War and Civilization

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.
Ian Morris writing in The Atlantic

Mr. Morris’ point is about how war has been a net positive in human history, a thesis that I have long embraced. But this paragraph leads me to change the subject a little. Decreasing aggressiveness and violence as a net positive is, I believe a fallacy. We’d be better off to be more aggressive and more violent in the prosecution of wars once begun.

Robert E. Lee famously observed that it was a good thing that war was a terrible as it was. But we have managed, in the intervening century and a half, to civilize the waging of war, W.T. Sherman notwithstanding. The result has, perhaps, not been exactly what Lee told us it would be, that we would come to enjoy war, but we have certainly learned to live with it, even viewing it as normal.
In the US context, somewhere between the Soldier engaged in a firefight and the President, there is a rapidly declining sense of ruthlessness. The trigger-puller has no choice, given a desire to live. His leaders, at some remove from the survival imperative, somewhere lose their aggressiveness and considerations aside from achieving victory and accomplishing strategic goals take precedence. So much so that the result is a willingness to keep putting warrior’s lives on the line in the furtherance of “something else,” where that something is anything other than martial success.

And the general public, the least aggressive and violent participants in any question other than the decision to go to war, is okay with that.

In some ways then, we need to be more barbaric as a society, especially where, contrary to Mr. Morris’ point above, our opponents are not as “culturally evolved” and so retain that aggressive nature, because, confronted with an opponent like us, that pays off better still.


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