Once and Future Warfare


Archaeologist and historian Ian Morris, author of Why the West Rules—For Now (winner of the 2011 PEN Center USA Award for Creative Nonfiction), writes about world history since the last Ice Age, trying to identify patterns that show us what will happen next. He has excavated widely in Europe and teaches in the classics department at Stanford University. His new book, War! What Is It Good For? is due out in April. We asked him to pose six questions about the future of world conflict and war.

1. Nothing seems less rational than using violence to settle arguments, which makes war—committing mass murder in pursuit of political goals—the stupidest invention in human history. Yet almost every documented society, going all the way back to the world’s first written records 5,000 years ago, has waged war. If war is really such a bad idea, why is it such an apparently permanent part of the human condition, and can anything alter that fact?

2. In the 1970s, the famous primatologist Jane Goodall made an amazing discovery in the forests of Tanzania. Over the course of four years, one band of chimpanzees waged war on another, systematically killing all its males and raping and abducting its females. Because we humans share 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, some biologists have concluded that both species are natural-born killers. Since the 1990s, though, primatologists in the Congo have found that bonobos—apes that also share 98 percent of their DNA with us—never make war. Will science tell us whether humans are genetically hardwired to be irrationally violent? If we learn that violence is not genetically determined, might we conclude that it is a rational response to the world we live in? Does either conclusion somehow absolve us of responsibility?

3. Late in the 20th century, anthropologists learned that feuding and war were extremely common among the world’s last surviving Stone Age societies. On average, something like 10 to 20 percent of people in these societies died violently, and archaeologists suggest that similar rates applied in prehistoric Stone Age societies. In 20th-century industrialized societies, by contrast—despite two world wars, the use of atom bombs, and multiple genocides—just one to two percent of people died violently. And as Steven Pinker pointed out in his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, in the 21st century the rate is, so far, well below one percent. Why, even though our weapons keep getting more destructive, has the risk that anyone among us might die violently fallen so much? Can that trend continue?

4. Between Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Britain enjoyed global military and financial dominance of a kind that had never been seen. Few governments dared to wage war without British approval, and the number of interstate conflicts fell to very low levels. When Britain weakened, the Pax Britannica broke down and the planet plunged into two world wars. Since 1989, the United States has enjoyed even greater military and financial dominance, and the number of interstate conflicts has fallen lower still; but many observers suggest that the United States is now weakening and the Pax Americana is breaking down. Is preserving American power the best hope for peace in the 21st century? Are there plausible alternatives?

5. Computers and robots are increasingly important in war. Since the 1991 Gulf War, computerized bombs and missiles have become much more accurate, reducing civilian casualties. Advocates of U.S. drone strikes argue that they have suppressed al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen while killing far fewer people than any other weapons would have done. By the 2040s, many experts suggest, wealthy countries will be using fully robotic weapon systems, removing the need to risk human lives on the battlefield at all. Is the computerization of war making the world a safer place? Can we imagine a time when war is utterly mechanized on both sides and no human casualties result? Will we call it war?

6. In the 1980s, there were 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world, enough to kill about a billion people, but this, many Cold War strategists argued, made the world safer because neither the United States nor the USSR dared use them. The fall of the Soviet Union rendered mutual assured destruction meaningless, and since 1989 the number of warheads in the world has fallen by 90 percent. Some statesmen even speak of a zero option, banning nuclear weapons altogether. However, nuclear proliferation is accelerating. There are now nine nuclear powers, and if Iran becomes the 10th, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates seem likely to follow suit in a Middle East nuclear arms race. The risk that nonstate terrorists might get nuclear weapons is also rising, producing a military balance far more complicated than that of the Cold War. In this case, would the zero option ever be wise?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Ian Morris is the author of Why the West Rules—For Now, winner of the 2011 PEN Center USA Award for Creative Nonfiction.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up