The Conquest of Siberia by Vasily Surikov, 1895: “Wars cannot bring peace without victory, and cannot be won by clever stratagems alone” © Fine Art Images/Superstock
Everyone knows that the purpose of war is to bring peace by ending deadly quarrels in one way or another. In his new book, Ian Morris explores the different ways in which this has been achieved across the millennia, drawing examples from the pre-prehistory of primate studies to the headlines of 2013, by way of archaeology (his profession) and plain historiography (his passion). Morris reprises the celebrated argument of the sociologist Norbert Elias that the “civilising process” is responsible for the decline in violence over recent centuries. My own belief is that nuclear weapons, and they alone, prevented a third world war during the Cold War years.
Morris, who is a professor of classics and archaeology at Stanford, starts by clearing away the delusion that peace could exist in the “state of nature”—that is, before the development of civil society or the political state. Before there were greedy military industries, bellicose professional soldiers or evil politicians to provoke periodic wars, there was instead the perpetual war of all against all. Many anthropologists have been reluctant to recognise the obvious—that tribespeople are warriors who like to keep in practice even when resources are not scarce.
That allows Morris to have fun debunking the peaceful-savage mythology popularised in the 20th century by Margaret Mead’s bestselling Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). The island Mead studied, Ta’u, had a higher crime rate than Detroit at its worst (at the time Mead was there, Ta’u was under US rule and had US law). Morris also nails the scandalous attempts to throw Napoleon A Chagnon out of academia for having recorded over many years the habitual violence of the Yanomamö tribe of the Amazon. (Chagnon was even accused of having made the Yanomamis violent all by himself, by giving them machetes.)
It takes an exceptionally unlucky or misgoverned state to do worse than tribal society in producing domestic peace, because the very existence of any state is delimited by its monopoly of force, but Morris rightly devotes greater attention to empires. They are the wholesale purveyors of the precious commodity—even if empires are first acquired by war, even if they continue to wage wars either to…