No true war is bad?

by John Quiggin on October 13, 2019

On Facebook, my frined Timothy Scriven pointed to an opinion piece by classics professor Ian Morris headlined In the long run, wars make us safer and richer It’s pushing a book with the clickbaity title War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.”. Timothy correctly guessed that I wouldn’t like it.

Based on the headline, I was expecting a claim along the lines “wars stimulate technological progress” which I refuted (to my own satisfaction at any rate) in Economics in Two Lessons”. But the argument is much stranger than this. The claim is that war, despite its brutality created big states, like the Roman empire, which then delivered peace and prosperity.

For the classical world at 100 CE or so, the era on which Morris is an expert, that argument seemed pretty convincing. As the famous Life of Brian sketch suggests, Roman rule delivered a lot of benefits to its conquered provinces.

The next 1900 years or so present a bit of a problem, though. There have been countless wars in that time, and no trend towards bigger states. On the contrary two or three dozen states (depending on how you count them) now occupy the territory of the former Roman Empire.

You could cut the number down a bit by treating the European Union as a new empire, but then you have an even bigger problem. The EU was not formed through war, but through a determination to avoid it. Whatever you think about the EU in other respects, this goal has been achieved.

Morris avoids the problem by a “no true Scotsman” argument. He admits in passing that the 1000 years of war following the high point of Rome had the effect of breaking down larger, safer societies into smaller, more dangerous ones, but returns with relief to the era of true wars, in which big states always win. That story works, roughly, until 1914, when the empires he admires destroyed themselves, killing millions in the process.

After that, the argument descends into Pinker-style nonsense. While repeating the usual stats about the decline in violent deaths, Morris mentions in passing that a nuclear war could cause billions of deaths. He doesn’t consider the obvious anthropic fallacy problem – if such a war had happened, there would not be any op-eds in the Washington Post discussing the implications for life expectancy.

I haven’t read the book, and don’t intend to. If someone can’t present a 700 word summary of their argument without looking silly, they shouldn’t write opinion pieces. But, for what its worth, FB friends who have read it agree that it’s not very good.

{ 71 comments }

1

Tim Worstall 10.13.19 at 7:54 am

Pedantry, possibly:

“The EU was not formed through war, but through a determination to avoid it. Whatever you think about the EU in other respects, this goal has been achieved.”

The EU came into existence in 1992, neatly coinciding with the Yugoslav unpleasantnesses.

We could argue that the move toward the EU led to the absence of war in Europe but that’s also something of a hard sell. Nuclear bombs, MAD, Nato and the Warsaw Pact might have had something to do with it. Possibly, even, W Germany, France (on and off), the UK, Italy etc all being part of the same military alliance could have had something to do with it.

It’s even possible to wonder whether 1953, 1956, 1968 are all the absence of war in Europe. Are foreign tanks on the streets shooting at people actually an absence of war?

I do agree that the proclaimed aim of that EU creation is the absence of war in Europe. It’s the causality that needs to be examined a little more perhaps.

2

John Quiggin 10.13.19 at 8:25 am

“Pedantry, possibly”

Definitely

3

nastywoman 10.13.19 at 10:12 am

@2
”We could argue that the move toward the EU led to the absence of war in Europe but that’s also something of a hard sell”.

As ”war” in Europe for hundred -(thousands) of years ALWAYS was with the participation of more than one EU country it is really hard sell NOT to recognise ”that the move toward the EU led to the absence of war in Europe.”

Or in other words:
”Just another Idiocy on the Internet”.

4

William Meyer 10.13.19 at 12:31 pm

I have not read the book in question, so I don’t know if the author made this point: “Since violence or implicit violence is how we overcome essentially all collective action problems as humans, war probably does belong in the human toolkit.” Obviously it would be better if we could find more and better alternatives to war, and remove the obvious glitches in the alternatives (e.g., representative democracy, single-party states, etc.) we have tried in the past. So I find it odd as I get old that so little energy/research/academic effort is devoted by the human race to finding better means of collective decision making. Clearly our current abilities in this field are completely inadequate. I ponder if this is because we are incapable of doing better by some inherent flaw in our makeup or if it is because, as in some many areas of life, the wicked work tirelessly to maintain the systems that enrich and empower them. I suspect I’ll never find out.

5

Dipper 10.13.19 at 12:41 pm

“The EU was not formed through war, but through a determination to avoid it”

This is an oxymoron. In order to avoid “it” you must have an “it” you are avoiding, and in this case the “it” was the second world war, so the EU was formed directly through the second world war as a de facto peace treaty that sought to do the opposite of what the Treaty of Versailles did.

“Whatever you think about the EU in other respects, this goal has been achieved.”.

Not so fast. The test will come in the East, where the EU’s Eastern Partnership will test Russia, as it has already done in Ukraine

In any case, avoiding war is easy. One party just submits to the other. How did that work out for, say, First Nation Americans, First Nation Australians?

6

Tm 10.13.19 at 2:09 pm

Not so much pedantry as strawmannery – all JQ has claimed is that the EU wasn’t formed through war. Apparently anti-EU zealots can’t even concede that obvious fact.

7

Omega Centauri 10.13.19 at 4:33 pm

There might be a case to be made for empire building conquest advancing human society. I think it was primarily by forcing the mixing of cultures which otherwise would have been relatively isolated from each other. Also empires tended to create safe internal trade routes, the Silk Road was made possible by the Mongol empire. At least the authors of books about such empires like to state that over a timespan of centuries that empire creation was a net positive.

8

Dwight L. Cramer 10.13.19 at 5:34 pm

I think perhaps we should be celebrating the publication of this argument as a data point, rather than actually engaging with it on the merits.

To declare my bias up front, the book and the op ed piece sound like trivial pieces of sloppy stupidity that deserve never to have seen the light of day, or, failing that, to be dismissed in silence.

But . . . now that I have the bile cleared from my system, I’ll confess that, as a child of the mid-20th century, born in the immediate post war era, with parents who devoured Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and the Proud Tower, I’ve alway found the idea of ‘pre-war’ and ‘post-war’ eras beguiling. Clearly, I (and most of this blog’s readers) are products of the post-war era. So, when, and how, will the next pre-war era begin? That’s something I’ve been wondering about, and watching for, for about a half century now.

By war, just to be definitionally precise, I mean things like the 30 Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the conflict that started with World War 1 and ended (probably) with the Korean War Armistice (arguably at VJ Day). Lots of other wars, of course, imperial misadventures (Soviets in Afghanistan, Americans in Vietnam), endemic and endless civil wars (Africa, especially central Africa), Dirty Wars (in Latin America), global terrorism and so on. No religious wars yet (well, jihad, maybe, ISIS tried) and I was surprised that a Great Power (the USSR) could implode with a lot more violence than actually occurred (so, apparently, were Putin, etc.).

Anyway, to have the kind of international train wreck that led to World War 1, or could lead to a World War 3, requires a different mindset than prevailed in the half century after World War 2. Articles like the one JQ is berating suggest, to me, that the requisite shift in mindset may be underway. Lovely prospect . . . maybe we should all spend a little more time speculating on what World War 3 might look like. Most of the thinking about that is terribly dated.

9

John Quiggin 10.13.19 at 6:56 pm

@Tm The pedantry is that while the name EU was adopted in 1992, the organization dates back to the European Coal and Steel Community, formed shortly after WWII with France, Germany, Italy and Benelux as founding members.

10

Orange Watch 10.13.19 at 7:07 pm

Tim Worstall and Dipper’s suggestion that the EU is borne of war is mostly just a failure to take Morris’s claim on its unsophisticated face and instead assume it contains subtle complexity that is obviously missing if you read the article itself:

This happened because about 10,000 years ago, the winners of wars began incorporating the losers into larger societies. The victors found that the only way to make these larger societies work was by developing stronger governments; and one of the first things these governments had to do, if they wanted to stay in power, was suppress violence among their subjects.

For the EU to have been a result of war in the sense that Morris means, it would have to have been forcibly formed in 1945 by the US/UK/Russia forcibly incorporating Europe into it. When Morris states “wars make us stronger and richer” he very simply means wars of conquest are long-term net positives. He doesn’t mean something subtle about nations banding together to forestall further war; he bluntly means conquerors gluing together their conquests into empires and then liberally applying boot leather to necks.

11

stephen 10.13.19 at 7:19 pm

@JQ: non-pedantry, I think.

I was around in the 1968 unpleasantness in Czechoslovakia: are you really arguing that Soviet tanks in foreign streets, shooting at people, was “not war”?

Leave alone in episodes I missed: Berlin 1953 (doubled) and Hungary 1956 (redoubled, in spades).

12

Neville Morley 10.13.19 at 7:31 pm

It is perhaps further pedantry to note that Morris is not really an expert on the classical world c.100 CE; his research field, before he decided to move into the Niall Ferguson market, was archaic and early classical Greece, some half a millennium earlier…

13

Neville Morley 10.13.19 at 7:36 pm

And, while there are historians who more or less endorse the Monty Python account of Roman imperialism, and still more people in other fields wanting to deploy the Roman Empire for their own purposes (cf. Michael Doyle’s claim of an ‘Augustan threshold’ when empires become all consensual and positive), it is by no means a matter of consensus. Can I recommend my book on the subject..?

14

Mark Brady 10.13.19 at 7:56 pm

John Quiggin is, of course, well aware of this quotation, but some of you may not.

“Though some of them would disdain to say that there are net benefits in small acts of destruction, they see almost endless benefits in enormous acts of destruction. They tell us how much better off economically we all are in war than in peace. They see “miracles of production” which it requires a war to achieve. And they see a postwar world made certainly prosperous by an enormous “accumulated” or “backed up” demand. In Europe they joyously count the houses, the whole cities that have been leveled to the ground and that “will have to be replaced.” In America they count the houses that could not be built during the war, the nylon stockings that could not be supplied, the worn-out automobiles and tires, the obsolescent radios and refrigerators. They bring together formidable totals.

“It is merely our old friend, the broken-window fallacy, in new clothing, and grown fat beyond recognition. This time it is supported by a whole bundle of related fallacies. It confuses need with demand.”

Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson, Chapter 3, “The Blessings of Destruction.”

15

Alex SL 10.13.19 at 8:37 pm

On one side, AFAIK the last few centuries of war in Europe have indeed seen a reduction of the number of states. Yes, the trend was partly reversed since 1914, but never to the degree of splintering that existed in the middle ages.

On the other side, even the widely accepted cases of supposedly ‘beneficial’ empires such as the Romans bringing the Pax Romana and the Mongols allowing far-reaching trade and travel need to be seen against the devastation they caused to make their victories possible. The Romans, for example, committed genocide in Gaul and Carthage, and they enslaved millions.

Best case argument in my eyes is that a very successful war is beneficial because it stops continuous smaller wars, which is still not exactly the same as a general “war is beneficial”. Why not just create institutional arrangements that avoid wars between small nations in the first place?

16

nastywoman 10.13.19 at 8:53 pm

Okay!

Then let’s say it the way also a Dipper understands it:

ALL the European Countries which are in the EU – and even better – ALL the countries which are united by one currency won’t wage war against each other anymore – and in such a pretty democratic EU the question who submits to whom get’s only asked buy really nasty and small-minded nationalists.

And as it always were these Germans – and these French – and these Brits – and etc – etc – etc – who started these ”wars” – and they don’t do that anymore – since over 73 years – YES!

There is some REAL PEACE in the EU.
-(even if some idiots on the Internet try to dispute it)

17

fran6 10.13.19 at 9:26 pm

Here’s another personality who’s also unfazed by the evils of war (although, she does wish more folks were “kind” to each other):

18

Barry 10.13.19 at 10:40 pm

Tim Worstall: “The EU came into existence in 1992, neatly coinciding with the Yugoslav unpleasantnesses.”

You might want to look at the time between then and WWII.

You also might want to check the membership in the EU in 1992, and see which state(s) were not in it (hint – Yugoslavia).

19

John Quiggin 10.13.19 at 11:36 pm

Stephen @11 Say what? Are you suggesting that the Soviet bloc was part of the EU? As both your comment and Tim Worstall’s unwittingly illustrate, the fact that the EU has been entirely peaceful since its creation (by contrast with non-EU Europe) is not because Europeans suddenly became pacifists.

20

Salazar 10.14.19 at 12:39 am

Sorry if I have a hard time getting Morris’ argument, but: towards the end, be seems to be saying the world requires a “Globocop” like the US to ensure its prosperity. But how does that relate to his wider point about the benefits of war? Does Morris believe the hegemon owes it to itself, and to the rest of the world, to wage permanent war?

21

Tabasco 10.14.19 at 1:23 am

“the EU has been entirely peaceful since its creation”

Spain and Portugal are still arguing the 200+ year border dispute over Olivenza/Olivença, but it hasn’t reached Kashmir levels (yet).

22

Ed 10.14.19 at 2:34 am

Morris sold out. This was evident in his book comparing the progress of China and Europe, though that book made excellent points in between the fluff and is well worth reading. But he is well versed enough in Chinese history to be aware of the ultimate example of armies conquering and bringing peace to a large area, which happens repeatedly in Chinese history.

Actually, Chinese history itself shows that the opposite argument has more support, that instead of war being valuable because one powerful country will conquer a large area and bring peace to it, its valuable because competition between states who are worried about other states getting a jump on them turns out to be valuable to progress. Large continental empires, including the Roman one as well, tended to stagnate in terms of culture and technology and become correct.

23

nastywoman 10.14.19 at 4:05 am

– and as there seems to be some lack of information – form the website of the EU – here it is:

”A peaceful Europe – the beginnings of cooperation
The European Union is set up with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours, which culminated in the Second World War. As of 1950, the European Coal and Steel Community begins to unite European countries economically and politically in order to secure lasting peace. The six founding countries are Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The 1950s are dominated by a cold war between east and west. Protests in Hungary against the Communist regime are put down by Soviet tanks in 1956. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome creates the European Economic Community (EEC), or ‘Common Market’.

The historical roots of the European Union lie in the Second World War. Europeans are determined to prevent such killing and destruction from ever happening again. Soon after the war, Europe is split into East and West as the 40-year-long Cold War begins. West European nations create the Council of Europe in 1949. It is a first step towards cooperation between them, but six countries want to go further.

9 May 1950

French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman presents a plan for deeper cooperation. Later, every 9 May is celebrated as ‘ Europe Day’.

18 April 1951

Based on the Schuman plan, six countries sign a treaty to run their heavy industries – coal and steel – under a common management. In this way, none can on its own make the weapons of war to turn against the other, as in the past. The six are Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Founding Member States: Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg”.

And there is a lot more on the website of the EU – and we highly recommend reading before posting…

24

novakant 10.14.19 at 11:35 am

In the long run, we’re all dead.

25

TheSophist 10.14.19 at 3:44 pm

@ Neville Morley:
Two things; first, what is the title of your book on the subject? Second, I recall that a few years ago on this blog you were waxing eloquent about the wonderfulness of Mogwai. I saw them live a few weeks ago, and, oh my goodness they are so good in person… (and I thoroughly agree with you on the transformative impact of their music.)

26

Scotsman 10.14.19 at 4:05 pm

I guess it may not be in line with what the initiator of this thread hoped it would be about, but so many commenters have taken the occasion to write about a peaceful post-WW II Europe that I’m moved to express my surprise that no one–unless I’m missing something–has seen fit to mention that the US played the major part in blocking any turn towards war in western Europe and that it was the US and the USSR together, each according to its own imperatives, which blocked war throughout Europe during that period. Much as many Europeans may have been inclined to avoid a war in Europe, had the US and/or the USSR wished it, there is, it seems to me, very little the Europeans could have done about it. So let’s give some credit to the Cold War.

27

Curt Kastens 10.14.19 at 5:09 pm

I hope that there is at least one war in which the final episode is James Petras dancing on the graves of his enemies.

28

oldster 10.14.19 at 6:06 pm

So some classicist looked at the world of letters, and thought, “more Steven Pinkers! That’s what the world needs!”

Or perhaps looked at his bank account? At his degenerating scholarly output?

Or perhaps he just thought: “why should Harvard and Chicago have all of the fun producing pernicious reactionary propaganda? Surely Stanford can get in on the action, too. Where’s my invite to our West coast Jeffrey Epstein’s house?”

29

faustusnotes 10.15.19 at 1:01 am

Dipper, native Americans and indigenous Australians did not “just submit” to the colonizers to “avoid war” which is “so easy” as you put it. They fought a long war to defend their territories, and did not “just submit” until they were defeated on the battlefield.

Really, is there any aspect of the history of the last 200 years that you know anything about?

30

MFB 10.15.19 at 7:18 am

Well, the opinion-piece was published on Jeff Bezos’ blog. Oligarchs are naturally in favour of centralised power and therefore of empires (so long as they are at the apex thereof, which they usually are). The best way to build an empire is through war.

Of course, the author has to say “despite Hitler, Stalin and Mao”, for ideological reasons. Actually, Hitler built his empire largely through the threat of war rather than through war itself; once he had actually started the war, he antagonised three more powerful empires than his own and his empire was then crushed. As for Stalin, he actually did various double-back-somersaults to avoid getting into wars, and the “empire” which he built in Eastern Europe as a result of winning a war he didn’t want did not sustain itself. And of course Mao didn’t start any wars at all — his name just had to be thrown in for reactionary reasons.

It is true that the Spanish, Portuguese, French and British empires were built upon war. But where are they now? The United States fought a lot of wars against its indigenous people, but frankly it would still have been a global superpower if it had simply sidestepped most of them, at least from about 1865 onward.

An interesting question: can it be that a professor of Classics doesn’t actually have to understand the concept of evidence-based argument in any case, because everything has already been said on the subject and all you have to do is cherry-pick other people’s statements? Because that seems to be how that silly article reads.

And yes, the whole thing reeks of the better angels propaganda. Let’s not forget, by the way, that various members of the EU — Britain, France, Italy et al — have launched brutally murderous wars elsewhere, and the fact that they don’t fight among themselves doesn’t make them peaceful or moral entities.

31

nastywoman 10.15.19 at 9:01 am

and about
@26
”but so many commenters have taken the occasion to write about a peaceful post-WW II Europe that I’m moved to express my surprise that no one–unless I’m missing something–has seen fit to mention that the US played the major part in blocking any turn towards war in western Europe and that it was the US and the USSR together, each according to its own imperatives, which blocked war throughout Europe during that period”.

Well?

Somehow I prefer the interpretation that – YES – indeed:
”as many Europeans have been inclined to avoid a war in Europe, the US and/or the USSR just couldn’t do it –
EVEN if they would have ”wished it” –
AS the Europeans just gave too good of a ”good” example and NO credit to the Cold War – at all –
as your comment just showed the usual absurd stereotypical InternetTHINK – which lately gives US ALL so much trouble?

32

Neville Morley 10.15.19 at 9:47 am

@TheSophist #25: that was mentioned as a joke rather than self-publicity, but if you’re really interested: The Roman Empire: roots of imperialism (Pluto Press, 2020). Obviously books about the Roman Empire are ten a penny; my main claim for this one, besides its being less apologetic and/or gung-ho than most, is that I try to integrate the historical reality with its reception, i.e. how people have subsequently deployed Rome as an example or model.

33

Barry 10.15.19 at 12:32 pm

Another: “the EU has been entirely peaceful since its creation”

Tabasco: ” Spain and Portugal are still arguing the 200+ year border dispute over Olivenza/Olivença, but it hasn’t reached Kashmir levels (yet).”

I would call that ‘entirely peaceful’, unless this arguing has piled up a bunch of dead bodies.

34

Tim Worstall 10.15.19 at 12:44 pm

“As both your comment and Tim Worstall’s unwittingly illustrate, the fact that the EU has been entirely peaceful since its creation (by contrast with non-EU Europe) is not because Europeans suddenly became pacifists.”

For this to hold it would be necessary for non-EU Europe to have been at war. Norway hasn’t, at least so far as I know. None of the (non-ex-Yugoslav, Slovenia was for a few days wasn’t it?) accession states have been either. At least, not in Europe. Switzerland has of course become a byword for opportunistic militarism in recent decades.

why, it could even be that there’s a point to the idea that perhaps it was some other things which reduced war in this place and time?

35

Bill Benzon 10.15.19 at 12:44 pm

Maybe the Roman Empire delivered on peace, but prosperity is a bit more complicated. Some years ago David Hays wrote a book on the history of technology. One of the things he did was make a back-of-the-envelope estimate of material welfare at different levels of development. He concluded that, while civilization has always been a good deal for the elite, it’s been rather iffy for peasants and workers. It’s only during the Industrial Evolution that the standard of living at the lower end of society rose above that of hunter-gatherers. So, the prosperity delivered by the Roman Empire went mostly to the elite, not the peasantry.

I’ve excerpted the relevant section of Hays’s book.

36

scotsman 10.15.19 at 11:02 pm

re nasty @ 31

Well at least I was trying to think!

37

Neville Morley 10.16.19 at 6:25 am

@me #32: date of publication actually 2010.

@Bill Benson #35: interesting, but I’m inclined to respond that Hays measures what he measures, which is quite a specific idea of standard of living, and that generally it makes more sense to look at the actual evidence for prosperity under Rome, some of which directly contradicts, at least partially, his blanket assertions about pre-IR societies (movement of goods including perishable goods, for example). There is evidence for substantial rise in material culture, for example, extending well beyond the elite, in many regions; on the other hand, the evidence for health tends to indicate that most people were short-lived and under-nourished.

And the case for peace is open to dispute; no open rebellions in pacified regions, and a limited suppression of piracy, but it’s about the absence of formally-declared war rather than the absence of violence…

38

nastywoman 10.16.19 at 7:15 am

@
”Well at least I was trying to think”!

That’s how I always lose every argument on the Internet about the EU being ”peaceful” because the Internet thinks so much more than I am. BUT I promise I will try to think more too in the future – as this ”feeling” so peaceful with all of my European friends seems to have very little affect about all of this… ”thinking” (not only on the Internet)?

But as you are a ”Scotsman” and the Internet says that 62% of Scottish voters voted to remain a member of the (peaceful) EU, with 38% voting to leave – I like you – very much – without even thinking.

39

nastywoman 10.16.19 at 7:47 am

but – more thinking about it?
at @26
when you wrote:
”it was the US and the USSR together, each according to its own imperatives, which blocked war throughout Europe during that period”.

when ”blocked war throughout Europe during that period” – was written – was the thought that ”the EU was all ready for war again” and just by ”blocking it” the US and the UDSSR… ”blocked” it? – and if there wouldn’t have been the US and the UDSSR Germany would have marched into France again or France into Germany? – and only ”the blocking” by the US and UDSSR has avoided this – and NOT that the Germans had all of these peace contracts and all of these students exchanges where it didn’t make anymore sense to march into anybody else’s countries because we already ”conquered” each other (very, very peacefully) – to the extent that I even had in two summers French boyfriends.

And now I have to thank the UDSSR and the US that they didn’t block me from it?

Or… what?

40

nastywoman 10.16.19 at 8:48 am

AND thinking even more about it? –
the last time we -(German-French-Italian-Irish) got into an argument with a Brexiter in London the Brexiter told US that ”them Germans just waging war by conquering the world -(and Great Britain) economically” – and we had to tell him that WE can’t think like that.

AND perhaps THAT is the problem?
Not about ”thinking per se BUT thinking the ”right” or the more pleasant ”things”.

Like – like… there is this organisation called ”Erasmus” and everybody who ever comes… in touch with tis… organisation – tends to think things – like ”peace” and how nice it is to exchange thoughts – with a lot of totally different people about all kind of pleasant things.

And so we told this Brexiteers that we just can’t THINK like him as we are far too busy thinking about ”Orgasmus”.

And the dude really was shocked and asked: Say WHAT? -(with a very British accent)
and then we told him – that if he would think a lot more about ”Orgasmus” too -(and perhaps even with ”a German) he probably wouldn’t always think such silly things – like WE would need the US or the UDSSR in order to ”block” us from exchanging our juices peacefully…

41

J-D 10.16.19 at 10:03 am

Neville Morley

As soon as I read what John Quiggin wrote about the Roman Empire, even before you posted a comment, I immediately thought of a comment on the same subject you made in response to me in an earlier discussion, which gave me a new way of thinking about Roman history, for which I remain grateful.

42

Faustusnotes 10.16.19 at 12:11 pm

Mfb wtf! Name a single territory hitler conquered without soldiers after Anschluss! (Agree about Stalin and mao though)

43

Peter Erwin 10.16.19 at 12:53 pm

MFB @30:

As for Stalin, he actually did various double-back-somersaults to avoid getting into war

Sure. That’s why he mobilized a fifth of the entire Soviet army for the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict of 1929, invaded Xinjiang in 1934 and again in 1937, and then invaded both Poland and Finland in 1939: because was so intent on not getting into war. (The occupation of the Baltic states in 1940 isn’t usually considered a war per se, since the overwhelmed victims really couldn’t put up any kind of resistance and mostly just surrendered in the face of the hundreds of thousands of invading Soviet troops.) What a guy.

And of course Mao didn’t start any wars at all — his name just had to be thrown in for reactionary reasons.

One has to ignore the Chinese Civil War, the invasion of Tibet, the Chinese intervention in the Korean War (which certainly prolonged the war, even if it did start before China became directly involved), the Sino-Indian War, the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict, and the Sino-Vietnamese War in order to say that, but, sure, why not. That Mao, such a nice peaceful person, only “reactionaries” would object to him.

44

Peter Erwin 10.16.19 at 1:06 pm

For this to hold it would be necessary for non-EU Europe to have been at war. Norway hasn’t, at least so far as I know. None of the (non-ex-Yugoslav, Slovenia was for a few days wasn’t it?) accession states have been either. At least, not in Europe. Switzerland has of course become a byword for opportunistic militarism in recent decades.

Hey, you left out Lichtenstein! They haven’t been at war either, so that totally supports your argument!

A more sensible analysis would note that the devastating European wars of the period 1914–1945 involved Germany, France, Italy, Austria, and the UK as the primary belligerents, so the real issue is the extent to which the European Coal and Steel Community/EEC/EU has prevented them fighting with each other or invading their neighbors (the latter being an obvious motive for Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg). Which, come to think of it, seems to have been the case, though I’d agree that the Cold War NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation played a role, too.

45

Barry 10.16.19 at 2:51 pm

Tim: ” None of the (non-ex-Yugoslav, Slovenia was for a few days wasn’t it?) accession states have been either. “

If we don’t count things, then things are different.

46

John Quiggin 10.16.19 at 7:21 pm

Scotsman @26 The Soviet Union has been gone for nearly half the period the EU (and its predecessors, to nod to Tim W) have been in existence. Lots of people predicted, along the lines of your post, that with the external threat of the USSR gone, and the US pulling back, the old warlike Europe would reassert itself.

Tim, I guess you are just trolling at this point, but the fact that states which are effectively non-voting members of the EU (a point made repeatedly in debates over the “Norway” option) and have no borders with non-EU countries, have been peaceful, is scarcely a strong point for your case.

47

steven t johnson 10.16.19 at 8:06 pm

Peter Erwin@43 wanted the Nazis to roll right up to the eastern border of Poland, etc. etc. So did Hitler. And although I’m quite reluctant to read minds, especially dead one, I will nevertheless guarantee the move into the Baltics was seen as a blow to his plans, even if accepted for temporary advantage. You must always see who hates Stalin for beating Hitler, and those rare few who object to his real crimes.

And, Erwin thinks Chinese troops being in Korea with permission is an aggression, while US troops closing on Chinese borders is not. The US still isn’t out of Korea, but China is, but he can’t figure out who the aggressor is.

Really, Peter Erwin really says it all. The maddest ant-Communist propaganda is now official.

48

Scotsman 10.16.19 at 9:07 pm

I’ve no problem with your point, that the USSR and the Cold War have been gone for quite some time, John. But as someone who sees both pros and cons to the EU, my point was to take note that the EU should not be held uniquely responsible for the virtue that western Europe has been internally war free since 1945. As to the post-1989 period, since I view the eastward expansions of NATO and the EU as linked, I’m not ready to dismiss the role of the USA as at least a factor in constraining whatever we western Europeans might have got up to on our own.

Of course, now that Trump has disrupted the entire foreign and domestic American systems in ways that make it difficult to see how they might be resurrected (and I, for one, don’t want them resurrected, though events might cause me to change my mind on that), and since we have seen just how casually he throws American allies under the bus (though he is certainly not the first US President to do so—I’ve heard Woodrow Wilson also did in the Kurds in 1922), I imagine there’ll be quite a bit of manoeuvring in Europe—and elsewhere—in the coming years. And maybe it will actually emerge that the EU will behave in such a way as to warrant at some future date the entire credit for a post-2016 war free Europe.

49

Chetan Murthy 10.17.19 at 8:33 am

Scotsman @ 48: Yes indeed, the role of the USA in tamping down any incipient friction and sparks in Western Europe has been critical; also the fact that the USA has encouraged our allies in Western Europe to have militaries that are -complementary- to the US military, without being sufficiently powerful as to be competitors. E.g., from what I understand, nobody really has the air/sea-lift capabilty that the US has.

And we can already see what happens when the US starts pulling back: from what I understand, friction is already starting between ROK and Japan. Once upon a time, the US would have knocked their heads together and made them play nice. Today? Sigh.

I’m not saying that the US and all its foreign adventures is A-OK. Not at all. Rather, that the peace that has broken out in at least some parts of the world, wasn’t natural, wasn’t accidental, and most assuredly took *work* to accomplish, and work to maintain.

50

MFB 10.17.19 at 9:02 am

I don’t want to unnecessarily dump on Peter Erwin, because I don’t believe in kicking disadvantaged children, but if he reads the original post he will notice that it was talking about international wars, not civil wars. I’ll admit the invasion of Finland (and of the Baltic states and Poland) but those were fairly obviously ways of strengthening the USSR’s position in order to discourage a German invasion, and all took place within the boundaries of the former Russian Empire which Stalin undoubtedly saw as the default position.

As to Mao, he didn’t start the Korean war (as Erwin unwillingly admits) and all the other wars except for the invasion of Vietnam were civil wars since they entailed moving into Chinese-controlled territory which had broken away during the main civil war. I’ll admit that Vietnam was a problem, but then, since Mao had been dead for some time by then, it’s would be hard for Erwin to blame him except for the fact that Erwin clearly lives on Planet Bizarro.

51

Z 10.17.19 at 9:05 am

@John Quiggin The claim is that war, despite its brutality created big states, like the Roman empire, which then delivered peace and prosperity

I don’t think this is an intellectually generous summary of the arguments, as presented in the article.

The author himself summarizes it as “war made states, and states made peace”, and if it is indeed true that the author often speaks of “larger, more organized societies” there is a strong implication that for a society to be “large” in the sense discussed in the article, it is not really necessary that it be territorially very wide (the most clear cut indication of that is that the author refers to the European states of the 1600s as “big, settled states” while they all were geographically tiny at the time). So the point of the author, if interpreted with intellectual honesty, seems to me to be twofold: 1) that war has been a crucial factor in the formation of complex, organized states and societies and 2) that these complex, organized states and societies brought with them so many positive things that the wars required to form them were worth it.

The second point is pure Pinker. I consider it logically meaningless, myself (it ultimately relies on the concept that History proceeds like an individual who is choosing a pair of shoes) and morally repugnant (it is not hard to see who will be pleased to have a rhetorical tool that can justify any atrocity by the long term gains it will provide humanity – indeed, it is instructive in that respect to read SS internal papers on when and why children should be executed with their parents, and how to select people for that task: contrary to what could be guessed, the manual recommends the soldiers who appear to have a strong sense of empathy and morality, with the idea that they will those who will most strongly endorse the “by doing this abominable act, we are sacrificing ourselves on behalf of future generations” thesis).

The first point, however, appears to me to be broadly correct descriptively. Extracting an interesting thesis out of it requires much more work than is indicated by the article, however (I consider Ertman’s Birth of the Levianthan an example of that kind of extra work done successfully).

52

Z 10.17.19 at 9:30 am

@John Quiggin Lots of people predicted, along the lines of your post, that with the external threat of the USSR gone, and the US pulling back, the old warlike Europe would reassert itself.

I think what we may call the “wide military context thesis” runs rather like this: because of the experience of WWII and the Cold War, modern industrial states have amassed enormous military power while at the same time knowing that they can experience total destruction if they enter into a military conflict with a state of comparable military might. As a consequence, peace dominates between them. So France is not at war with the United Kingdom or Germany, certainly in part because they are all (for now) members of the EU but also in part for the same reason Japan is not at war with South Korea and Russia not at war with China.

Personally, I think it would be absurd to claim that the EU has played no role in the pacification of Western Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, but I think it would be equally absurd to deny the role of other factors that plainly play a major role in the equally remarkable pacification of other regional areas in the absence of an economical and political unification process (rise in prosperity, rise in education, aging populations, increased military power…).

53

Dipper 10.17.19 at 11:05 am

@ faustusnotes “”native Americans and indigenous Australians did not “just submit” to the colonizers to “avoid war” which is “so easy” as you put it. They fought a long war to defend their territories, and did not “just submit” until they were defeated on the battlefield.”

Re The americas, I know it’s called ‘The Indian Wars’ but it wasn’t really a war, was it? The outcome was never in doubt. Native American resistance was pretty ineffective.

This Fatal Shore< was quite clear that the Native Australian tribes lacked any legal processes with which the British could engage so they got completely screwed. My knowledge of Maori history is very limited but by contrast there is a treaty and from a distance Maori culture seems to be an integral part of New Zealand identity. If/when Australia and New Zealand meet in the World Cup Final only one side is going to do a Haka before the match.

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Bill Benzon 10.17.19 at 1:33 pm

@Neville Moreley, #37, fair enough.

55

LFC 10.17.19 at 5:40 pm

First, it may be worth noting that the column in question was published roughly five years ago, and a search brought up, near the top, a response to the column that WaPo published at the time. (I didn’t read the response.)

Second, there’s one passage in the OP I don’t get. JQ writes:

Morris mentions in passing that a nuclear war could cause billions of deaths. He doesn’t consider the obvious anthropic fallacy problem – if such a war had happened, there would not be any op-eds in the Washington Post discussing the implications for life expectancy.

I skimmed the column and it seems to me that Morris at the particular point in question, which occurs in the second paragraph, is simply making the banal factual observation that there could have been a nuclear war, and it would have killed a great many people, but there wasn’t. At that point in the column he’s not discussing the implications, he’s just stating a fact — and it leads to the beginning sentence of the next paragraph which is (paraphrasing) “So war is awful but…” [and then he goes on to make the column’s argument]

So the reference to nuclear war is not an “anthropic fallacy,” it’s not a fallacy at all, it’s simply a throwaway line at the opening of the column.

56

alfredlordbleep 10.17.19 at 6:34 pm

Round and Round It Goes
(if JQ will pause the discussion for comic relief, a true truce)

“Great news out of Turkey!” Donald Trump tweeted minutes before Pence spoke. “Millions of lives will be saved.”

Dirty Donnie already saved millions and millions by not lofting nukes at N. Korea.

57

John Quiggin 10.18.19 at 12:27 am

@LFC My search didn’t turn this up. Can you post the link.

On the anthropic fallacy,suppose that a careful event analysis showed that given all the near-misses since 1945, the chance of avoiding nuclear extinction was only 1 per cent. That is, the expected loss of life from war, looking forward from 1945 was approximately 99 per cent of world population. That’s entirely consistent both with the fact that, in a world where Morris is writing opeds in 2019, catastrophe was avoided, and with a near-certainty that we will be wiped out some time in the future.

Morris claim that war has become less dangerous rests on the assumption that the risk of catastrophe is small, and his evidence for this assumption is that it hasn’t happened yet. That is an anthropic fallacy.

58

LFC 10.18.19 at 3:19 am

@JQ
I made a mistake — searching on “Ian Morris Washington Post” did bring up some replies, but none that seem to have been published in WaPo. One was published at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, another at the Wash. Monthly. Links to those:

https://www.wagingpeace.org/war-makes-us-poorer/

https://washingtonmonthly.com/2014/04/27/orwellian-piece-by-ian-morris/

Wish I had time to engage on the substance here, but I don’t. So I’ll confine myself to one point that I don’t think is esp. controversial and has been made many times before: the basic character of war in the late 20th cent and early 21st is different than it was from, say (because one has to pick some start date though it will be somewhat arbitrary), 1792 to 1945. The causes of wars are different, the nature of the main belligerents tends to be different, and conflicts tend to be either civil wars or internationalized civil wars (e.g. Syria) rather than the interstate wars that characterized the 1792-1945 (or 1953) period (though of course there were other sorts of wars as well, e.g. what in the late 19th and early 20th cent were sometimes referred to by certain writers in the imperial and other powers as “small wars” against “uncivilized” peoples).

As to why the basic character of war has changed and classic interstate war has dropped off to a minimal amount, there are various extant arguments and theories. But the fact of the drop-off in interstate war seems indisputable, even if the reasons remain a matter of debate. And if one carves out a subset of interstate war and labels it “great-power war,” the drop-off is even more pronounced. There has not been a great-power war, depending on how one defines a “great power,” since 1945 (end of WW2) or 1953 (Korean War armistice). The USSR and China did clash on the Ussuri River in 1969, but that did not rise to the level of a war. The India-China war of 1962 was not a great-power war, since India was not a great power in 1962 under any reasonable definition of “great power.” The absence of great-power war since 1945 (or 1953) is not a chance blip but reflects underlying normative and/or material trends in the international system, though as I said the exact causes of the decline in interstate war, and of great-power war in particular, remain in dispute.

59

Barry 10.18.19 at 11:56 am

Dipper: “Re The americas, I know it’s called ‘The Indian Wars’ but it wasn’t really a war, was it? The outcome was never in doubt. Native American resistance was pretty ineffective.”

Only in the sense of the old saying that ‘it wasn’t a war, but a slaughter’.

But nice try.

60

James Harrison 10.18.19 at 4:36 pm

@John Quiggin 57 I’ve had the recurrent thought that the chances of avoiding nuclear extinction since 1941 weren’t 1% but 0%, and what we’re experiencing now is a communal version of Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, the human world having ended when a Russian sub commander fired an atomic torpedo during the Cuban missile crisis.

Assuming we’re actually all still here, though, I think the difference between the first era of global fascism and its contemporary reprise is that nuclear weapons change the calculus for the authoritarian leaders. Imagine 1939 if Germany, France, the USSR, the UK, the Japanese, the Chinese, and the US all had the bomb. Invading powerless neutrals would be on the agenda, but the political monsters would be stuck with glowering at one another and terrorizing their own citizens, i.e., it would have been much like 2019.

61

Collin Street 10.18.19 at 10:06 pm

Dipper: do you not think possible that actual australians might have a better understanding of the actuality of australian history than you got from your thirty-year-old tertiary source?

(Why did you think that what you did was a good idea? Remember that feeling: the next time you feel like that you’ll be wrong too. This is how we improve, by spotting the things that lead us to mistakes and avoiding them going forward: by, how to say this, “learning” from our “mistakes”.)

Also you really need to know that your behaviour here is legit. disgustingly rude and you’ve well-earned contempt from all you deal with. If you don’t understand why see the comments I’ve made to MarkW.

62

John 10.19.19 at 1:36 am

Collin: Simply because a book is 30 years old and not a primary source hardly means it’s assuredly – or even likely to be – wrong. After all, in the U. S., Battle Cry of Freedom is still considered possibly the finest single volume work on the Civil War ever written, and it was published in 1988. Having been written ~ 100 years after the end of said war, it can hardly be considered to be a primary source.

Not saying you should give D. *much* of a break because of that, though.

63

ph 10.19.19 at 6:04 am

On the topic of scholarship and the benefits of war, here’s a reminder of what passes for elite leadership. Tulsi Gabbard wants to end endless wars and the knives are now out for her. Somebody takes Morris’s thesis seriously. The world will be better off with the US the permanent military leader of the world.

https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/10/18/hillary_clinton_calls_jill_stein_a_russian_asset_implies_gabbard_is_being_groomed_by_russians.html

This is blowing up all over Twitter, with Gabbard slapping back, and the HRC loyalists calling Gabbard an Assad apologist and worse.

According to HRC logic, American third party candidates are necessarily Russian stooges placed to help the Kremlin’s candidate win. The logic is “inescapable” according to HRC. BUT OF COURSE!!!! Now it ALL MAKES SENSE! 1992 Perot-Clinton, 2000 Nader-Bush, 2016 Jill Stein-Trump, and, 2020 Gabbard-Trump!!!!

It’s all so clear now! The KGB wanted to keep HW Bush out of office as the former Soviet Union collapsed! That’s how she and Bill entered the WH in 1992! Perot was a KGB stooge, and Bill and Hillary have been lifelong assets of the KGB. Of course!!! That’s why Hillary sold all that uranium to the Russians! Lest, anyone believe the charge of dual-loyalty leveled against Gabbard is a fiction, check for yourselves.

The above is an actual argument just made by the 2016 candidate for POTUS. Russia controls US elections by promoting third-party candidates. The best part is that HRC, beneficiary of “obvious” Russian interference may yet end up running in 2020. Something to look forward to! Imagine if HRC had won in 2016. Conspiracy theories out the wazoo!

Kind of puts the Morris “scholarship” in perspective, doesn’t it?

64

Collin Street 10.19.19 at 6:12 am

Sure, but I wouldn’t use the book as an authority -bludgeon against modern-day americans, because that would be arrogant as fuck.

(Also the timings are important; there’s been an awful lot ofrecent work that we as australians pick up on osmotically, essentially, simply by how it shapes the discourse of those who have read it and to whom you all respond. I mean, I haven’t read Dark Emu but my mother and sister have. Dipper, probably not)

65

ph 10.19.19 at 6:46 am

Hi John, do whatever you want with this interview with Tulsi. It looks like it’s on – big time. Clinton versus Gabbard for the nomination and the chance to run against orange man bad. On the basis of what I’ve seen I’d say Tulsi is the only Dem with a message to take Donald down, and she’s not scared to reach out to everyone for support.

She scares the crap out of all the right people: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtgCC5cZP5Q

I wonder about the Morris book, really. Histories aimed at the popular market are rarely written in a vacuum. As you know, post-9/11 we saw a bumper crop of mostly crap histories of the class of civilizations variety. I won’t be buying or reading Morris, simply because I find wide, encompassing arguments generally useless and dull. Anyway, from the sounds of it, I do think Morris has a constituency among the FP elites.

66

Faustusnotes 10.19.19 at 10:20 am

Dipper, google Henry Reynolds.

Also, what Collin said.

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Alex Dziewa 10.19.19 at 7:40 pm

I can’t say I really see how war is an economic plus. People could be working to improve materials to get the economy moving but instead they are fighting each other. It doesn’t make sense to me. It makes about as much sense as saying the only thing needed to fix personal relations is to be nicer or the true cure for a bad day is to merely put a smile on your face. Generally unhelpful terms we often hear don’t really alter anything in the grand scheme and don’t shine a light on the way things are. I don’t think they should be considered as substantive sources of information. What a seriously out there concept such a thing would be, we’ve gotta live with a competent level of scrutiny in our functioning and not elevate any and all information to actual truth, that’s absurdity to an intense degree. lol

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otpup 10.19.19 at 10:51 pm

@7, Omega
Not really wanting to get into the “do empires benefit civilization by promoting trade” argument, but having just read Lost Enlightenment, nothing in that lengthy tome suggests the Silk Road city states gain any special advantage from the Mongol invasion. In fact, quite the opposite. After the Mongols (in part for reasons preceeding the conquest), Central Asia never regained its pre-eminence (it had actually not just been a facilitator of trade but also a center of manufacture, culture, scientific progress). Maybe the trade routes hobbled along as trade routes but the civilization that was both built by and facilitated trade did not rebound. Most empires seem to get that there is wealth to be had from involvement in trade, they don’t always know how to keep the gold goose alive.

69

LFC 10.20.19 at 1:44 pm

@ph

(1) Your comments on Gabbard and HRC are off-topic for this thread, despite your efforts to make a connection.

(2) Gabbard, from what I can tell, is not a Russian “asset” (HRC’s remark is ill-considered I think to say the least), but Gabbard seems to me almost as unqualified to be POTUS as Trump is. If the Dem primary in my state were tomorrow, I’m not entirely sure how I would vote but am sure I would not vote for Gabbard. Wanting to end endless wars is not enough to ensure one would be a competent President. Based on her debate performance alone, to the extent I’ve followed it, I see very little evidence that Gabbard has the grasp of issues or the ability to articulate a coherent position that most of the other candidates do.

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Tm 10.20.19 at 4:34 pm

If Z‘s summary of the Book is correct, it makes even less sense than JQ‘s summary.
„war made states, and states made peace”
The opposite is obviously true. How can nonsense like this get published?

71

LFC 10.20.19 at 9:10 pm

“War made states and states made peace” is a riff on Charles Tilly’s line “war made the state and the state made war.”

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