Monday, 8 November 2010

Book Review: War of the World

I've had a signed copy of this book for longer than I can remember, but for years it sat on my shelf gathering dust, serving the purpose of vaguely giving me the credibility of some perceived intellectual. Y'know, when you have a bunch of impressive looking books on your shelf you've never actually read but make you look clever. Well, earlier this summer I decided to take the daunting plunge and actually plough my way through all its 654 page glory. It's taken me the best part of around four months to finish as I made my way through in small chunks, but finally, I can say with hint of achievement in my voice that I have finished it. However, whether it seriously challenges any already established norms in academia regarding the historical study of war is another thing entirely.

I must admit, I've always had rather a soft spot for Professor Niall Ferguson. When I was 17 I went to a public debate involving him on the subject of whether the British Empire was a force for good in the world. Intellectually, he blew his namby-pamby, pinko, communist opponents out of the water, convincing the audience to vote at the end that, ultimately, the British Empire did more good than harm throughout the world. Indeed he was impressive, and has since had some well received televised series based on his books, including the one at hand here. So, buoyed by the Irish Times claim that Mr Ferguson was a "writer who displays [the] gift of forceful polemic, unconventional intelligence and elegant prose" and the Economist's promise that "At one massive stroke, Niall Ferguson has transformed the intellectual landscape", I began to read it. Being a War Studies student myself, I was very much hoping to find some new and perceptive insights on the causes of war, which is the subject matter this book attempts to address.

Unfortunately to say, Professor Ferguson barely achieves this. His views are neither new or particularly inspired. For the most part he writes well throughout the book, but his conclusions are, by and large, highly conventional. Attempting to answer the central question as to why humans fight wars, and why we were particularly violent during the twentieth century, he concludes that two factors which commonly crop up in relation to this question are to blame; human nature and economics. In reality his two factors somewhat contradict one another. While on the one-hand he asserts that human nature is inherently built to fight, he also adds that this facet to the human condition only occurs when the economy goes down the shitter. Now, to me that suggests that his notion of human nature is entirely null and void; if it is only at times of economic destitution that people fight one another, then that is a by-product of an artificial system which produces scarcity, not some inherent bloodlust present in all human beings. Indeed, he argues that economic stability suppresses the urge to kill, but what he ironically illustrates is that human behaviour adapts to its environment. The fact that people may or may not fight is purely down to the system's mere existence, not a natural tendency to kill each other.

Whilst I take issue with the central tenets and thrust of his book, Ferguson does however raise some interesting observations, particularly about the duality of rape as a weapon of war. In this regard, he recognises one thing that is programmed into the human genome; the desire to replicate. One would think, for example, that if the goal is to annihilate your enemy then to propagate with their women folk would contradict this. However, rape in conflict follows a certain logic. On the one hand it is used as a weapon to strike fear into the enemy and on some subconscious level, 'breed them out of existence'. On the other however it shows the human desire to propagate their kind rather than wipe each other out, which seems strangely ironic in a haze of carnage and destruction.

War of the Worlds might appear revolutionary and insightful to the untrained reader, but having studied history, politics and war specifically, it offered me nothing new in my understanding as to why humans participate in such a unique phenomenon. The written style is also somewhat questionable in areas and sometimes can get frustrating. For example, when he goes into economics it is often confusing, convoluted and difficult to understand unless you have a grounding in the subject and understand its memes and technical terms. Likewise, for the Sunday Telegraph to call him "One of the most incisive writers of history, politics and economics today" would appear to be a stretch as I often drifted in and out of Ferguson's meandering and less than concise, even precise, conclusions.