The Slaughter Bench of History

How war created civilization over the past 10,000 years—and threatens to destroy it in the next 40.
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"The Course of Empire: Destruction," by Thomas Cole (Wikimedia Commons)

I was 23 when I almost died in battle.

It was September 26, 1983, around 9:30 in the evening. I was hunched over a manual typewriter in a rented room in Cambridge, England, pounding out the first chapter of my Ph.D. thesis in archaeology. I had just come back from four months of fieldwork in the Greek islands. My work was going well. I was in love. Life was good.

I had no idea that 2,000 miles away, Stanislav Petrov was deciding whether to kill me.

Petrov was the deputy chief for combat algorithms at Serpukhov-15, the nerve center of the Soviet Union’s early-warning system. He was a methodical man, an engineer, a writer of computer code—and not, fortunately for me, a man given to panic. But when the siren went off a little after midnight (Moscow time), even Petrov leaped out of his chair. A red bulb blinked into life on the giant map of the Northern Hemisphere that filled one wall of the control room. It signaled that a missile had been launched from Montana.

Above the map, red letters came to life, spelling out the worst word Petrov knew: “LAUNCH.”

Computers checked and double-checked their data. Again the red lights flashed, this time with more certainty: “LAUNCH—HIGH RELIABILITY.”

You may not be very interested in war, Trotsky is supposed to have said, but war is very interested in you. Cambridge was—and still is—a sleepy university town, far from the seats of power. In 1983, though, it was ringed by air-force bases high on Moscow’s list of targets. If the Soviet General Staff had believed Petrov’s algorithms, I would have been dead within 15 minutes, vaporized in a fireball hotter than the surface of the sun. King’s College and its choir, the cows grazing as punts drifted by, the scholars in their gowns passing the port at High Table—all would have been blasted into radioactive dust.

If the Soviets had launched only the missiles that they were pointing at military targets (what strategists called a counterforce attack), and if the United States had responded in kind, I would have been one of roughly a hundred million people blown apart, burned up, and poisoned on the first day of the war. But that is probably not what would have happened. Just three months before Petrov’s moment of truth, the U.S. Strategic Concepts Development Center had run a war game to see how the opening stages of a nuclear exchange might go. They found that no player managed to draw the line at counterforce attacks. In every case, they escalated to countervalue attacks, firing on cities as well as silos. And when that happened, the first few days’ death toll rose to around half a billion, with fallout, starvation, and further fighting killing another half billion in the weeks and months that followed.

Back in the real world, however, Petrov did draw a line. He later admitted to having been so scared that his legs gave way under him, but he still trusted his instincts over his algorithms. Going with his gut, he told the duty officer that this was a false alarm. The missile-attack message was stopped before it worked its way up the chain of command. Twelve thousand Soviet warheads stayed in their silos; a billion of us lived to fight another day.

A world like this—in which Armageddon hung on shoddy engineering and the snap judgments of computer programmers—had surely gone mad. People cried out for answers, and on both sides of the Iron Curtain the young turned away from aging, compromised politicians toward louder voices. Speaking for a new post-baby-boom generation, Bruce Springsteen took the greatest of the Vietnam-era protest songs—Edwin Starr’s Motown classic “War”—and sent a supercharged cover version back into the top 10:

War!
Huh, good God.
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing....
War!
Friend only 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.

There are four parts to the case I will make. The first is that by fighting wars, people have created larger, more organized societies that have reduced the risk that their members will die violently.

This observation rests on one of the major findings of archaeologists and anthropologists over the last century: that Stone Age societies were typically tiny. Chiefly because of the challenges of finding food, people lived in bands of a few dozen, villages of a few hundred, or (very occasionally) towns of a few thousand members. These communities did not need much in the way of internal organization and tended to live on terms of suspicion or even hostility with outsiders.

People generally worked out their differences peacefully, but if someone decided to use force, there were far fewer constraints on him—or, occasionally, her—than the citizens of modern states are used to. Most of the killing was on a small scale, in vendettas and incessant raiding, although once in a while violence might disrupt an entire band or village so badly that disease and starvation wiped all its members out. But because populations were also small, the steady drip of low-level violence took an appalling toll. By most estimates, 10 to 20 percent of all the people who lived in Stone Age societies died at the hands of other humans.

The twentieth century forms a sharp contrast. It saw two world wars, a string of genocides, and multiple government-induced famines, killing a staggering total of somewhere between 100 million and 200 million people. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed more than 150,000 people—probably more people than had lived in the entire world in 50,000 B.C. But in 1945, there were about 2.5 billion people on earth, and over the course of the twentieth century roughly 10 billion lives were lived—meaning that the century’s 100–200 million war-related deaths added up to just 1 to 2 percent of our planet’s population. If you were lucky enough to be born in the industrialized twentieth century, you were on average 10 times less likely to die violently (or from violence’s consequences) than if you were born in a Stone Age society.

Rates of Violent Death, 10,000 B.C. - 2013 A.D.

Ian Morris

This may be a surprising statistic, but the explanation for it is more surprising still. What has made the world so much safer is war itself. The way this worked was that beginning about 10,000 years ago in some parts of the world, then spreading across the planet, the winners of wars incorporated the losers into larger societies. The only way to make these larger societies work was for their rulers to develop stronger governments, and one of the first things these governments had to do, if they wanted to stay in power, was suppress violence within the society.

The men who ran these governments hardly ever pursued policies of peacemaking purely out of the goodness of their hearts. They cracked down on killing because well-behaved subjects were easier to govern and tax than angry, murderous ones. The unintended consequence, though, was that rates of violent death fell by 90 percent between Stone Age times and the twentieth century.

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Ian Morris is the Jean and Rebecca Willard professor of classics and professor in history at Stanford University and the author of Why the West Rules—for Now.

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