The Slaughter Bench of History
How war created civilization over the past 10,000 years—and threatens to destroy it in the next 40.
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:
Huh, good God.
What is it good for?
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.
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.
The process was not pretty. Whether it was the Romans in Britain or the British in India, pacifiers could be just as brutal as the savagery they stamped out. Nor was the process smooth: for short periods in particular places, violent death could spike back up to Stone Age levels. Between 1914 and 1918, for instance, nearly one Serb in six died from violence, disease, or starvation. And, of course, not all governments were equally good at delivering peace. Democracies may be messy, but they rarely devour their children; dictatorships get things done, but they tend to shoot, starve, and gas a lot of people. And yet despite all the variations, qualifications, and exceptions, over the 10,000-year-long run, war made governments, and governments made peace.
My second claim is that while war is the worst imaginable way to create larger, more peaceful societies, it is pretty much the only way humans have found. “Lord knows, there’s got to be a better way,” Edwin Starr sang, but apparently there isn’t. If the Roman Empire could have been created without killing millions of Gauls and Greeks, if the United States could have been built without killing millions of Native Americans—in these cases and countless others, if conflicts could have been resolved by discussion instead of force, humanity could have had the benefits of larger societies without paying such a high cost. But that did not happen. It is a depressing thought, but the evidence again seems clear. People hardly ever give up their freedom, including their rights to kill and impoverish each other, unless forced to do so, and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war or fear that such a defeat is imminent.
My third conclusion is that as well as making people safer, the larger societies created by war have also—again, over the long run—made us richer. Peace created the conditions for economic growth and rising living standards. This process too has been messy and uneven: the winners of wars regularly go on rampages of rape and plunder, selling thousands of survivors into slavery and stealing their land. The losers may be left impoverished for generations. It is a terrible, ugly business. And yet, with the passage of time—maybe decades, maybe centuries—the creation of a bigger society tends to make everyone, the descendants of victors and vanquished alike, better off. The long-term pattern is again unmistakable. By creating larger societies, stronger governments, and greater security, war has enriched the world.
When we put these three claims together, only one conclusion is possible. War has produced bigger societies, ruled by stronger governments, which have imposed peace and created the preconditions for prosperity. Ten thousand years ago, there were only about 6 million people on earth. On average they lived about 30 years and supported themselves on the equivalent of less than two modern American dollars per day. Now there are more than a thousand times as many of us (7 billion, in fact), living more than twice as long (the global average is 67 years), and earning more than a dozen times as much (today the global average is $25 per day).
War, then, has been good for something—so good, in fact, that my fourth argument is that war is now putting itself out of business. For millennia, war has created peace, and destruction has created wealth, but in our own age humanity has gotten so good at fighting—our weapons so destructive, our organizations so efficient—that war is beginning to make further war of this kind impossible. Had events gone differently that night in 1983—had Petrov panicked, had the general secretary actually pushed the button, and had a billion of us been killed over the next few weeks—the twentieth century’s rate of violent death would have soared back into Stone Age territory, and had the toxic legacy of all those warheads been as terrible as some scientists feared, by now there might have been no humans left at all.
Current trends suggest that robots will begin taking over our fighting in the 2040s—just around the time, the trends also suggest, that the United States, the world’s globocop, will be losing control of the international order. In the 1910s, the combination of a weakening globocop (Britain) and revolutionary new fighting machines (dreadnoughts, machine guns, aircraft, quick-firing artillery, internal combustion engines) ended a century of smaller, less bloody wars and set off a storm of steel. The 2040s promise a similar combination. The next 40 years could be the most dangerous in history.
We are already, according to the political scientist Paul Bracken, moving into a Second Nuclear Age. The First Nuclear Age—the Soviet-American confrontation of the 1940s–80s— was scary but simple, because mutual assured destruction produced stability (of a kind). The Second Age, by contrast, is for the moment not quite so scary, because the number of warheads is so much smaller, but it is very far from simple. It has more players than the Cold War, using smaller forces and following few if any agreed-on rules. Mutual assured destruction no longer applies, because India, Pakistan, and Israel (if or when Iran goes nuclear) know that a first strike against their regional rival could conceivably take out its second-strike capability. So far, antimissile defenses and the globocop’s guarantees have kept order. But if the globocop does lose credibility in the 2030s and after, nuclear proliferation, arms races, and even preemptive attacks may start to make sense.
If major war comes in the 2040s or ’50s, there is a very good chance that it will begin not with a quarantined, high-tech battle between the great powers’ computers, space stations, and robots but with nuclear wars in South, Southwest, or East Asia that expand to draw in everyone else. A Third World War will probably be as messy and furious as the first two, and much, much bloodier. We should expect massive cyber, space, robotic, chemical, and nuclear onslaughts, hurled against the enemy’s digital and antimissile shields like futuristic broadswords smashing at a suit of armor, and when the armor cracks, as it eventually will, storms of fire, radiation, and disease will pour through onto the defenseless bodies on the other side. Quite possibly, as in so many battles in the past, neither side will really know whether it is winning or losing until disaster suddenly overtakes it or the enemy— or both at once.
And yet, long-term history also gives us cause for optimism. We have not managed to wish war out of existence, but that is because it cannot be done. We have, however, been extremely good at responding to changing incentives in the game of death. For most of our time on earth, we have been aggressive, violent animals, because aggression and violence have paid off. But in the 10,000 years since we invented productive war, we have evolved culturally to become less violent—because that pays off even better. And since nuclear weapons came into the world in 1945, the incentives in the game have changed faster than ever before, and our reactions have accelerated along with them. As a result, the average person is now roughly 20 times less likely to die violently than the average person was in the Stone Age.
As the returns to violence have declined, we have found ways to solve our problems without bringing on Armageddon.
This post is adapted from Ian Morris’s new book, War! What Is It Good For?, to be published April 15 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.