What is it good for?

It ought to go without saying that, as Lorraine Schneider’s legendary 1966 peace poster put it, “War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.”

Unfortunately, even something that seems so abundantly obvious is now up for debate.  Washington is atwitter with the proposition that “in the long run, wars make us safer and richer” – an argument put forward by Stanford University professor Ian Morris in a new book, which he condensed into a column published in the Washington Post on April 27.

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Morris’ rationale goes something like this: People today are much less likely to die from violent causes than at any time in history.  This is because people are safer inside states, even repressive ones, than they are under anarchy.  Since the creation of states was made possible only by war, it is ultimately war that has made people safe.

In the course of making his case, Morris goes on to dismiss the extermination of Native Americans and the murderous regimes of Hitler and Stalin as, in effect, unfortunate byproducts of a historically beneficial trend.  He defends imperialism as part of the “civilizing process” and warns that the world could be thrown into chaos “unless Washington embraces its role as the only possible globocop in an increasingly unstable world.”

Morris’ thesis, aside from being offensive on its face, suffers from numerous errors in logic. 

First of all, it draws universal conclusions from particular cases.  Because certain wars have been an integral part of creating some states, that does not mean that every war – or war as a general proposition – helps to create peaceful and prosperous states or to improve human security.  War is a bit like gambling: you are bound to have an occasional positive outcome even though you are far more likely to lose over the long haul.

Second, it falsely imputes the successes of economic and political development to war.  Scientific and technological advances, the growth of the international trading system, the institutionalization of systems to protect the health and well-being of populations – these all grew out of periods of relative peace, and are dependent upon its maintenance.  States that enslave, occupy, and subjugate other nations rarely end up richer and more peaceful because of it.  In fact, as Morris acknowledges, over the course of history every expansionist state has come to an inglorious end.   

Third, Morris credits states with suppressing violence, when states in fact have been responsible for far more destructive wars than those waged by non-state actors.  The Treaties of Westphalia, which established a new political order based on sovereign nation-states, led to centuries of inter-state wars, culminating in World War II – the deadliest military conflict in history, killing 60 million people, more than 2.5% of the world’s population.  Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara called it “sheer luck” that Cuban Missile Crisis did not end in nuclear conflagration. One could say that states are as responsible for creating war as war is for creating states.

Finally, Morris arrests human history somewhere in the pre-colonial era.  The fact that “through 10,000 years of conflict, humanity has created larger, more organized societies that have greatly reduced the risk that their members will die violently” does not mean that more conflict or larger states will make the world richer or safer as we move ahead.  In fact, the 2013 Global Peace Index finds that “countries with small and medium populations - one million to twenty five million - consistently score the highest average level of peace. While very large countries, with populations over 100 million, consistently record the lowest levels of peace.”  There is also a very high correlation between the countries that are most peaceful and the ones that are most prosperous.

In the end, Morris’ argument is little more than a warmed-over rehash of the long-discredited “White Man’s Burden”.  War may be a fact of history, but let’s not condemn ourselves to repeating it.

Ohlbaum is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former senior professional staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.