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

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  1,151 ratings  ·  152 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 2014)
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Average rating 3.97  · 
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Start your review of War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots
In these troubling times when two intellectually challenged clowns, equally gifted with ridiculous hairdos and sharing the same emotional immaturity of a 10-year-old boy, keep exchanging infantile insults (such as "little rocket man" or "dotard") and insist on threatening each other with Nuclear Armageddon, I thought it quite apt for me to read a book about the role that war has played in the course of human history.

I really do not know how to rate this book: while this book is doubtlessly a riv
Daniel Clausen
This one has been on my reading list for some time now. The reason I'm not rating it is because I cheated! Instead of reading the book, I watched his talk about the book on "Politics and Prose" (

The argument of the book actually isn't that controversial. War has driven societies to become bigger and more complex. As societies grow, random violence is eliminated and people live longer and happier lives. Thus, even though war is a catastrophe for those wh
Aug 19, 2014 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.
Mar 04, 2014 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
Jan 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
The last thing I expected after reading the description of the contents was a book on archaeology, but that's what this is, and it's a totally gripping read. The authors whisks you all over the globe, across continents and through the centuries, matching up changes in the technology of war with changes in the societies affected by those wars. He never lost me once, which is saying a great deal -- he was literally covering the whole of known human history and it would have been easy for him to le ...more
Robert Morris
Sep 19, 2015 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
Apr 22, 2018 rated it it was ok
I went into this book optimistically, thinking it would substantiate a provocative notion—all the things war is good for—and, after a knowledgable but tenuous start, the whole thing went to hell then just plain got silly.

The premise is reasonably simple: In Man is "The Beast" (the desire to act destructively) and the only thing that can counter The Beast is Leviathan (government), and the Bigger The Better. Morris uses the (fake, literary) example of The Lord of the Flies as the exemplar of The
Aug 31, 2015 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
James Murphy
Jul 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
More like 4.5.

Morris's premise is that war reduces violence by creating bigger and better societies which constantly improve their military capabilities. All the technological advances in organized violence, from barbed arrows and chariots to stealth aircraft and nuclear weapons, make war deadlier. To avoid those wars societies have to be better at cooperating, have to work toward being internally peaceful and prosperous. The new stability makes a governed unit which produces a better, more peac
Jul 29, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: warfare, history, own
Morris makes some fair points, especially those based on Pinker's theory on the pay-off of death. But overall I found the book to be proposing a lot of weak arguments for an already strong statement, that War is benefitial and thus "good"-indirectly of course, and looking retrospectively at it and not at war itself (for those that would misunderstand me, cus obviously experiencing war is not nice). Personally I believe Leviathans (as Morris calls them) have won over time because of their higher ...more
Ali Khan
Dec 18, 2015 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
Dec 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant strategic level look at why we have wars and why it is important to be good at winning them. Very refreshing viewpoint that helped me to understand how great things can come out of seemingly the worst tragedies.
Clay Davis
May 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
A lot of wisdom about war. The writer made a good argument for both peace and conflagration.
Robert Jeens
Feb 24, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This book has two parts. The first is an argument about the utility of war in organizing human society and the second is a prediction based upon this argument. I want to put aside the predictions and concentrate upon the historical analysis. Morris claims that war has been the most important factor that has decreased human violence by a factor of 20. That is, for twenty people who died a violent death in the distant past, only one dies now. Now, I want to present his argument and look at possibl ...more
Feb 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, military
Every now and then a nonfiction book comes along that you know will stick with you. Two examples for me are Jared Diamond’s 1997 Guns, Germs, and Steel, the story of why civilization and riches developed in the “Lucky Latitudes,” and Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 classic Gödel, Escher and Bach on the role of reflexivity in math, music, and dynamics.

Now there’s also War: What Is It Good For? on the subject of how war has shaped human social and political institutions since the earliest times. The au
Aug 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
He doesn't go into how it's done, but basically war is good for taming bad systems, and forcing them to be more productive. History goes well when there is a strong Leviathan to control things. It starts getting bad when the central state starts failing and losing control.

The book is a good summary of how war has changed in the last 5k years - the various ages of chariots, cavalry, archers, etc. and how they changed the balance of offensive/defensive war. I wish he would have gone into actual so
Sep 24, 2015 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
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
Lloyd Downey
Nov 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Ian Morris has tackled a taboo subject here. "Everybody" seems to agree that war is; undesirable, causes immense suffering, disruption of societies, destruction of lives, families and fact, there are no winners and everyone loses in a war. But Morris steps back from the picture of war as experienced from those involved and takes the big-history view. His main thesis is that stone age man (read persons) ....maybe 10,000 years ago had a 10-20% chance of dying a violent death. During ...more
Mar 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Quite entertaining and certainly thought provoking. Morris gives an overview on the role of war from the Stone Age to 2100. The part dedicated to the future is unusually bold.

However, it verges too often in the justification of Western imperialism. His arguments are subtler than Niall Ferguson's ones but it is clear that a book like this could only be written by someone in the victorious side: An Englishman living in the US. I wonder whether Morris would think the same had, for instance, the Ara
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
Sep 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Ian Morris challenges the narrative that war is always detrimental to society, and divides such conflicts into two categories: productive wars, and unproductive wars. He uses statistics to convincingly argue that productive wars have led to increasingly large and centralized societies, which has resulted in ever lower rates of violent death.

The idea that war can result in less violent deaths, not more, is very much counterintuitive, so for most people this book is an eye-opener. In addition to
Oct 10, 2015 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
May 14, 2014 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
Sep 29, 2014 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
May 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing
one of the must-read books ever, it deals with what the likely scenario of the next decades could be, drawing upon the not so linear historical background of civilization, it paints both an ugly and happy conclusion to the enterprise pursued upon by humanity since its beginning ; War!!
Mark Gray
Jul 14, 2014 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 .
Omar Ali
May 01, 2015 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.
Hristo Milev
Mar 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a great book and one hard to argue with. It makes a lot of sense to read it in conjunction with Sapiens, as they have overlap in a few points.
Albert Rejas
Aug 31, 2022 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2022-books
At first glance, the question 'is war good?' can be easily answered with a strong "no" considering that it is all about death and chaos. But Morris overturned and critically re-explore this common question using historical data and evidences presenting the different impacts and outcomes of major wars throughout history. Of course, we alreay know how bad is war, but Morris asks, do we all know what is it good on wars?

This is the central question of the book that Morris extensively answered. Its e
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“War, I will suggest, has not been a friend to the undertaker. War is mass murder, and yet, in perhaps the greatest paradox in history, war has nevertheless been the undertaker’s worst enemy. Contrary to what the song says, war has been good for something: over the long run, it has made humanity safer and richer. War is hell, but—again, over the long run—the alternatives would have been worse.” 2 likes
“Az uralkodó az államtól függ - írta a császár, Taj-Csung [626-642] -, és az állam a néptől függ. Ha elnyomjuk a népet, hogy így szolgálja az uralkodót, az olyan lenne, mintha valaki a saját húsából vágna egy darabot, hogy azzal töltse meg a saját gyomrát. A gyomrát ugyan megtölti, de a teste megsérül; az uralkodó vagyonos lesz ugyan, de az állam elpusztul” 1 likes
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