, I am agreeing with the trend here: Gregory, tg, Bernie, rog, Svante, May, J-D, KT2 etc. Any ‘benefits’ brought by war are brought pro-rata to your position in the new state. Hardly controversial, is it? It is just plain old argument for hierarchical society by ‘merit’. Everything was a meritocracy at the time, you know, including feudalism. And couldn’t be questioned.

    The insiders of Rome benefitted, just as outsiders were erased from existence. Rome brought death to resisters, crucifixion to rebels and dissenters, or worse: reduction to a subhuman, slave status (where, technically, you might be ‘safe’ and fed as long as you followed the order).

    Is this really the best to be expected of human society and, therefore, our ultimate aim?

    If the answer is yes, then the argument is over. In fact, all the arguments are over. We can give up pretending in democracy and much else. That logical conclusion is never reached here, of course, because Rome, like every other big state, must rule by a mixture of force and fraud.

    If the answer is no, then we can dismiss this argument.

    And where is the argument at all? This is a theory which makes all other argument(s) redundant:
    1. The answer is big, safer states like Rome which bring ‘benefits’ that we can’t question the benefit of.
    2. Large wars form big states around us–the thing, inherently, that cannot be resisted.

    If you disagree, feel free then to choose one of the following:
    1. Go f*** yourself here.
    2. Go f*** yourself, over there.

    I disagree.

  14. Well that book review of Amber Waves of Grain was so good that it saved me the price of buying the book.

  15. Nick,

    My point was “until about 1600, the majority of human population lived outside state control”. So the war/s highlights what we in the west call history. And supposedly benefits – but at a price. The book and op seems to go from “the classical world at 100 CE or so”, straight into the western canon.

    Re the grain, I agree with the premise “the role of grain as a state-builder” and also, “that city economies “intensified grain production” because people liked beer.”.

    How easy to tax vs counting foraging or tubers hidden in the ground. And therefore “was an advance in tax collecting and the machinery of oppression; “.

    Yet I also thought some pre-humans (10m yrs ago) had been drunk ever since the ate fruit from the ground in summer…

    …”… his team found that a genetic mutation in our evolutionary past made ADH4 40 times better at breaking down ethanol.

    “The mutation was effectively ubiquitous in our ancestors by 10 million years ago, which might be significant. This is around the time that those ancestors started adapting to a terrestrial lifestyle and probably first encountered high ethanol content in fruits rotting on the forest floor. This point in prehistory also coincided with a period of climate change that saw forests in Africa shrink while grasslands expanded. In the new environments, fresh fruit would have been harder to come by.”

    I steered clear of alcohol until my 18th. I’d seen older players and supporters at local club footy (rugby by the cream of society on the nth shore of Sydney – hello Judge xxxxxxx) and decided alcohol made adults really stupid. Peace to war and back to peace within 3hrs after a game. I decided at my 18th I too, liked being ‘a bit stupid’.

    As with most of ‘our’ history, there is usually a large group / concept / oppressed missing, and as May points out, “our impression of the “good-old-days” is from the writings of the beneficiaries.
    no one else was literate”. 

    Perhaps I have a barbarians genes. When I read both the western views on war etc, the timespan chosen and the realisation the barbarians are missing, I want to know the back and side stories.

    As with the grain, beer, fruit and the  “ADH4 40 times better at breaking down ethanol” there is much more to take account of if we in the west are going to – mea culpa – solve war.

    An compressed alcohol story effecting society is from a show about ‘living like it is the middle ages’. No not that one where they had to forage like barbarians. The one i am thinking of gave ‘settlers’ enough to keep them until they were producing. Land, provisions etc but they had to be productive fairly quickly as I recall. The producers has a twist though. Before they went, each group was asked privately what “extra or special thing or tool they wanted” and would get after a successful first 3 mths. A spindle! A horse! Woohoo! Life will be easy now.

    One selected a still. For spirits. He kept it hidden. Plied chosen targets on the qt. He became ‘rich’ as yes, most wanted to ‘ be a bit stupid’ occasionally, some frequently, and use alchol medicinally. The group encountered philosophy, anger and addiction very quickly before devolving. I cannot find a sigh-tation as “moonshine” dominates the results.

  16. And male vs female ‘Reatance’ – and patriachy – and war – the anger response…

    “In this study the results were duplicated from a previous study by Hammock and J. Brehm (1966). The male subjects wanted what they could not obtain, however the female subjects did not conform to the theory of reactance. Although their freedom to choose was taken away, it had no overall effect on them.”

    …”previous research, they conclude reactance is in part related to an anger response. This verifies Brehm’s description that during the reactance experience one tends to have hostile or aggressive feelings, often aimed more at the source of a threatening message than at the message itself. Finally, within reactance, both cognition and affect are intertwined; Dillard and Shen suggest they are so intertwined that their effects on persuasion cannot be distinguished from each other.”

  17. Nick has touched off a nerve here, and I’ve speculated a lot about labour shortages and beer elsewhere. But I better just refer everyone to the superb leftist economist Michael Hudson. He’s done the hard yards on ancient labour and debt. But beer comes up …. big-time. You know you have a labour shortage if the bigshots have to offer huge amounts of meat and beer to get anything done. Our job is to create comparative labour shortages, without any unethical behaviour.

  18. KT2, I have no problem either with “the role of agricultural grain as a state-builder”, and grain’s “role in the evolution of taxation”. I think those are fairly uncontroversial ideas.

    The issue is the author’s thesis that *farmers had to be coerced into growing grain to facilitate taxation*, and therefore taxation equals oppression.

    Which I thought the reviewer politely and gently dismissed as ideological nonsense. I may have misread though.

    The author is referring to roughly five thousand years ago. I included the link on the Nartufians because it shows small-grained grasses had been a staple of the Levantine diet for at least another eight thousand years before that.

    Porridge with fruit and honey for breakfast suddenly tastes disgusting and isn’t nutritious enough following the rise of agriculture several thousand years later? People should have abandoned the city and their family and community, and had a tree change to some mythic bandit-free paradise, because they were apparently being forced to eat it by the state?

    I’m not intending to touch off a nerve. They’re just ideas. I think it’s a fascinating topic, and I’d be quite happy to read the book too. But I thought the reviewer sensibly warned to take a lot of it with a grain of salt.

  19. Nick, “not intending to touch off a nerve. They’re just ideas”. Same.

    “and had a tree change to some mythic bandit-free paradise, ” but what about all the barbarians?

    I view this like Hans Rosling would. Standard analysis or history seems like flashbulb memories noting the victors’ high points but leaving out Roman negatives and barbarians. It doesn’t do justice to the nuances imho. Some place were probably effected by grains – but not the tropics due to tubers being appropriate – so all that nuance get put aside.

    I am sure this wont be the last post.

    I appreciate your links too.


  20. Still a good discussion. Some good points. Interesting arguments.

    Nick wrote:
    “The issue is the author’s thesis that *farmers had to be coerced into growing grain to facilitate taxation*, and therefore taxation equals oppression. ”

    I wouldn’t say that. Taxation and the technologies used to enable it, like mobile phones or motor cars, are effectively neutral, since those technologies can be used for good or bad. If taxation and technology are used to control resources in a way that harms and coerces others, then it will be oppressive.

    Nick wrote:
    “People should have abandoned the city and their family and community, and had a tree change to some mythic bandit-free paradise…”

    I didn’t see anyone saying you don’t take your family. And the premise is that people will abandon a community if it feels bad for them, not on a ‘principle’, and if they feel they can do better somewhere else (whether correct about it or not). Likewise, I didn’t see the argument is that living by yourself or within small groups is a utopia. The main point is that the dangers in the hunter-gatherer group or small group settlement may have been exaggerated. So you have hairy cavemen going ‘ugh’ as they run about killing one another–and that’s your daily life. Therefore, we ask: Really? What is the evidence for that? At the same time, benefits of big city living may be overpraised, with dangers, disease, war, poverty, downplayed. I assume that’s what John meant by (Stephen) Pinker-style nonsense, who wrote a book about how wonderful the modern period is compared to the hunter-gatherer one. You ask: Really? What’s the evidence for that though Stephen? And the answers have left a lot of people dissatisfied with Pinker’s book, apparently. I must say though I haven’t read it.

  21. Cheers, KT2.

    Julien, I agree with you that taxation doesn’t equal oppression, oppression equals oppression. In the book’s introduction, however, the author refers to taxation as “the other plague”, and ranks it alongside the Black Death…

    People make tree changes for lots of reasons, and a city-state becoming too oppressive is certainly one of them. But I’d be surprised if the author has any better idea than you or I what the level of comings and going were in Uruk circa-3500BC, or even what the general public feeling was at the time to the city’s administrators and rulers.

    Bandits and barbarians existed. Sometimes they were more oppressive than a given state, sometimes less. ‘Barbarians’ can mean pretty much anything. Hostile or benign, the previous rulers of the old state displaced under the new one, organised raiding hordes, foreigners, boat people, Aborigines, a catch all for anyone and everyone who lives outside the city walls.

    It’s a far more over-generalised term than say ‘baby boomers’, and pretty much meaningless.

  22. Nick wrote:
    ” But I’d be surprised if the author has any better idea than you or I what the level of comings and going were in Uruk circa-3500BC …”

    You would be surprised? What if you are? Not sure what you’ve established there. I have not read the book and only read one review of it. It sounds interesting. Maybe it is: Maybe it isn’t.

    What is interesting anyhow are these observations:
    1. How shaky the ‘progress’ version of history suddenly becomes when put under any scrutiny.
    2. The basic formulation of society has been and is still control over resources. What you do to form a community is encircle the resources that the people nearby need to survive and thrive as human beings. They need them. So you then permit access to the resources but only to the extent those people follow your order(s).
    3. Control of resources, controls what people think. And the gated community locks insiders into the resources that control them as much as it locks outsiders out of them.
    4. Subsequently, all praise be to the ‘inside’. From those who follow its order and benefit. The outside is full of outside things to be feared. As you suggest, words like ‘barbarian’, ‘terrorist’ or ‘primitive’ are political terms. They are applied to the people or things we don’t like, of which we are afraid, or which are otherwise outside.

  23. My point was Scott has no idea what public opinion was in 3500BC, what the levels of coercion were inside the state, or what the levels of danger and threat were outside the state. Nobody does.

    His examples of slavery are from societies >1000 years into the future.

    The book can be downloaded here if anyone wants to read it:

    Click to access JAMES_SCOTT._AGAINST_THE_GRAIN.pdf

  24. Hmm, interestingly, you went from being prepared to be wrong/surprised to being absolutely sure that no one knows this stuff, quite quickly. I think I see what you mean though. But I would point out that ‘knowing’, is rather a high bar for even the hard sciences. That’s really not how it works. People do their research, gather evidence, combine this with other evidence, from other researchers, come to conclusions or to various hypotheses for further discussion. The discussion progresses. That’s legitimate. I hope to find that in this book. But I’ve just started to read it. It is interesting.

  25. “Hmm, interestingly, you went from being prepared to be wrong/surprised to being absolutely sure that no one knows this stuff, quite quickly.”

    Yeah, I read a few chapters of the book. It is interesting and worth reading, and generally he’s good at admitting “but of course, we don’t really know and I’m just speculating”. There are also many times through the book when he doesn’t do this, and it’s instructive to note where and when.

    The general consensus has been that while slavery was undoubtedly present, it was a relatively minor component of the overall economy. On the basis of my reading of the admittedly scarce evidence, I would dispute this consensus.


    The only substantial, documented slave institution in Uruk appears to have been the state-supervised workshops producing textiles that engaged as many as nine thousand women. They are described as slaves in most sources but also may have included debtors, the indigent, foundlings, and widows — perhaps like the workhouses of Victorian England. Several historians of the period claim that both women and juveniles taken as prisoners of war, complemented by the wives and children of debtors, formed the core of the textile workforce. Analysts of this large textile “industry” stress how critical it was to the position of elites, who were dependent for their power on a steady flow of metals (copper in particular) and other raw materials from outside the resource-poor alluvium. This state enterprise provided the key trade good that could be exchanged for these necessities. The workshops represented a sequestered “gulag” of captive labor that supported a new strata of religious, civil, and military elites. Nor was it insignificant demographically. Various estimates put the Uruk population at around forty thousand to forty-five thousand in the year 3,000 BCE. Nine thousand textile workers alone would represent at least 20 percent of Uruk’s inhabitants, not counting the other prisoners of war and slaves in other sectors of the economy. Providing grain rations for these workers and other state-dependent laborers required a formidable apparatus of assessment, collection, and storage. 16

    Reference 16 is an article providing estimates of the amount of grain storage available during various periods. There are no references offered at all to support his claim of “state-supervised workshops producing textiles that engaged as many as nine thousand women”. That strikes me as strange when you’ve just claimed to be disputing the consensus view.

    According to this source, there’s no evidence of textile factories of that size existing before the Ur III period, around 2200BC, by which time the region had become a major textiles hub. Yet he did his population comparison based on estimates from 3000BC…

    There are many other claims like this through the book which simply aren’t supported by any references, or where the references are inconclusive at best, and he’s clearly blurring the lines between “what he thinks happened”, and what the historical and archaeological evidence shows.

  26. Nick. Thanks “and he’s clearly blurring the lines between “what he thinks happened”, and what the historical and archaeological evidence shows.”

    Glad “generally he’s good at admitting “but of course, we don’t really know and I’m just speculating”.

    Even if it ends up as a ‘grain’ in the grannery, it certainly has provided grist for discussion.

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