Book review: War in Human Civilization by Azar Gat.
This ambitious book has some valuable insights into what influences the frequency of wars, but is sufficiently long-winded that I wasn’t willing to read much more than half of it (I skipped part 2).
Part 1 describes the evolutionary pressures which lead to war, most of which ought to be fairly obvious.
One point that seemed new to me in that section was the observation that for much of the human past, group selection was almost equivalent to kin selection because tribes were fairly close kin.
Part 3 describes how the industrial revolution altered the nature of war.
The best section of the book contains strong criticisms of the belief that democracy makes war unlikely (at least with other democracies).
Part of the reason for the myth that democracies don’t fight each other was people relying on a database of wars that only covers the period starting in 1815. That helped people overlook many wars between democracies in ancient Greece, the 1812 war between the US and Britain, etc.
A more tenable claim is that something associated with modern democracies is deterring war.
But in spite of number of countries involved and the number of years in which we can imagine some of them fighting, there’s little reason to consider the available evidence for the past century to be much more than one data point. There was a good deal of cultural homogeneity across democracies in that period. And those democracies were part of an alliance that was unified by the threat of communism.
He suggests some alternate explanations for modern peace that are only loosely connected to democracy, including:
- increased wealth makes people more risk averse
- war has become less profitable
- young males are a smaller fraction of the population
- increased availability of sex made men less desperate to get sex by raping the enemy (“Make love, not war” wasn’t just a slogan)
He has an interesting idea about why trade wasn’t very effective at preventing wars between wealthy nations up to 1945 – there was an expectation that the world would be partitioned into a few large empires with free trade within but limited trade between empires. Being part of a large empire was expected to imply greater wealth than a small empire. After 1945, the expectation that trade would be global meant that small nations appeared viable.
Another potentially important historical change was that before the 1500s, power was an effective way of gaining wealth, but wealth was not very effective at generating power. After the 1500s, wealth became important to being powerful, and military power became less effective at acquiring wealth.