Damir Sagolj / Courtesy Reuters A painting is seen around the site where a shell landed during the 2010 North Korean attack on the island of Yeonpyeong, April 9, 2014.

Why They Fought

How War Made the State and the State Made Peace

In This Review

War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots
by Ian Morris
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
512 pp. $30.00
Purchase

War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization From Primates to Robots BY IAN MORRIS. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 512 pp. $30.00.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that the history of European philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. For Ian Morris, world history may be understood as a series of footnotes to Thomas Hobbes. In Hobbes’ philosophy, order takes pride of place among all social conditions. Without it, human existence becomes, in his oft-quoted phrase, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Order, he wrote, comes about through the creation of a powerful government, which he termed “Leviathan,” after the Old Testament sea monster.

According to Morris’ sweeping history of conflict from prehistoric times to the present, order comes from governments strong enough to protect the people living under their jurisdiction, just as Hobbes said it did. Such governments, in turn, emerge from war. The answer to the question posed by the title of Morris’ book is that war is good for producing safety -- in other words, that war is good for peace. To be sure, not all wars are, as Morris puts it, “productive”; those that weaken or break up Leviathans earn the label “counterproductive,” since they make people more vulnerable. In his telling, human history has seen long periods of both kinds. In making his case, Morris provides a useful overview of military history since the beginning of organized warfare, although his account runs into difficulties as it approaches the present.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

Morris’ account begins 10,000 years ago, in the Stone Age, when the planet’s several million human inhabitants lived in small, warring bands of hunter-gatherers. In this unhappy era, by admittedly very rough estimates, between ten and 20 percent of all people could expect to die violently at the hands of others. Over the next five millennia, conditions improved thanks to the first great change in the history of the human species: the advent of agriculture and the development of large,