“The author is in love with his subject” – War – what is it good for? by Ian Morris

war is it good forOnce upon a time, the subject of History was no laughing matter – indeed it was approached with the seriousness of a sermon from the pulpit. Today there is a refreshing trend, thanks largely to Television, to personalise it – i.e. to help the viewer project to a different point in space/time, carrying with them their own experience, their hopes and fears, and thus make a human connection with the past.

This academic work does just the same, but without trivialising the question that it poses. War – what is it good for? places a controversial, indeed a provocative idea on the table – that the long and bloody history of warfare has had corollary benefits, which humankind – you and I –have benefited from.

The author, an academic with unimpeachable credentials, handles his proposition expertly – he isn’t cocky or dismissive of the cost of war, but neither does he ask us to take off our metaphorical cap, and retain a respectful silence. He lays out his thesis clearly, and then presents it in a way that is both academically rigorous, and, most importantly, hugely entertaining. He takes us on whirligig tour, from the ancient world right up to modern times, before finishing off with a punt at prophecy (one which is refreshingly not doom-laden).

Whether his theory is right or wrong, is almost irrelevant (at least for the general interest reader). It’s colourful, visceral, full of energy and enthusiasm – that the author is in love with his subject, is abundantly clear. Episodes of history, such as the Roman sacking of Britain, are re-told like a story; like a Scoutmaster recounting some bloody tale around a crackling camp fire, holding bright-eyed boys in thrall.

But therein lies a certain problem – it is inherently a bloke-ish subject. And one that will, all things being equal, capture the imagination of men of a certain age. The clue indeed is in the title, the tagline taken from a famous protest song by Bruce Springsteen. One can easily imagine say Jeremy Clarkson and chums discussing the book animatedly over a few pints, but try as I might, my imagination cannot stretch to the same debate taking place amongst a group of ladies-wot-lunch, over a glass or two of Chianti. That said, the audience will not be as boxed-in as say, that for a book on cupcakes or rally bikes. Yes, as per other non-fiction, it will have its ardent, delivered-on-a-plate audience, but this work is too interesting – and prescient– to simply drop like a stone for those immediately outside that world. The teaser that the author puts forward in conclusion – of war reaching its endgame, with the next few decades being pivotal – adds a rich sauce to an already mouth-watering plate.

Any Cop?: This fascinating and lovingly written work will appeal to those who like to ‘think big’, to look at the macro picture. For others, though, people whose life is lived at the micro-level, e.g. “…I must get into those skinny jeans”, well… this is probably not the book for them.


Tamim Sadikali


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