Stanford classicist reveals the positive side of war

Despite its horrors, war has made our world less violent, finds Ian Morris, a Stanford professor of classics and of history.

cover of book War! What Is It Good For?

War seems to show humanity at its worst: bellicose, bloody and brutal.

But war, says Stanford scholar Ian Morris, has also brought the world peace and prosperity.

Morris is the Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics, a professor of history and a fellow in the Archaeology Center. His research focuses on the long-term development of civilizations to explain modern socio-political phenomena through their ancient roots.

While completing his 2011 book, Why The West Rules – For Now, which compared economic development between the West and the East over millennia, Morris began to notice a trend. "I found," Morris recalled, "that every time there was a big turning point in the story, mass violence was always involved."

From Roman conquests to World Wars, Morris noticed a pattern: War improved the quality of life for both winner and loser, gradually making societies safer and richer.

"I was suddenly thinking: 'If this is true, then why has this way of solving a problem persisted for so long? Why is it that for hundreds of thousands of years of being modern humans, this sort of behavior hasn't just gone extinct?'"

Morris put the project aside, in part because of how absurd his hypothesis seemed. "We generally tend to assume," he said, "that war is this irrational behavior, a completely pointless activity."

Now, though, his new book, War! What Is It Good For?, lays out an argument making the case that war actually drives progress. Drawing on a diverse set of sources – from sociological data to Shakespeare – Morris follows the history of war from the first humans to the present day.

In doing so, he discovers that war, for all its terror, forces people to band together, shoring up societies and governments. Governments, in turn, exert a civilizing force on the masses and reduce internal violence, over time making the 20th century – statistically – less violent than any other time in history.

Individual wars leave behind many dead and wounded, but overall, Morris finds, "The amount of violent death goes down, down, down all the time."

His new book investigates this startling phenomenon and contemplates what future wars might hold. Will the trend continue? Or does 21st-century conflict promise a new kind of devastation?

Research across millennia

Morris' project encompassed a huge historical range. Drawing connections from the Stone Age to the present day is no small feat, but Morris explains that his classics research background helps him tackle the massive time scale. Specifically, Morris says his experience on archaeological digs has informed his current research.

L.A. CiceroIan Morris

Ian Morris

"Archaeology has had a really strong tradition, ever since it started a hundred-odd years ago, of doing large-scale comparative stuff," Morris said. "So a lot of what I'm doing is not unusual for an archaeologist." But bringing in the written history is a bit unusual, he said.

Morris' colleague, classics and history Professor Walter Scheidel, agrees, saying that Morris's work shows how "Ancient history isn't just the proverbial 'ancient history,' but essential for understanding how we got to where we are now and why – that we can't understand the present if we cut out big chunks of the past."

In the long view, Morris notes, the devastation caused by modern conflict appears marginal when compared to the number of people alive on Earth. "It's a surprising statistic," Morris said, "that 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." And, as Morris argues, we have war to thank for that.

Morris' discoveries offer a rebuttal to the work of historians who argue that the 20th century was, by all metrics, the most violent in history. In contrast, Morris' research reveals that, relative to its massive global population, the last century was remarkably safe, with fewer than one in a hundred people dying violently.

Morris builds on the research of eminent cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and others to explode our idea that "early humans lived in an idyllic state of nature," arguing that, for decades, anthropologists who studied violence in tribal societies suffered a skewed sense of scale.

Anthropologists would study a hunter-gatherer band for a few months or a year. And, says Morris, "If that group has, say, a 10 percent rate of violent death – which is an astronomically high number – if you've got 10 or 12 people, then roughly one person will die violently every generation."

That rate of violent death would not be seen by an outside researcher on a yearlong trip. "The only way anthropologists understood what was going on was through multiple visits to the same group – and few researchers were doing that," Morris said. With repeat visits, the sobering reality of life in those societies began to emerge.

The paradox of war

By studying conflict through history and tracing patterns of peace and prosperity, Morris found that the explanation for the overall decrease in violence over time was rooted, inevitably, in mass violence itself.

"This is really the paradox that the whole book tries to explain. Conquest usually makes wastelands, but incorporation into a bigger society, gradually – over decades or centuries – makes conquered and conquerors alike safer and richer."

War, whether in the mountains of Thermopylae or on the beaches of Normandy, creates larger civilizations as the winning society absorbs the losing. The increased size of the new society in turn puts increased pressure on its rulers to preserve social order.

Morris describes the perspective of a victor in battle: "What I really want in life now is for all your guys to quietly go about their business, carry on going to work and paying taxes to me, the ruler."

As war leads to larger societies, it also leads to greater pacification and greater wealth. For Morris, Thomas Hobbes' 17th-century concept of the Leviathan proved prescient. Rulers find it in their political and economic interest to maintain peace.

Not that Morris is naive. The rejoinder to his research is clear: There are terrible rulers who do terrible things. He acknowledges such criticism, but again points to the big picture: Violent deaths, on the whole, grow more rare all the time.

The future of war

Morris' conclusion combines caution and hope. He sees the world's powerful societies created by thousands of years of war as agents of peace and prosperity. As an example, although American power in the last decades contributed to global disruption and violence, overall, Morris argues, the United States promoted a steady world order.

Following on his theory that unity equals stability, Morris argues that the waning presence of major imperial nation-states could result in a "major shift in wealth and power," and an accompanying "massive amount of violence."

Given the unprecedented capacity for destruction of modern military technology, Morris says a surge of violence "could potentially mean the end of humanity altogether."

His prognostication, then, remains uncertain. As the Leviathans fall and deadly weapons proliferate, will war's ends still outweigh its means?

There is no clear answer, but Morris' historical research suggests a strange truth. "Uncomfortable as the fact is," he said, "in the long run, war has made the world safer and richer."

Nate Sloan is a doctoral candidate in musicology at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,