Tuesday, 22 October 2013

War as a Driving Force for Civilisation

Andrew Brown at The Guardian posted an article at the weekend about war. I, unsurprisingly, have opinions.

The article itself is actually pretty good at showcasing a point that is often overlooked by people who aren’t as into war as yours truly. Brown discusses a recent study which uses computer modeling to show how war has been the driving force behind the emergence of civilised societies (societies with bureaucracies, networks of mutual trust, public order etc.) The authors of the study mapped Europe, Asia and North Africa and found a strong correlation between the development of military technology and the development of ‘ultrasocial’ societies. This is a fascinating rebuttal to those who, like Edwin Starr, think that war has only played a destructive role in the development of human societies.

While I don’t disagree with the content of the article, what irks me is that Brown is presenting this information as if it’s new! What about Charles Tilly? What about Philip Bobbitt? While the use of computer modeling to show the relationship between war and human society is new, the argument that war is a powerful driving force for societal innovation is certainly not.

Charles Tilly argued in 1975 that “war made the state”. According to his theory, military innovation (such as large, conscripted armies and gunpowder) made war extremely expensive. Only the richest, most populous states could maintain the military capability required to guarantee their security and survival. Thus the modern state, with its taxes, and the bureaucracies required to collect those taxes, developed as a way of feeding the war machine.

This idea is expanded upon by Bobbitt in his excellent book ‘The Shield of Achilles’. Bobbitt takes an epicly broad, historical perspective to demonstrate the importance of war in shaping constitutional innovation, the nation state and the free market. His book is too immense (the book’s nearly 1,000 pages long) to summarise for a blog but his core argument is that there is a reciprocal interplay between military strategy and constitutional innovation. So the French revolution brought about the Napoleonic revolution in military strategy, and the innovations in artillery during the Renaissance brought about the princely states.

Brown writes books on religion so I don’t really expect him to have an encyclopedic knowledge of war literature. But Tilly is a classic! Even the most perfunctory of Google searches on war and the development of the modern state would have revealed that the study Brown is discussing is hardly groundbreaking. Since Brown quite regularly discusses war, it might not be a bad idea for him to peruse some Bobbitt. 


Tilly C (1975) The Formation of National States in Western Europe 

Bobbitt P (2002) The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History

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