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War: What is it good for?: The role of conflict in civilisation, from primates to robots [Hardcover]

Ian Morris
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 April 2014

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. In his trademark style combining inter-disciplinary insights, scientific methods and fascinating stories, Morris shows that, paradoxically, war is the only human invention that has allowed us to construct peaceful societies. Without war, we would never have built the huge nation-states which now keep us relatively safe from random acts of violence, and which have given us previously unimaginable wealth. It is thanks to war that we live longer and more comfortable lives than ever before.

And yet, if we continue waging war with ever-more deadly weaponry, we will destroy everything we have achieved; so our struggles to manage warfare make the coming decades the most decisive in the history of our civilisation. In War: What Is It Good For? Morris brilliantly dissects humanity's history of warfare to draw startling conclusions about our future.

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War: What is it good for?: The role of conflict in civilisation, from primates to robots + Why The West Rules - For Now: The Patterns of History and what they reveal about the Future
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books (3 April 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 184668417X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846684173
  • Product Dimensions: 24 x 16 x 4.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 21,138 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ian Morris teaches classics, history, and archaeology at Stanford University. Born in Stoke-on-Trent in 1960, he now lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California. He has won awards for his writing and teaching, and has directed archaeological digs in Greece and Italy. He has also published 13 books, which have been translated into 13 languages. His newest book, "War! What is It Good For?" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Profile 2014), looks at war from prehuman times to our own, making two controversial claims--first, that war has helped humanity as well as harming it; and second, that war is now changing out of all recognition.

Product Description


Ian Morris' evidence that war has benefited our species-albeit inadvertently-is provocative, compelling, and fearless. This book is equally horrific and inspiring, detailed and sweeping, light-hearted and deadly serious. For those who think war has been a universal disaster it will change the way they think about the course of history. (Richard Wrangham Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human)

Perhaps you think that you already know everything about the history of all peoples on all the continents for the last 15,000 years. Even if you do, you'll still get a fresh perspective from this thought-provoking book. With this volume and his previous Why the West Rules-for Now, Ian Morris has established himself as a leader in making big history interesting and understandable. (Jared Diamond Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed)

That war is the antithesis of everything we cherish in our modern civilization is that one rare idea nobody would dare disagree with in polite company. Nobody except Ian Morris that is. This delightful, erudite and thought-provoking book challenges some of our core beliefs. Morris argues, fairly convincingly, that far from being its antithesis, war is the mainspring of our civilization, and we are far from the last chapter of the history that war has made. You will be surprised, informed, entertained and most importantly challenged by this book. (Daron Acemoglu, coauthor of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty)

We now live in a far safer, healthier, and more prosperous world than any of our ancestors ever did. Ian Morris has drawn upon a breathtaking array of data from paleography, anthropology, history, psychology, and political science to demonstrate the unpalatable but inescapable truth that we do so thanks to what has for centuries been seen as mankind's greatest scourge: war. Written with all of Morris' habitual narrative flair, this brilliant book will surely change forever the way we think about human conflict and what we should attempt to do about it in the future. (Anthony Pagden Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and Wes)

Morris is the world's most talented ancient historian (Niall Ferguson)

Big thinker Morris (Why the West Rules-for Now) returns with an ambitious, epoch-spanning study of violence writ large across time and place ... By surveying germane, timely issues from containment to ICBMs and "doomsday devices," as well as speculating on the potentials of the transhuman and posthuman, Morris casts a wide net ... A fascinating and stimulating work sure to compel readers of anthropology, archaeology, history, and futurity. (Publishers Weekly)

A profoundly uncomfortable but provocative argument that "productive war" promotes greater safety, a decrease in violence and economic growth ... A disturbing, transformative text that veers towards essential reading (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))

An ambitious, epoch-spanning study of violence writ large across time and place ... A fascinating and stimulating work sure to compel readers of anthropology, archaeology, history, and futurity. (Publishers Weekly)

Praise for Why the West Rules - For Now:

'A great work of synthesis and argument, drawing together an awesome range of materials and authorities

(Andrew Marr)

A provocative and extraordinary contribution to wide-screen comparative history ... a true banquet of ideas. (Boyd Tonkin Independent)

One doffs one's hat to Morris's breadth, ambition and erudition (Sunday Times)

An astonishing work (David S. Landes, author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations)

He is a much wittier and more self-deprecating writer than most of his competitors, has a sharper eye for facts and anecdote, and steers well clear of the preening bombast that so often disfigures such tracts. Clever, acute and counterintuitive, his book is a pleasure to read, and though his argument may be depressing, it seems pretty persuasive. (Dominic Sandbrook Sunday Times 2014-03-30)

Brilliantly argued across a huge sweep, combining history with human geography, human and natural sciences. It is a magnificent and stimulating read, and should be given to anyone involved in the business of war and peace, or the human fate in any respect - and already a book of the year. (Robert Fox Evening Standard 2014-03-27)

An exuberant and wonderfully entertaining tour de force of history, archaeology, anthropology, geography, evolutionary biology and technological and military speculation... a terrific book. (David Crane The Spectator 2014-04-04)

the author is an unabashed pop writer, using humour and anecdote to lively effect. The result is a mammoth work of scholarship, written in an entertainingly accessible style... If we think we can understand history, this admirably provocative book makes us think again. (Andrew Anthony Mail on Sunday 2014-04-20)

Morris has a lively writing style and enjoys provoking his readers. (Sir Lawrence Freedman Financial Times 2014-05-03)

It is the book's elegantly succinct prose that will most captivate readers. it is a book filled with lucid explanations of the most recondite questions, with many revealing quotations and witty asides. (Edward Luttwak Prospect 2014-05-22)

This is an astonishing book, full of controversy, brilliantly researched and thoughtfully argued ... one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking histories I've read in years. (Daily Telegraph 2014-04-26)

One of the most thought-provoking volumes you're likely to read this year. (Geographical 2014-06-27)

In this remarkable book, historian Morris argues not only that war is a source of technological advance but that it brings peace... the thesis is disturbingly persuasive. (Martin Wolf Financial Times 2014-06-28)

Book Description

A bold and controversial rethinking of the role of war in human history and how it will shape our future, sure to provoke debate, from the bestselling author of Why the West Rules - For Now.

Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Is Leviathan really so good it justifies war? 25 April 2014
The United States of America and the European Union share a western view of the world in which a democratic political order and the wealth engines of capitalism have made overt interstate violence obsolete. On this view, the great wars of the twentieth century were the last expressions of such violence and the culmination of a long historical process that began when human beings first let themselves be herded into organised states. Mass killing in warfare now seems abhorrent to us because modern political states have made it obsolete.
That claim is only the minor part of the message of the book War, by Stanford professor Ian Morris. The claim will probably find general agreement among the thinking public, in the western world at least. Citizens in democratic states with free markets recognise that their best interests lie in peaceful trade and cooperation. A Pax Americana has stabilised the free world and allowed a new and higher form of civilisation to flourish. Who among us would wish to disagree with that?
The major part of the message Morris delivers is more controversial. War, he contends, was the enabler for the evolution of modern states, which following Thomas Hobbes he calls Leviathans. Winning wars meant organising one’s own side more effectively than the enemy could organise its opposition, and this asymmetry became a ratchet in which bigger generally meant better. Might was right, and the biggest bully ended up taking all. Now we enjoy the peace and protection offered by the meanest monster on the planet, namely the sole remaining military superpower, the United States, Globocop.
Morris presents this message in a chatty style, replete with repetition to hammer home his core message, in the evident hope of making the book a popular bestseller.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Disturbing, But Thought Provoking 6 April 2014
By Charles TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The main claim of this book is very controversial, it states that war has been good for mankind, in fact it is the reason for our current increases in safety and prosperity. BS you shout, but let me explain:

There are two kinds of bandit, the first is the roving kind that just comes along, kill lots of people, steals everything then runs off. The second kind is the stationary bandit, they come along, kill lots of people, takes over by putting in place government and robs the population via taxes.

The stationary bandit wants to protect their population from roving bandits (they will steal wealth that the stationary bandit would have got via taxes) and suppresses violence between the population (well-behaved subjects were easier to govern and tax than angry, murderous ones.) This means the stationary bandit controlled areas are a lot safer to live in. This is very important when you take in to account archaeology findings that suggest Stone Age man lived in small groups and their lives were very violent with 10-20 percent dying a violent death. With stationary bandits, populations don't have to worry about violence as much, they can get on with doing their jobs, living safer and more prosperous lives.

Of course people are not going to just let the stationary bandit take over, thus war is how the stationary bandit takes control of the population and impose government with taxes to exploit the population, but at the same time protects them from violence from roving bandits and each other. The population is now a lot safer and this creates civilisation. It's government that's the good thing but the author argues that small tribes only submitted to government imposed on them via stationary bandits using war.
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I went to a meeting at the British House of Commons where Professor Ian Morris set out the main themes of his book and this encouraged me to buy and read it. Morris grew up in Britain and studied at Birmingham and Cambridge Universities before moving to the University of Chicago in 1987 and on to Stanford University in 1995. He is now Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and a Fellow of the Archaeology Center at Stanford University.

The title of this, his third, book is taken from the opening words of a song from Edwin Starr in 1969. It is quite a long work: a main text of almost 400 pages with another 70 pages of notes, further reading, and bibliography. But the historical scope is enormous - the entire history of humankind with a speculative look forward as far as the 2050s - and Morris has a certain narrative flair, so it is a fascinating read.

For all its scope, the book can be summarised in four claims:

1. War has created larger and safer communities.
2. War seems to have been the only way to create such bigger societies.
3. War has been responsible for making more prosperous societies.
4. War is now in the process of putting itself out of business.

Expanding on these themes, Morris acknowledged that 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 generates poisons foreign policy for future generations. Yet, in his view, there is a case to be made that it is thanks to war that we live longer and more comfortable lives than ever before.

Most of the book is a run through the history of humankind through the prism of war.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Fascinating and counter-intuitive
Published 1 month ago by Robert Davies
5.0 out of 5 stars War: What is it good for?
Incredibly thought provoking. Broad sweep from the start of civilisation to potential futures. Especially resonant for the present situation in Ukraine.
Published 1 month ago by Ken Padmore
1.0 out of 5 stars One Star
Too long and boring.
Published 1 month ago by Mr MJ Adami
5.0 out of 5 stars History served up with swashbuckling panache
Once upon a time, the subject of History was no laughing matter – indeed it was approached with the seriousness of a sermon from the pulpit. Read more
Published 4 months ago by TAMIM SADIKALI
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb
If I read a better book in the next couple of years I will be amazed.

The author's thesis about productive war is something that can be argued about, but here it... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Nicholas Walton
5.0 out of 5 stars The Purpose of War?
Ian Morris is a remarkable polyglot who is very persuasive about the importance of war in human development. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Roger Backhouse
1.0 out of 5 stars what is this book good for?
Over half way through and I may not survive to the bitter end. This is one of the more annoying history books I have read in a few decades. Read more
Published 5 months ago by A. Smith
4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting but very flawed
On the surface this is a very fascinating and scholarly book. However, if you are very familiar with all of the sources the arguments are soon rervealed as exaggerated and highly... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Dr Barry Clayton
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