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War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots
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War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots

3.95  ·  Rating Details  ·  437 Ratings  ·  75 Reviews
A powerful and provocative exploration of how war has changed our society—for the better

"War! . . . . / What is it good for? / Absolutely nothing," says the famous song—but archaeology, history, and biology show that war in fact has been good for something. Surprising as it sounds, war has made humanity safer and richer.

In War! What Is It Good For?, the renowned historian
Hardcover, 512 pages
Published April 15th 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published February 14th 2011)
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Nov 14, 2015 Bou rated it liked it
War is good for absolutely nothing; it means "destruction of innocent lives" and "tears to thousands of mothers' eyes" – according to the lyrics.

Paradoxically, Ian Morris comes to a different conclusion: he argues that humanity has actually benefited from centuries of warfare. Only through warfare has humanity been able to come together in larger societies and thus to enjoy security and riches.

The measurement that Morris takes throughout his books is the chance that you had for a violent death.
Gavin Armour
Seit Jared Diamond 1997 sein epochemachendes und immer noch als Standardwerk gehandeltes Buch GUNS, GERM AND STEEL: THE FATES OF HUMAN SOCIETIES vorlegte und darin u.a. eine stark geographisch/geologisch geprägte Theorie der Entwicklung menschlicher Zivilisationen ausarbeitete, wurden immer mehr Versuche unternommen, die Menschheitsgeschichte als Ganzes zu erklären, mal unter der Prämisse „Zivilisation“, mal unter der Prämisse „Reiche und Imperien“. Unter anderem untersuchte der in den U.S.A. an ...more
Aug 14, 2014 Robert rated it liked it
I want to give this book four stars, because it's an enjoyable, thought provoking read on the role of war in the sweep of human history. I have at least a couple major concerns, however:

1) Much rides for Morris's theory on the distinction between "productive" war, which leads to increased social complexity, and "counterproductive" war, which leads to decreasing social complexity. Though he provides some suggestions as to the character of each, much of the distinction seems apparently only after
Robert Morris
Sep 19, 2015 Robert Morris rated it did not like it
Be careful what you wish for. In a lot of ways Ian Morris is my kind of historian. He is unafraid to use what he has learned to teach big important lessons, which I admire. I have always thought that too many historians are overly cautious, and spend their time focusing on the minutiae of an era, rather than trying to apply the lessons of that era to our own. This book provides a pretty compelling illustration of why those historians might have the right idea.

Morris has done a number of unconve
Josh Friedlander
Similar in spirit to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, this book presents something of a compressed Grand History of humanity, and attempts to draw from it answers to big questions. Its author, who received his Ph.D. in Archaeology, now teaches History and Classics in sunny Stanford and in his spare time, per this engrossing Chronicle of Higher Ed piece, consults to CIA spooks and Kissingerian foreign policy realist types (von Clausewitz, the father of them all, gets name-checked repeatedl ...more
Ali Khan
Dec 25, 2015 Ali Khan rated it liked it
The book has an interesting thesis, that war has been a force for good in human history (most of the time). He has a compelling argument and his analysis of ancient warfare was interesting. However as the book got closer to the present its argument became weaker. He says colonization was productive for the globe despite the fact that it was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions. He admits that the statistics he puts forward on colonization were ones he made up on the spot, and still ...more
Oct 11, 2015 Rossdavidh rated it liked it
Shelves: black
Subtitle: "Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots".

Ian Morris is trying to tackle a Big Topic here: what are the long-term impacts of war? He has a lot of successes, and then he ends with one big failure.

His first success is in addressing whether or not his question is even proper to ask: what is war good for? The obvious answer is, 'nothing'. Maybe this is the right answer now, but it wasn't for most of human existence, and that is so for a non-obvious reason. Prior t
Aug 31, 2015 Realini rated it it was amazing
War! What is it Good For? By Ian Morris
One of the best books I have read…ever- 15 out of 10

This is a marvelous book, one of the best I have ever read, even if the subject appears to be repulsive- War…
And the question in the title is certain to repel many would be readers and how mistaken they could be?
I have known about Ian Morris for about one year now, ever since I had the chance to start reading another masterpiece of his:
- Why the West Rules- For Now
In fact, I even have the notes on that in
Brilliant book about the place of war in the history of the world, especially Eurasia. Where the author will draw unwelcome attention is their reading of wars that were productive and those that were unproductive. Ian Morris is probably correct in his assessment, but the pacifists [aka aging Counter Culture nutters and their ideological descendants], a loud and obnoxious group, have already taken him to task for this insight.

This is unfair and unwarranted.

Setting aside the psycho-drama, this i
Peter Mcloughlin
War has been with civilization from it's founding. It also has its roots in the deep past. Other species of chimps engage in a violent collective behavior that looks suspiciously like warfare. This book is one of those grand theory books like guns,germs and steel. Warfare plays a large part in the formation of states and paradoxically the bringing of order and our recent decrease in violence. Of course war and militarism are banes to human existence and the book opens up with a close call in 198 ...more
May 14, 2014 Lynn rated it did not like it
The author offers a different explanation for the decline in violence that I first encountered in Stephen Pinker's "The Better Angel's of Our Nature.' According to Morris, violence has declined because we have gotten good at war,which lead to the rise of powerful nation states that could control violence. He often overstates facts to support his position and goes completely into la-la land in the last chapter, where he speculates that within 30 years violence will end because we will have merged ...more
Faust Mephisto
Nov 20, 2014 Faust Mephisto rated it it was ok
The renowned historian Ian Morris argues in this book that war - in the long run - is worth more than absolutely nothing. While Morris is particularly good in telling the history of human warfare and the social changes that followed, he himself concedes that his arguments are fraud with methodological difficulties. In the end, Morris offers no clear answer for what is war good for, aside from military innovation. His final conclusion that complete computerization will make future wars redundant ...more
Mark Gray
Aug 06, 2014 Mark Gray rated it it was amazing
This is the first book by Ian Morris that I have read and it was the best book I have read for a long time. Epic in scale and breadth with a disturbing but well argued central thesis that ultimately makes sense. I have just bought 2 of his other books and am hoping they they are just as good .
Nov 27, 2015 Jim rated it liked it
This book argues that war has been necessary and ultimately beneficial. Morris divides wars into two classes: productive wars which result in stronger governments which generate economic growth and suppress internal violence versus nonproductive wars that destroy governments. The actors in productive wars become “stationary bandits”, rulers that extract wealth from the governed over the long term and hence are motivated to foster growth and restrain destructive internal violence. The actors in n ...more
Daniel Bratell
May 11, 2015 Daniel Bratell rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Is all of war all bad? That is a sensitive question. Most of us will agree that war includes atrocities at a level we are not ready to accept, but what if we elevated ourselves from the personal level to something else? That is what Ian Morris attempts to do with this book.

The book is divided into chapters focusing on different eras in human evolution but with many comparisons and jumps both backwards and forward and notices that the world seen over tens of thousands of years has become less and
Erin DeLaney
Dec 23, 2014 Erin DeLaney rated it it was amazing
I enjoyed reading his previous Why the West Rules For Now, and enjoyed this one too. He was one of my favorite professors and I continue to read his works because I am constantly impressed at his ability to sum up sweeping social trends in a way that makes sense and keeps you interested. He is a true storyteller and in both of his books he has all of human history to spin into a 350 page yarn of a tale. I enjoyed the first five chapters as he wove together different threads of the world and part ...more
May 29, 2014 David added it
"If you lived in the Stone Age, you were roughly ten times more likely to die violently than if you lived in the 20th century. The [20th] century was remarkably safe, with fewer than one in a hundred people dying violently." In a very long-range extrapolation, Morris lays out an argument making the case that war actually drives progress.

"This is really the paradox that the whole book tries to explain:- Conquest usually makes wastelands, but incorporation into a bigger society, gradually – over
Dec 13, 2014 Marks54 rated it liked it
....where to begin?

Ian Morris is a classical hostorian/archaeologist who is a senior professor at Stanford. This book is an engaging effort at seriously addressing the role of war in human history. He does so by integrating the work of anthropologists, archaeologists, and classical scholars with that of historians and political scientists and others to examine war on a very long time line. He then uses the results of his analysis to develop some projections about what will happen and some policy
Tamim Sadikali
Jun 11, 2014 Tamim Sadikali rated it really liked it
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. Today there is a refreshing trend, thanks largely to Television, to personalise it – i.e. to help the viewer project to a different point in space/time, carrying with them their own experience, their hopes and fears, and thus make a human connection with the past.

This academic work does just the same, but without trivialising the question that it poses. War
Aug 20, 2014 Doug rated it liked it
At one point while reading this, I was tempted to call it an example of ivory-tower academia at its worst. Having finished it, I might not go that far- but I wouldn't back off much. The books main premise is that war has benefited humanity in that it has created large governments (Leviathans) which have made people richer and safer. However, this has only been the case with what he calls "productive war" and it seems that productive war is almost inevitably followed by "unproductive war" which h ...more
João Abegão
Jun 04, 2016 João Abegão rated it it was amazing
An absolute delight of anthropology, history, evolutionary biology and technology.
I am no expert in any of these matters, but I have several points to highlight.

1) I was convinced by the war/violent deaths argument, and also by the important role that the United States are playing at this moment in time, and the Eurogroup as well. But just to shed some light on this issue, when, can we know that they doing their part as the "global police", and when, it is just tiranny and corporal interess? Fo
Jan 22, 2016 Kay rated it it was amazing
I found this book astonishing. The author has a background in both history and archaeology and makes an argument for war, over the long run, actually improving the safety and lives of humans once the battles are done and the dust settles. He recognizes that there are no firm/hard numbers available in prehistoric and many other early times but does readily identify when estimates are speculative and what they are based on. With that in mind, he examines the evidence and the results of war-making ...more
Tommy Oliver
Oct 10, 2015 Tommy Oliver rated it really liked it
A fresh perspective for me. Essentially arguing that larger governments that control large societies have heavy incentive to keep violence from occurring within said societies, and free trade to occur elsewhere. Thus, by eliminating the small scale violence that has killed a massive portion of humans throughout history, wars, which have forged said governments, have made human progress achievable.

The last chapter is dubious. I feel inclined to love American Dominance and power, and his theories
Daniel Cunningham
This was a very intriguing book -an intriguing argument- that is well put together and argued. It is a disturbing thought that wars, of a certain kind anyway, might be ultimately useful and ultimately responsible for modern societies with all their goods. It isn't a theory that can, in my mind, ever be really tested (we can't rerun human history), but it does serve as a very enlightening alternative view. Perhaps war is not *solely* terrible and perhaps war does not serve 'no purpose'.

Of course,
Omar Ali
Jun 07, 2015 Omar Ali rated it it was amazing
He may exaggerate his case at times, but the historical review is wide ranging and always interesting. Worth a read.
Dave Schoettinger
May 26, 2014 Dave Schoettinger rated it really liked it
Professor Morris gives everyone a reason to dislike the premises for this book. Liberals will dislike his assertion that war has been a necessary evil, responsible for the cushy lives that so many of us enjoy. Conservatives will take exception to his premise that it is big governments that have created the preconditions for most of those cushy lives. However, I am increasingly becoming convinced that the only people in our society worth listening to are those who cannot easily be pigeonholed int ...more
Mitchell Van Poecke
Though the author seems to have neglected to double check some of the data he represents as historical facts, and these errors cause some annoyance to the average historian, the value of the central thesis is not diminished. The style is light, clear and accessible and this makes the book easy to read for any who have some interest in a historiography of warfare from a broad and global point of view. Though one could make a case for occidentalism in this book, the author counters this largely by ...more
May 01, 2014 Ken rated it really liked it
Fascinating look at what may appear to be a taboo subject. The book asserts that war can be seen as not just a calamity and disaster but can also be viewed as ultimately beneficial for human progress.

The book uses the latest research into murder/homicide/violent death in the ancient & recent past and discovers that Rousseau's view that prior to modern civilization humans lived in a kind of halcyon Eden devoid of war and strife is dead wrong. The evidence now supports the view that civilized
Jun 25, 2015 Sriram rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ian describes the evolution of society and warfare since the beginning of history. He describes the role of warfare in determining these changes. He uses measurable statistics to show what war has been good for in the big picture. He does put forth most of the views of other people in this topic apart from his own. It also contains a chapter on studies of warfare in chimps. He also speaks of possible scenarios which might result in eternal peace.

Although I do agree with his reasoning for why peo
Yatin Patel
Mar 15, 2015 Yatin Patel rated it liked it
The title is borrowed from the masterpiece of Edwin Starr and in the first reaction it may seem like a sort of bulky exercise of finding something good out of war but if you are a big fan of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan or the Joker, you can’t miss this one. The basic theme of the book is the idea that we humans are incapable of sorting out differences without ultimately resorting to violence. However, the state monopolises violence in order to avoid further violence between its subjects. Evolving t ...more
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“You may not be very interested in war, Trotsky is supposed to have said, but war is very interested in you.” 0 likes
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