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A Productive Way of War

A few years ago, as I was writing an article about what it would take to transform history into science, I wanted to get a sample of what influential historians think about this idea. So I went through ten years of issues of Perspectives on History, a monthly bulletin of the American Historical Association. Every issue starts with a ‘President’s Column,’ in which a prominent historian, who happens to be the president of the association for that year expresses his or her opinion on the state of historical profession. A number of these columns were quite relevant to my interests.

Reading them, I learned that history is fundamentally different from natural sciences. In fact it is not science, but humanity. Furthermore, the great majority of historians don’t care about general laws in history. Here’s a quote from a 1999 column by Robert Darnton, which is quite representative of other AHA presidents’ views:

After a century of grand theory, from Marxism and Social Darwinism to structuralism and postmodernism, most historians have abandoned the belief in general laws. We no longer search for grand designs and dialectics. Instead, we concentrate on the particular and sometimes even the microscopic (microstoria, as it is known in Italy)—not because we think we can see the universe in a grain of sand but because we have developed an increased sensitivity to the complexities that differentiate one society or one subculture from another. Kosovo is very different from the rest of Yugoslavia, to say nothing of Vietnam.

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I find myself in agreement with the (implied) negative assessment of the ‘grand theories’ Darnton mentions (the ‘isms’). However, we now have better ones. And, of course, Kosovo is different from Vietnam! All human societies are unique. And apples are different from oranges. But both are fruit, and when they fall, they obey the general law of gravity.

But they also share certain general characteristics. When Hernán Cortés and his conquistadores arrived in Tenochtitlan, they had no trouble recognizing kings, nobles, priests, temples, and other trappings of complex societies. Although the Aztec and Spanish empires developed in complete isolation from each other, they hit upon quite a number of the same ways of organizing themselves, economically, socially, and politically. As a science-fiction exercise, imagine that you are a Cortés who arrived in a colony of human-sized ants. You would be completely at loss trying to make sense of how it functions.

So historians delight in the particular and even microscopic, but there are nevertheless general principles operating at macrosocial scales. While most historians are not interested in them, a few are. One such exceptional historian is Ian Morris.

Some of you may have read his book, Why the West Rules – For Now. If you haven’t, read it. Ian is not afraid of generalizing, and with a very broad brush at that.

Currently he is working on the next book that examines the role of war in human history. I just finished reading a big chunk of the first draft, and I can see it will be another ‘big book,’ the kind of history book that I like the most – those that offer both deep insights and detailed historical narrative to buttress the general theory. If you want to see a preview of his ideas, check out this article in Cliodynamics.

The most important idea in the book is that war, despite causing destruction, death, and huge amounts of human misery (Morris doesn’t glorify war), also played a creative role. Or, as Ian argues, there are both unproductive and productive wars. The unproductive wars just cause a lot of suffering. Productive wars, on the other hand,

produced larger societies, which pacified themselves internally, increasing wealth and population and simultaneously reducing the overall rate of violent death. These wars tended to be even crueler and deadlier than the forms of warfare practiced in prehistory, but despite their short-term costs, in the long term the violence made people safer and richer.

The late historical sociologist Charles Tilly coined the phrase, “war made the state, and the state made war.”

Ian Morris prefers a different variant: “war made the state, and the state made peace.”

It should come as no surprise to the readers of this blog that I think Ian is fundamentally right. While I prefer to think of war as ‘creative’ (evocative of ‘creative destruction’) rather than ‘productive,’ my own research also lead me to the idea that warfare has been the major selective force for the evolution of larger, more cohesive, and internally cooperative societies (see my previous blog).

However, I am afraid that Ian (and I) will have a very tough job convincing the general public that we are right. In the public debate in Knoxville, about which I wrote in my previous blog, during the time devoted to the questions from the audience, a visibly angry gentleman upbraided me for excusing war. He said something like, “what is war good for, except for making the rich richer and giving the powerful more power?” I am afraid that my response did not mollify him. Ian has a better response in his upcoming book, appropriately titled, War! What is it Good For? But I am afraid it’s still going to be an uphill battle. Most people will probably simply brand him as a war-monger. In fact, that’s what essentially happened in the comments to my previous blog.

Now I don’t want to imply that I agree with everything Ian says in his book. It would be out of character if I didn’t have something critical to say. But I’ll save that for the next blog.


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  1. John Lilburne says:

    I once did a mini overview of history and also came to see that unfortunately war has been a driving force in history. I enlarges the and enables greater group identity particularly in a preindustrial society. In a modern society war’s destructive effects overwhelm its group identity effects. Group identity creation has now been taken over by mass media.

    War Is the Health of the State Randolph Bourne 1918 . is a comment on how elites use war to use group identity to consolidate and expand their power. A dangerous “double or quits”type of game. That is if you lose you risk losing everthing including your life, but if you win continued adulation.
    War is also an elite tool. When hostile elites take over a country you can end up with an orwellian systemof perpetual war for perpetual peace-

  2. The main problem seems to be that people don’t recognise that evolution by natural selection is a description, not a recommendation, and this is as true when Darwin’s apparatus is used to atomise and interpret human culture as it is when it is applied to biological life. Neither Hitler nor herpes are to be loved, but in terms of selection, compared with the average man on the street or the average virus lost on the desert air, they’ve both done fairly well. As human beings and hosts to a generally civic and post-enlightenment culture we, well, I speak for myself, don’t want war for me, my family, my society or my country any more than I want to be infected by the ebola virus. But to identify and describe socialevolutionary outcomes of war and say some of them appear to have worked for the common good is not the same a trying to make warfare a manifesto policy for the betterment of humankind.

  3. Peter Turchin says:

    That’s right, neither Ian nor I want to recommend war as a way of fixing failed states (which is how it worked in history). Perhaps I am a hopeless romantic, but I am sure we (the humanity) can figure out how to keep the between-group competition part, which is critical for the evolution and maintenance of cooperation, and for social evolution, most generally, but dispense with the killing and maiming part. After all, nonviolent competition between firms in the market works quite well for economic growth. So we just have to do the same in the social and political arena.

  4. Lance R. Blyth says:

    I tried to make a similiar point about “creative war,” albeit not as sophisticated, in my monograph on borderlands violence, _Chiricahua and Janos_. I argued that violence was the means by which settler and native communities established, maintained, and changed relations within and between themselves. They were able to do so as they were in a borderlands, a region betwixt and between where neither could establish a monopoly on violence.

    I chose to use “violence” vice “war” as I felt the concept of violence could ‘scale up’ and would avoid the emotional response that “war” brings out in a humanities audience. (I won’t go off on a rant about the tendency of humanities academics to subsitute emotion for intellect when it comes to dealing with the brutal facts of history, such as war.)

    So far, I have been told that the response to the book has been positive amongst my borderland colleagues. Reviews are 1 for, 1 against (that one by a friend who has his own take), and another friend said recently, “okay, you’ve convinced me.” But borderlanders have long had to deal with the realities of violence in their histories, something most historians do not have to do.

    Interestingly enough I did have a section in the original introduction that laid out the evolutionary nature of this but the editors asked me to take it out, as they feared it would turn-off readers, and substitute more of a sociological approach, which historians are more likely to accept. I did so, somewhat reluctantly, but anyone who reads the endnotes will see the tip of the evolutionary theory iceberg. However, my history colleagues still have a long, long, long way to go before history is understood in an evolutionary light. (Why they don’t is a whole ‘nother question!)

  5. Peter Turchin says:

    Lance, this is very interesting. In fact, I’d like to have your book reviewed in Cliodynamics, and I have just the perfect reviewer in mind for it. Can you ask your publisher to send me a review copy? Send me an e-mail to peter dot turchin at uconn dot edu, and I will reply with my mailing address.