War! What’s It Good For?

I recently finished “War! What Is It Good For?” by Ian Morris.

I always suspected that war played a bigger role in our societies than what it is given credited for. The reason is obvious, war is ugly and full of bloodshed. So it is a daunting task to impartially assess a war’s impact on human society, but Ian Morris has been successful in doing just this.

Ian has divided wars into two categories: productive wars and unproductive wars. Every war is ugly, but does it help evolution, or hurt? According to the author, productive wars have been primary responsible for the evolution of all human society.

Wars make states and states make peace

Wars have been the primary reason that societies have become bigger. The reason being is that winners include losers in their societal fabric. Of course, it goes without saying it’s always on the winner’s terms.

There was a time a few centuries back when Islam and Farsi were the fastest growing religion and languages in India. A lot of people were being converted forcefully, but a lot also converted willingly for upward social mobility. It was cool to know Farsi. And being Muslim was a sure-shot ticket to getting higher posts in Mughal Darbar. There are instances of whole kingdoms adopting Islam, like Janjua Rajputs in 12th century AD.

According to one source, the literacy rate for Muslims in India was close to 100% in the early 19th century. In less than 25 years it has dropped to 15%.

Perhaps 100% may seem an exaggeration, and it could very well be, but let’s think about it for a minute. In the 18th or early 19th century India, your community was elite. The language you spoke at home, i.e., Urdu/Farsi, were official languages. The criteria to be called literate was maybe just knowing how to write your name. But now it does not seem that big a deal.

What changed it? The British invasion. Now English became cool, and not Farsi. Christianity was the new religion, though the British were not so keen on conversion rather than on doing business.

Now today in India hardly anyone speaks Farsi. Urdu, which was a fusion of Farsi and Hindi, is still spoken primarily by Muslims. Urdu has also benefited from being extremely close to Hindi in its spoken form.

The British pushed for a soft power of English culture rather than a forced conversion route of Mughals. That does not mean that Christian missionaries did not play a role. But they did not wreak havoc like the Portuguese did in Goa.

Why I brought up these points is to prove that winners get to choose how to treat losers.

Ian brings up a distinction between stationary bandits vs roving bandits. Roving bandits would attack people, kill them and take away the booty. This way they would create wasteland. What they realized very soon was that the better idea is to take care of your subjects rather than killing them. This way you can keep looting them; and this is what led to stationary bandits.

Stationary bandits also had an incentive to keep roving bandits at bay. One example that Ian used was how the British effectively ended the presence of thugs in India who were highway bandits (roving bandits) who used to rob and kill travelers.

In essence, the British being stationary bandits, had a huge incentive to stop roving bandits.