A sometimes-counterintuitive but always fascinating interrogation of the history and uses of war.
War—what is it good for?: No, not nothing, absolutely or not. By the account of Ferejohn (Law/New York Univ.; Pork Barrel Politics: Rivers and Harbors Legislation, 1947-1968, 1974, etc.) and Rosenbluth (Political Science/Yale Univ.; co-author: Japan Transformed: Political Change and Economic Restructuring, 2010, etc.), war is a kind of “alchemy of iron and blood” that, though fiercely destructive, can give birth to social orders more just and advanced than the ones that preceded them.
The authors, known in scholarly circles for work on “warlike democracies,” offer numerous case studies taken from the broad sweep of world history. As they note, one reason for the expansion of popular power is that when governments depend on the support of their lower classes for survival, as in the case of war, then they tend to loosen up. Thus, “warfare appears to have been instrumental in brokering the modern democratic compromise between wealth and manpower.”
Monarchies can be more democratic than aristocracies precisely because they levy popular armies instead of hired guns; in medieval England, for instance, “the wars that the king undertook were generally wars that the nobles, and increasingly the commoners, had agreed to fund and support.” Yet presumed democracies are not always paragons of democratic virtue; one extensive case study involves the interplay of the Vietnam War with the civil rights movement, with racism being a major obstacle to military recruitment among blacks in the South.
This densely argued but readily accessible book is full of fascinating asides worthy of books of their own—e.g., the role of women voters in pushing peacetime social spending and the fear of outside enemies in forging stronger unions of rich and poor. Yet, as the authors write in conclusion, “war has stopped functioning as a democratizing force” today; even in the fury of destruction, inequality reigns.
A book of big ideas backed by fine-grained analyses, worthy of attention by readers with an interest in history and contemporary events alike.