ON WARS, by Michael Mann
If wars are “the least rational of human projects,” why have there been so many of them all over the world, in every era? This is the question that the sociologist Michael Mann poses in the boldly titled “On Wars.” It is an ambitious book, plumbing the roots of war from the early Roman Republic to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with intermediary chapters on ancient and imperial China, Mongol conquests, feudal Japan, the carnage of European Christendom, clashes in pre-Columbian and Latin America, the two world wars, colonial incursions, communist conflicts and the wars of the Middle East.
Mann, the author of the four-volume “The Sources of Social Power,” disputes the idea that humans are genetically programmed to make war. “Organized war became ubiquitous,” he contends, only when “fixed agrarian settlements generated states and social classes.” In other words, “societies, not universal human nature, cause wars” — though, now that humans are entrenched in societies, this seems a distinction without a difference.
Whatever the motives that lead us to fight, Mann sees his project as more than a scholarly inquiry; his aim is to find a way out for humanity. “If we want to achieve Immanuel Kant’s ideal of perpetual peace,” he writes, “we need to know what to avoid that otherwise might lead to war.”
As one way to get at the problem, he examines the times and places where wars have not occurred. He highlights southeastern China, which fought only a handful of wars between 1368 and 1841, because its emperors devised a “defensive, diplomatic imperialism” based on tribute trade — Vietnamese and Korean ambassadors would sail with their merchants to Chinese ports, bow so deeply before the emperor that their foreheads touched the ground and then sail back with gifts of silk and gold, which put everyone in a good mood. (Over the same period, northwestern China waged countless wars, mainly because agriculturalists abutted pastoralists, a classic condition for conflict.)