The Game of Everything, Part 5: Civilization and War

13 Apr

War appears to be as old as mankind, but peace is a modern invention.

— Henry Maine

As soon as they decided to bring rival civilizations into their game of Civilization to compete with the one being guided by the player, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley knew they would also have to bring in ways of fighting wars. This understanding may be a depressing one on some level, but it squares with the realities of history. As far back as we can observe, humans have been killing one another. Even the possibility of long-term, lasting peace in the world is, as the Henry Maine quote above says, a very recent idea.

Tellingly, The Iliad, the oldest complete work in the Western literary canon, is a story of war. Likely written down for the first time in the eighth century BC, it hearkens back to the Trojan War of yet several centuries earlier, a conflict shrouded in myth and legend even at the time the supposed blind poet Homer first began to chant his tale. The epic does devote space to the ultimate pointlessness of being pawns in the sport of the gods that was the Bronze Age Greeks’ conception of war, as well as the suffering engendered by it. Yet that doesn’t prevent it from glorying in all the killing, thus illustrating that ultra-violent popular entertainments are anything but a modern phenomenon. The goriest videogame has nothing on Homer:

He hurled and Athena drove the shaft
and it split the archer’s nose between the eyes —
it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze
cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw
and the point came ripping out beneath his chin.
He pitched from his car, armor clanged against him,
a glimmering blaze of metal dazzling round his back —
the purebreds reared aside, hoofs pounding the air
and his life and power slipped away on the wind.

Just as Homer looms large in the early Greek literary tradition, one Heraclitus does the same in early Greek philosophy; legend tells us he wrote around 500 BC. Only fragments of his works remain to us today, mostly in the form of quotations lifted from them by later philosophers. Those fragments and the things those later commentators wrote about him identify Heraclitus as a philosopher of flux and change; “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” goes his most famous aphorism. He was apparently the first to identify the tension between physis, the reality of being in all its chaotic, ever-changing splendor, and logos, meaning literally “word” or “speech” in Greek — all of the rules of logic and ethics which humans apply in the hopeless task of trying to understand and master physis. A disciple of Heraclitus would call the narrative of progress a pathetic attempt to bridle the physis of history by forcing a comforting logophilic structure upon it.

As a philosopher of unbridled physis, Heraclitus was also a philosopher of war, of conflict in all its forms. “We must know that strife is common to all and strife is justice,” he wrote, “and that all things come into being through strife necessarily.” Neglected for a long time in favor of the cooler metaphysics of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, Heraclitus burst back into prominence at last in the early nineteenth century AD, when he was rediscovered by the German school of idealist philosophers. Later in the same century, Friedrich Nietzsche, who loathed the rationality of the Enlightenment and the narrative of progress it inspired, saw in Homer and Heraclitus alike a purer, more essential reflection of the reality of existence.

But we need not agree with Nietzsche that the Greeks of the Bronze Age had everything right and that it’s been all downhill from there to find something of value in Heraclitus. Consider again this assertion that “all things come into being through strife.” There is, it seems to me, some truth there, perhaps more truth than we’d like to admit. As Nietzsche’s contemporary Charles Darwin taught us, this is how biological evolution works. Strife is, in other words, what made us, the human race, what we are as a species. And it would certainly appear that our earliest civilizations too came into being through strife.

During the Enlightenment era, two dueling points of view about the nature of primitive peoples dominated. The Swiss/French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined the cliché of the “gentle savage,” who lived in a state of nature with his companions in an Eden of peace and tranquility, untouched by the profanities of modern life; progress in all its guises, Rousseau asserted, had only led humanity to “decrepitness.” Rousseau saw the narrative of progress as a narrative of regress, of civilization and all its trappings serving only to divorce humanity more and more from the idyllic state of nature. But Thomas Hobbes, whom we already encountered in my previous article, took the polar opposite view, seeing the lives of primitive peoples as “nasty, brutish, and short,” and seeing the civilizing forces of progress as the best things ever to befall his species. He believed, in other words, that humanity’s distancing itself more and more from the primitive state of nature was an unalloyed good thing.

This duality has remained with us to the present day. You can see much of Rousseau in the Woodstock Generation’s claim that “we are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden,” as you can in some aspects of the modern environmental movement and our societies’ general fetish for all things “natural.” Meanwhile Hobbes’s ideology of progress is, of course, the core, driving idea behind the game of Civilization, among other signs of the times.

So, we have to ask ourselves, who’s right — or, at the very least, who’s more nearly right? There are few if any human communities left in the world today who live in so complete a state of nature as to conclusively prove or disprove the theory of the gentle savage. We can, however, turn to the evidence of archaeology to arrive at what feels like a fairly satisfying answer.

Almost all of the most famous finds of Stone Age corpses show evidence at the least of having suffered violent trauma, more commonly of having died from it. Indeed, the fact that it can seem almost impossible to turn up any human remains that don’t show evidence of violence has become something of a running joke among archaeologists. Ötzi the Iceman, as a 5000-year-old body discovered in the Austrian Alps in 1991 became known, turned out to have been shot with a bow and arrow and dumped into the crevasse where he was found. Kennewick Man, a 9500-year-old body discovered in Washington State in 1996, had been shot in the pelvis with some sort of stone projectile that remained embedded there. Lindow Man, a 2000-year-old body discovered in rural England in 1984, had been bonked on the head with a blunt object, had his neck broken with a twisted cord, and then, just to make sure, had his throat cut. Another 2000-year-old body found more recently in England had been beheaded, probably in a form of ritual sacrifice. Yet another recent discovery, a 4600-year-old family consisting of a man, a woman, and their two children, showed evidence of having been killed in a raid on their encampment. The Garden of Eden theory of early human history, it would appear, is right out.

Rather than being their antagonist, violence — or, often, the threat of violence — was a prime driver of early civilizations. Sentiment may have sufficed for primitive humans to keep their family and perhaps their friends close, but it was the logic of survival that pushed them to begin to enlarge their circles of concern, to band together into the larger communities that could form the basis for civilization. Long before humans had any inkling of a narrative of progress, the most important, tangible benefit of civilization was protection from the depredations of hostile neighbors. The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant called this development, which paradoxically arose out of the impulse toward conflict rather than cooperation, “asocial sociability”:

In a sense, this reality that civilizations are born in violence is baked into the game of Civilization. From the mid-game on, it’s possible to make a very good go of it as a peaceful democracy, to be a good global citizen not declaring war unless war is declared on you, striving to trade and research your way to Alpha Centauri. Before you reach that stage, however, you have to be a despotic state no better than any of the others. As every Civilization veteran knows, it’s absolutely vital to establish sovereignty over your starting continent during this early stage in order to have enough cities and resources to be competitive later on. Thus you can’t afford to play the gentle savage, even if you believe such a person ever existed. If, as is likely, there are rival civilizations on your starting continent, you have to conquer them before you can think about peaceful coexistence with anyone else.

But the debt which the narrative of progress owes to war and the threat of war extends far beyond a civilization’s early stages, both in real history and in the game. In fact, the modern world order, built around fairly large nation-states with strong centralized governments, is, along with all of the progress it has spawned on so many fronts, a direct outgrowth of the need to project military power effectively.

Early twentieth-century writers, reacting to the horrible wars of their times, concocted the legend of war as a more honorable affair during earlier ages, one in which civilians were spared and soldiers comported themselves as civilized men. One has only to read The Iliad to know what a load of bunk that is; war has always been the nastiest, most brutal business there is, and codes of behavior have seldom survived an army’s first contact with the enemy. And if one was unfortunate enough to be a civilian caught between two armies… well, raping and pillaging were as popular among soldiers of earlier centuries as it was among those of the twentieth, as the stories of same in The Iliad once again cogently illustrate.

Still, there were important differences between the wars that were fought prior to the eighteenth century and those that came later. It’s easy today to overlook how differently societies were organized prior to the Enlightenment era. Such modern countries as Germany and Italy were still collections of small independent states, cooperating at best under a framework of uneasy alliances. Even where there existed a centralized government, the monarch’s power was sharply limited under the feudal systems that held sway. If he wished to go to war, he was often reduced to begging his nobles for the money and manpower necessary to do so. In addition, economies in general had very limited resources to set aside from the basic task of feeding themselves in favor of waging war. It all added up to make wars into hugely inefficient businesses, where months or even years could go by between significant battles. In many ways, of course, that was good for the people of the countries fighting them.

It was the unification of England and Scotland as Great Britain in 1707 that marked the beginning of the modern nation-state. Thirty years before said unification, the entire English army consisted of no more than 15,000 soldiers, a number that could be packed into a typical modern sports arena and leave plenty of seats to spare. The historian John Brewer describes what followed:

The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw an astonishing transformation in British government, one which put muscles on the bones of the British body politic, increasing its endurance, strength, and reach. Britain was able to shoulder an ever more ponderous burden of military commitments thanks to a radical increase in taxation, the development of public-debt finance (a national debt) on an unprecedented scale, and the growth of a sizable public administration devoted to organizing the fiscal and military activities of the state.

This radical remaking was driven by two principal factors. One was advances in technology and engineering that freed up more and more people to work at tasks other than food production; this was, after all, the period of the Enlightenment, when the narrative of progress went into overdrive. The other was the need to efficiently project military power to ever more far-flung locales in the world — the need of a burgeoning British Empire.

Alongside a centralized government bureaucracy and standing military grew that necessary evil for funding it: taxes. The effective average British tax rate rose from 3.5 percent in 1675 to 23 percent a century later, to no less than 35 percent at the height of the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century. And, what with the people from these earlier centuries not being all that different from us at bottom, lots and lots of them didn’t like it one bit. One William Pulteney spoke for them:

Let any gentleman but look into the Statute Books lying upon our Table, he will see there to what a vast Bulk, to what a Number of Volumes, our Statutes relating to Taxes have swelled. It is monstrous, it is even frightful to look into the Indexes, where for several Columns together we see nothing but Taxes, Taxes, Taxes.

The modern developed nation-state — bureaucratic, orderly, highly centralized, and absurdly highly taxed in comparison to any other era of human history — had been born, largely to meet the needs of the military.

With one country having remade itself in this more militarily efficient image, the other countries of the world felt they had no choice but to follow in order to remain competitive. In Europe, France and Spain concentrated more power than ever before in the hands of a central government, while the various small kingdoms that had traditionally made up Italy and Germany finally felt compelled to unify as centralized nations in their own right. The Ottoman Empire too remade itself after suffering a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the ultra-modern nation-state of Napoleonic France, as did faraway Japan after the American Commodore Matthew Perry waltzed into Edo Bay with a small fleet of modern warships and held the shogunate hostage at gunpoint; “rich country, strong army” became the slogan for Japan’s economic, bureaucratic, social, and of course military modernization.

The game of Civilization does a rather remarkably clever job of depicting most of the factors I’ve just described. The deeper into the game you play, the more your maintenance costs go up, meaning that you have to tax your people more and more to maintain your civilization. And the game also captures the spur which the threat of war constantly gave to the progressive impulse; if you let your civilization fall too far behind its rivals in military terms, they will pounce. This alone provides a strong motivation to keep researching the latest advances, exactly as it did historically. The narrative of progress, in the game and in history, owes much to war.

But when we come to the second half of the twentieth century of our own planet’s history, the notion of war and/or the threat of war as a prime driver of the narrative of progress becomes more fraught. It has long been commonplace for critics of progress to contrast the bloody twentieth century with the relatively peaceful nineteenth century, using a range of seemingly telling statistics about death and suffering to anchor their contention that the narrative of progress has really only made us better at killing one another. Yet their insistence on passing their statistical judgment on the twentieth century as a whole obscures something rather important: while the first half of the century was indeed inordinately, almost inconceivably bloody, the second half was vastly less so. The statistics for the century as a whole, in other words, are hopelessly skewed by what we can all agree to hope were the historical anomalies of the two biggest wars ever fought.

Since the end of World War II, the situation has been much different. While small wars have certainly continued to be fought, two proverbial “great powers” haven’t met one another directly on a battlefield since 1945: that’s 73 years as I write these words, a record for all of post-classical human history. As the political scientist Robert Jervis could write already in 1988, “the most striking characteristic of the postwar period is just that — it can be called ‘postwar’ because the major powers have not fought each other since 1945. Such a lengthy period of peace among the most powerful states is unprecedented.” The change is so marked that historians have come up with a name for the period stretching from 1945 to the present: “The Long Peace.” This is the aspect of the Cold War which was overlooked by a public justifiably worried about the threat of nuclear annihilation, which was obscured by the small-scale proxy wars and police actions fought by the Americans in places like Vietnam and by the Soviets in places like Afghanistan. And yet the Long Peace has now outlasted the Cold War with which it overlapped by more than a quarter of a century.

If we want to identify what changed in the nature of warfare itself at the end of World War II, the answer is blazingly obvious: the atomic bomb entered the picture. The idea of a weapon so terrible that it would bring an end to war wasn’t, it should be noted, a new one at the time the bomb entered the picture. In 1864, Victor Hugo, looking forward to a future replete with flying machines, proposed that their potential on the battlefield would be sufficient to make armies “vanish, and with them the whole business of war.” Even the logic of mutually-assured destruction wasn’t really new at the dawn of the Cold War. In 1891, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, suggested to an Austrian countess that “perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”

Still, nuclear weapons, with their capacity to mutually destroy not just opposing armies but opposing civilizations — and, indeed, the entirety of the world that built them — were clearly something new under the sun. It’s thus not hugely surprising to find that the game of Civilization doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with them when they finally appear so late in the day. After doing a credible job in the broad strokes, all things considered, of portraying the global balance of military power through World War II, the edges really begin to fray at the advent of the nuclear age. The game makes no space for the total destruction of an all-out nuclear exchange. Nuclear strikes come at a considerable cost to the environment, but it is possible in the game to win a nuclear war, sending what some critics regard as a regrettable message. To be fair to Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley, it would be very difficult indeed to implement nuclear weapons in a way that feels both true to history and satisfying in the game. Thus Civilization fell victim here to Meier’s old maxim of “fun trumps history.” That said, the designers did make an obvious attempt to simulate what a Pandora’s Box nuclear weapons really are in at least one way. When one civilization builds the Manhattan Project Wonder, all civilizations in the game who have researched the Rocketry advance get instant access to nuclear weapons.

This side of the game serves as a fine illustration of an aspect of strategy-game design that’s very easy to overlook. Many players believe that the ideal artificial intelligence plays just like a human would, but this isn’t always the case at all. If the more militaristic civilizations in the game were to start wildly nuking the player, ruining the civilization she’d spent so long building, she wouldn’t feel pleased that the artificial intelligence was so smart. Not at all; she’d feel like she was being punished for no good reason. Fun, it seems, also trumps perfect artificial intelligence. Your opponents in Civilization are notably reluctant to employ nuclear weapons in light of this maxim, only doing it to you if you start doing it to them.

The one memorable exception to this rule is down to a bug. Gandhi, the leader of the Indian civilization, is coded to be extremely non-aggressive. Problem is, his “aggression” setting is so low that it can actually loop back around to the maximum value when modifiers get subtracted. The upshot of all this is that he winds up being passive-aggressive rather than non-aggressive, avoiding all conflict until he acquires nuclear weapons, then letting the nukes fly with abandon. One can see this behavior as an unfortunate if unintentional bit of ethnic stereotyping. But one can also, of course, see it as kind of hilarious.

At any rate, there is nothing like the Long Peace accounted for in the game. (Admittedly, the Long Peace was much shorter at the time that the original Civilization was made.) As for historians: their points of view on the subject can be broadly sorted into two opposing camps, which I’ll call the realpolitik view and the globalist-idealist view. Both camps give due deference to the importance of nuclear weapons in any discussion of postwar geopolitics, but they diverge from there.

Those who fancy themselves the sober realists of the realpolitik school believe that the fundamentals of war and peace haven’t really changed at all, only the stakes in terms of potential destruction. From the first time that a primitive tribe armed itself with spears to make a neighboring tribe of warlike neighbors think twice before attacking its camp, weapons of war have been as useful for preventing wars as for fighting them. Nuclear weapons, the realpolitik camp claims, represent only a change in degree, not in kind. From this point of view arose the rhetoric of peace through strength, deployed liberally by steely Cold Warriors on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Safety, went the logic, lay in being so militarily strong that no one would ever dare mess with you. The Long Peace was a credit to the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union — and, after the Cold War, the United States alone — were so thoroughly prepared to kick any other country’s ass, with or without employing nuclear weapons.

The globalist-idealist view doesn’t ignore the awesome power of nuclear weapons by any means, but sees it through a more nuanced framework. Many people at the dawn of the nuclear age — not least many of scientists of the Manhattan Project who had helped to build the bomb — hoped that its power would lead to a philosophical or even spiritual awakening, prompting humanity to finally put an end to war. Some went so far as to advocate for the sharing of the technology behind the bomb with all the countries of the world, thus placing the whole world on a level playing field and ending the dominion of strong over weak countries everywhere. Such a thing wasn’t done, but there may be reason to believe that the idealistic impulse which led to proposals like this one found another outlet which has done the world an immense amount of good.

Looking back to the actual horrors of the previous few decades and the potential horrors of nuclear war, countries across the world after World War II instituted an international system of order that would have sounded like a utopian dream five years before. Its centerpiece was the United Nations, a forum unlike any that had existed before in human history, a place to which disputes between countries could be brought, to be hashed out with the help of neutral peers before they turned into shooting wars. Meanwhile an International Court of Justice would, again for the first time in history, institute a binding, globalized system of law to which all of the United Nations’s signatories, big or small, would be bound.

These are the major, obvious institutions of the globalized postwar order, but the spirit that spawned them has led to countless other international organs of communication and dispute resolution. Perhaps the most amazing of these — and an institution whose amazingness is too often overlooked — is the European Union. Known throughout most of history as the world’s preeminent powder keg of war, Europe, with its dozens of culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse countries packed together more closely than anywhere else in the world, has at last managed to set aside ancient rivalries and the many wars to which they historically led in favor of a grand continent-spanning cooperative project that’s made the idea of another general European war all but unimaginable. Even the recent decision by Britain to withdraw from the European Union hasn’t, as was breathlessly predicted by so many Cassandras, led to the dissolution of the project. Instead the latest polling shows substantially increased support for the European Union among the citizens of its remaining member states, as if the blow that was Brexit caused many to wake up to just how precious it really is.

To the extent that it takes a position, the game of Civilization winds up pitching its tent with the realpolitik school, although one does sense that this is done almost by default. Its mechanics are suited to depicting a global order based on the military balance of power, but, while the United Nations does make a token appearance, the game has no real mechanism for transcending nationalism and the wars that tend to accompany it. Only limited cooperation between rival civilizations is possible, and, especially at the higher difficulty levels, it’s a careful player indeed who manages to avoid wars in the climactic stages of the game. All of this is perhaps unfortunate, but forgivable given the long arc of history the game has to cover.

In the real world, however, your humble writer here does see reason to believe that we may be edging into a new, post-national, postwar-in-the-universal-sense era. Of course, we need to be very careful when we begin to assert that we’re privileged to live in a unique time in history. Many an earlier era has been foolish enough to regard itself as unique, only to learn, sometimes painfully, that the old rules still apply. Yet recent decades really do seem to have altered our attitudes toward war. The acquisition of territory by military force, once considered a matter of course, is now looked upon so unfavorably by the world at large that even as established a bad actor on the world stage as Vladimir Putin’s Russia felt compelled to justify its annexation of the Crimea in 2014 with a sham referendum. The United States, widely regarded with some justification as the last remaining warmonger among the well-developed Western nations, nevertheless goes to lengths that would have been inconceivable in earlier eras to avoid civilian casualties in its various military adventures. The same reluctance to accept war for the ugly business it is does everything to explain why, despite having the most powerful military the world has ever known, the same country tends to clearly win so very few of the wars it starts.

Changing attitudes toward war in the West can also be charted through our war memorials. London’s Trafalgar Square, a celebration of a major naval victory over Napoleon, is almost a caricature of extravagant triumphalism, with an outsized Admiral Horatio Nelson looking proudly down on the scene from the top of a 170-foot column. The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., on the other hand, engages with its subject — one of those recent wars the United States failed to win out of an unwillingness to behave as brutally as was necessary — not as a triumph but as a tragedy, being a somber roll call of the ordinary soldiers who lost their lives there. But perhaps nowhere is the transformation in attitudes more marked than in Germany, which, after instigating the most terrible war in history well under a century ago, is now arguably the most fundamentally pacifistic nation in the West, going so far as to anger free-speech advocates by banning blood in videogames and banning right-wing political parties that venture anywhere close to the ideological territory once occupied by the Nazi party.

This notion that we are on the cusp of a new era of peaceful international cooperation, that soon the brutality of war might be as unthinkable to the modern mind as that of slavery or institutionalized torture, was a key component of Francis Fukayama’s assertion that humanity might be reaching the end of its history. A quarter-century on from that audacious thesis, the international order has been shaken at times, particularly by events in recent years, but the edifices built in the aftermath of World War II still stand. Even if we can only partially agree with the statement that humanity has finally found an orderly alternative to war through those edifices — reserving the other half of the Long Peace equation to the old realpolitik of might makes right, in the person of the peace-guaranteeing power of the United States and that ultimate deterrent of nuclear weapons — we might be slowly leaving behind the era of nationalism that began with the emergence of strong, centralized nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and led eventually to so much bloodshed in the first half of the twentieth. Even more optimistically, we might soon be able to say farewell to war as humanity has always known it. “Last night I had the strangest dream,” goes a lovely old folk song. “I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war.” Today we are, by any objective measurement, closer to achieving that strange dream than we’ve ever been before. War has defined our past to a disconcerting degree, but perhaps it need not do the same for our future.

What would and should a postwar world really be like? Many have looked askance at the idea of a world free of war, seeing it as a world free as well of the noble virtues of honor, sacrifice, and courage, a world where people live only to selfishly gratify their personal needs. Unsurprisingly, Nietzsche is counted among the critics, painting a picture of a world full of “men without backs” who are no better than slaves to their creature comforts. More surprisingly, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, that original architect of a narrative of progress climaxing in a peaceful and prosperous end of history, shared many of the same concerns, going so far as to state that nations at the end of history would need to continue to require military service of their citizens and continue to fight the occasional war in order to keep the noble virtues alive. Modern critics of the lifestyle of developed Western nations, speaking from both inside and outside those nations’ umbrellas, decry their servile “softness,” decry the way that the vicissitudes of fashion and consumerism take the place of the great feats that once stirred men’s souls. Peace and prosperity, goes another, related argument, are ultimately boring; some theories about the outbreak of World War I have long held that its biggest motivator was that countries just got tired of getting along, wanted a little mayhem to break up the monotony. Certainly our fictions — not least our videogame fictions — would be a lot duller without wars to relive.

I can understand such concerns on one level, but feel like they reflect a profound lack of imagination on another. I can’t, alas, count myself among the younger generation or generations who must put the finishing touches on a post-national, postwar world order, if it should ever come to be. Yet I can say that our current younger generation’s greater tolerance toward diversity and marked disinclination toward violence don’t strike me as being accompanied by any deficit of idealism or passion. And there is much that can replace war in their souls that is even more stirring. They could finally get serious about cleaning up this poor planet which their elders have spent so many centuries trashing. They could do something for the poorest regions of the world, to bring the benefits of the prosperous postwar international order to all. They could follow the example of humanity’s grandest adventure to date — the Apollo Moon landing, which truly was shared by the entire world thanks to the progressive technology of television — and look outward, first to Mars, perhaps eventually all the way to Alpha Centauri. For that matter, my own generation could make a solid start on many of these things right now. With all due respect to Hegel and Fukuyama, the end of war need not mean the end of history. It could mean that our real history is just getting started.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, The Story of Civilization Volume I: Our Oriental Heritage by Will Durant, The Past is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthal, The Sinews of Power by John Brewer, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, The Iliad by Homer, Fragments by Heraclitus, The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Lectures on the Philosophy of History by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume, Basic Writings of Kant by Immanuel Kant, and Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction by Steven Grosby; the article “Strategic Digital Defense: Video Games and Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ Program, 1980-1987” by William M. Knoblauch, found in the book Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History.)


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46 Responses to The Game of Everything, Part 5: Civilization and War

  1. Brian

    April 13, 2018 at 6:37 pm

    This series has been fantastic in how far it has ranged!

    Two books that came to mind as tangents in your discussion (I hope everyone doesn’t mind me jumping the rails a bit) of war and it’s effect on civilization. We may (hopefully) be entering a post-war era, but watch out for the next pandemic.

    “Pale Rider” by Spinney about the Flu epidemic of 1918-20.

    WW1 – 17 million dead
    WW2 – 60 million dead
    The Flu – 50 to 100 million dead (estimated… approximately 3-5% of the world population)

    And “Dark Sun” by Richard Rhodes – a fascinating read that covers the development of nuclear weapons, primarily the thermonuclear bomb, as well as the extensive Soviet espionage effort. Worth a read if you are interested… The US had enough atom bombs on alert during the Cuban missile crisis to potentially precipitate a nuclear winter! Scary stuff indeed.

    Enjoying this one greatly. I didn’t get back to it until just now, but lots of fascinating discussion on Jared Diamond’s book in the last thread.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 13, 2018 at 7:20 pm

      Dark Sun is indeed excellent, as is the entirety of Richard Rhodes’s atomic series. I read them all when I was working on series of articles about Trinity a few years back.

    • killias2

      August 24, 2021 at 2:45 pm

      Reading this in 2021…can’t help but laugh darkly

      • Alex

        September 15, 2022 at 9:21 pm

        I am reading it in September 2022. It is…unsetting. Jimmy, how about a career as fortune-teller?

  2. Ilmari

    April 13, 2018 at 7:37 pm

    Great post, but I’d make a few slight corrections regarding history of philosophy.

    Firstly, saying that Western philosophy began with Heraclitus might be a bit of an exaggeration. After all, there were a number of more or less contemporary philosophers around the Mediterranean (Thales, Xenophanes and Pythagoras, just to name a few), any one of who might claim the title of the first philosopher to himself. In fact, traditionally it has been Thales, who has received this honour, although from modern perspective he might not have been that much of a philosopher.

    Secondly, the many millennia long ignorance of Heraclitus is even more of an exaggeration. Stoics (one of the, if not THE most successful philosophical schools at the Hellenistic and Imperial Roman times) at least were highly appreciative of him, for instance, deriving their idea of a periodic destruction of world in fire from him. Some Pyrrhonists (ancient skeptics) were also interested of him, mostly for quite different reasons than Stoics – instead of an impending doom of the cosmos, they looked for signs of epistemic uncertainty in his philosophy. The hegemony or Platonistic-Aristotelian metaphysics didn’t begin before 3rd century AD, when other philosophical schools whittled away. So, there’s at most a millennium and half, when Heraclitus wasn’t that popular in philosophical circles.

    Finally, Nietzsche certainly wasn’t the philosopher who begun the Heraclitus renaissance, but there were people reading this Greek classic with enthusiasm already at the beginning of the 19th century or even at the end of 18th century – people like Hegel, who explicitly said he had incorporated all of Heraclitus in his own philosophy. Indeed, it is the idea of contradictions existing in the world, which Hegel thinks he sees in Heraclitus, that is ultimately on the basis of his statement that war is a necessary fate of states.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 13, 2018 at 8:12 pm

      Thanks for this! Corrections made.

  3. David Boddie

    April 13, 2018 at 10:46 pm

    A thought provoking article! Very interesting to read on a Friday evening.

    A couple of corrections:
    “Sentiment may have sufficed for primitive humans”
    “This sentiment may have sufficed for primitive humans”

    “while the various small kingdom that had traditionally made up Italy and Germany”
    “while the various small kingdoms that had traditionally made up Italy and Germany”

    Also, a long sentence that I had a little trouble getting to the end of:
    “Even if we can only partially agree with the statement that humanity has finally found an orderly alternative to war through those edifices – reserving the other half of the Long Peace equation to the old realpolitik of might makes right, in the person of the peace-guaranteeing power of the United States and that ultimate deterrent of nuclear weapons – we might be slowly leaving behind the era of nationalism that began with the emergence of strong, centralized nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and led eventually to so much bloodshed in the first half of the twentieth.”

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 14, 2018 at 6:56 am

      Thanks! In this case, implementing your proposed change to the first would actually change the meaning of the sentence, and I’m going to call writer’s prerogative and leave the third alone. ;)

  4. Martin

    April 13, 2018 at 11:39 pm

    So what’s your view of the Strauss and Howe theory of generational cycles? The fourth generation reaches a point in the collapse of the institutions that governed the previous three. It doesn’t have to be a war but then again it could be one. Maybe after all this peace we’ll find a non-war way to deal with the crisis this time. I can understand that people can be uncomfortable with cycles that can imply some level of per-destination but certain things predicted 20 years ago seem to be happening now.
    Also what about terrorism? Moving beyond any specific brand of it, the idea of the hit and run and there being no specific location or nation to fire back at, it would seem that terrorism is becoming war 2.0.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 14, 2018 at 7:21 am

      I haven’t read any of Strauss and Howe’s books, so I hesitate to say too much. I will say, however, that their theories strike me a bit provincial, being so tied to American history — although I understand that there have been attempts to apply them more universally. Anyway, I’m skeptical in general of grand unifying theories of history.

      As Steven Pinker describes at length in The Better Angels of Our Nature, the deaths caused by terrorism are *minuscule* compared to those caused by the traditional wars of history or the present. Tragic as any loss of life due to senseless violent is, if terrorism truly is War 2.0, that’s actually vastly better than War 1.0.

      Sadly, right from the day after the September 11 attacks, our politicians did everything wrong that they possibly could in relation to terrorism. By declaring a War on Terror — which makes no sense in itself, as you can’t declare war on an abstract tactic — they gave the radical Muslims who had prosecuted the attack everything they had dreamed of: a holy war between Islam and the secular West. John Kerry was pilloried for it, but he was right: September 11 should have been approached as a law-enforcement matter.

      As it is, we’ve had politicians in the United States and Europe whipping the populations into a frenzy over a significant but hardly extensional threat; cars and home swimming pools kill far more people every year than terrorists, and no one is declaring wars on them. The real reason for this, of course, is that fear is a wonderful motivator, and a great driver for a certain brand of politics.

      In the end, we have to always remember that terrorism is a form of asymmetric warfare, by definition a tool the weak use against the strong. The best way to combat it in the long term is, paradoxical as it may sound, to make the people most likely to practice it no longer weak, by offering them education, jobs, respect, and a voice in the political direction of the countries where they live.

      My two cents, anyway. ;)

      • Laertes

        April 14, 2018 at 8:29 am

        Thanks Jimmy, if only there was more people in power with these ideas. And written by an US citizen (I don’t say american, America is much more than the US) no less.

      • Martin

        April 14, 2018 at 1:54 pm

        Strauss and Howe’s theories are based around the dominant country. So they focus around the US in the 20th century and take it back to Britain in the 19th and some of the 18th centuries. They don’t take it back further because either the haven’t done the research or because it doesn’t work going further back or because that was when Britain create the military state, as you pointed out, and that’s when their effect started to happen. I don’t know which it is.
        As far as I can tell, this is all supposed to work as one generation reacts to the extremes of the previous one and a “double flip-flop” takes you back to where you started. They stated 2o years ago that we would enter a period when we loose trust in our establishments. Now there is a general feeling that the UN is toothless, or judges are ideologically motivated, our political representatives are owned by corporate interests and any news we don’t like is fake. The theory says that we will somehow work through this and in the past it has got nasty. Wars and revolutions are in the toolbox of the past but we might find a more peaceful way through it this time.
        As to the terrorism comments, I would first say they if we are looking at the death statistically, terrorism is the “better” option. I certainly can’t disagree with your other comments about reactions. But the reason I brought is up is that I believe that terrorism is the response to nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are a powerful tool against nation states but are completely in-effective against a dispersed terrorist organization.
        Perhaps what has changed this time is that there is a greater understanding that it becomes a bad leader, his/her army and an oppressed population that is just trying to get by. In that situation, who can justify the use of nuclear weapons that take them all out?

        • Jimmy Maher

          April 15, 2018 at 8:46 am

          I’m still having a little trouble tying these theories, which seem to largely describe the internal politics of the United States or (earlier) Britain, to larger issues of war and peace on the international stage. And even internally, of course, these cycles, to whatever extent they exist, haven’t led to outright war inside the United States since the American Civil War. As toxic as American politics have gotten over the last few years, it’s hard for me to imagine the country breaking down into civil war again. ;)

          That’s a very interesting take on terrorism, and one that may very well have some truth to it. On the other hand, the “justification” issue cuts both ways. The reluctance to use nuclear weapons is so marked that even a conventional nation-state would have to do something really, titanically awful to prompt a nuclear strike. Any nation in the world today that doesn’t have nuclear weapons could be pounded so badly by those that do using conventional weaponry that there’s little reason for them to break that ultimate geopolitical taboo.

      • Tom

        April 14, 2018 at 2:52 pm

        The problem, of course, with the last paragraph is how one is supposed to accomplish that in a country not one’s own, partially because of the norms that have developed over the course of the Long Peace.

        • Jimmy Maher

          April 15, 2018 at 9:00 am

          It’s a problem, but the developed West does have tools that it has refused to use. The world economy’s dependence on cheap oil coming out of the Middle East hasn’t done the people of the region any favors in the long run. It’s prompted the West to support the most brutal autocracies in places like Saudi Arabia in the name of ensuring stability and a steady flow of oil. This blatant hypocrisy from the supposed champions of democratic values in turn has dome much to breed the hatred and hopelessness in Middle Eastern streets that leads to terrorism.

          One reason to hope for a greener energy future has nothing directly to do with the environment: if the dependence of the developed world on Middle Eastern oil is removed, so too will its dependence on the backward regimes there, removing the economic distortions that have made it so hard for the West to take a stand for democracy and human rights. It would be nice, of course, if the West could stand on principle now even in the face of that dependency, but beggars can’t be choosers…

  5. tedder

    April 14, 2018 at 5:22 pm

    Love this broad view that is only slightly tethered to Civ :)

    one minor correction, “it would very difficult indeed to implement nuclear weapon” -> “it would be very”

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 15, 2018 at 9:11 am


  6. Glorkvorn

    April 14, 2018 at 11:20 pm

    The mechanics of Civilization for maintenance costs are a little weird. Units cost no money, they just drain your production (representing a strange split between money and industrial production) while buildings cost money each turn. If you try to play the peaceful way, this makes for “one step forward, one step back”. You have to make buildings to grow your population, then you need buildings/luxuries to keep them content, then you have to grow it more to pay for those buildings, then you need to pay even *more* to keep them content, and so on. All made worse as a democracy, where one unhappy city can topple your government.

    It’s a lot easier to play as a warmonger from the start. By keeping your cities small and making nothing but military units, you avoid all the maintenance costs and can keep up surprisingly well with the big-city democracies. You don’t even need scientific research, since you can take everything from the cities you conquer.

    I’m not sure what that would represent in real world terms, but it doesn’t sound good :P.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 15, 2018 at 9:19 am

      This approach was never anticipated by Meier and Shelley, and is really an accident born of the game’s rather loose mechanics; it should be remembered that no more than perhaps a dozen people had ever even played Civilization prior to its shipping date. They rushed out a few patches to head off the worst abuses committed in the name of the “primitive conquering despot” approach, but much was too ingrained in the rules to be fixable.

      While I never presume to tell anyone how to have fun in any given game, it is worth nothing that this wasn’t quite the game of Civilization which Meier and Shelley thought they were making. In this series, I generally hew more to the conceptual framework of the game than the sinkholes in the nitty-gritty of the implementation.

      In my experience, managing a peaceful democracy isn’t quite as onerous as what you describe here. You do eventually start having to “waste” tax dollars on luxuries, but democracy produces so *much* trade that you still come out way ahead. Personally, I find running a fast-developing democracy of five or six huge cities far less stressful and tedious than trying to juggle dozens of small cities and dozens or hundreds of military units spread all over the world.

      • Gnoman

        April 17, 2018 at 12:47 am

        The Democracy government also eliminates corruption penalties to income. This offsets a lot of the downsides.

  7. Alan Twelve

    April 15, 2018 at 11:55 am

    A very minor historical point in what’s an excellent piece, Jimmy:

    “In 1675, the entire British army consisted of no more than 15,000 soldiers”

    In 1675 there was no “British” army, because there was no British state until 1707. They’d shared the same monarch since 1606, but in 1675 Scotland and England were separate, and competing, nations.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 15, 2018 at 1:05 pm

      Ah, good catch. Thanks!

  8. Dan Art

    April 15, 2018 at 2:39 pm

    So nice to read decent humanitarian values while a new Cold War is prodded. Thank you!

  9. Sam Garret

    April 15, 2018 at 10:43 pm

    I was going to make a tangential comment, noting that Bonobos, while approximately as close to us as chimpanzees, do have entirely different methods for conflict resolution than chimps. While not actually quite as ‘make love not war’ as popular imagination has it, and while still capable of aggression, they are much less prone to the killing of other Bonobos than chimps are of other chimps, at least in part due to their sexual smoothing over of conflict. And perhaps their matriarchy.

    But then I surfed a bit more on the subject and found which suggests that even high inter-group chimp death numbers may be specific to particular areas. A #NotAllChimps situation, if you will.

    Obviously I’m not an actual chimpanzoologist, but it does seem that the chimp argument for innate violence might be a little problematic.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 16, 2018 at 5:14 am

      I’m certainly no expert in this area, but was relying on Steven Pinker, who discusses the issue at some length in The Better Angels of Our Nature. I’ll quote a little more from him:

      When Goodall first wrote about these killings, other scientists wondered whether they might be freak outbursts, symptoms of pathology, or artifacts of the primatologists’ provisioning the chimps with food to make them easier to observe. Three decades later little doubt remains that lethal aggression is a part of chimpanzees’ normal behavioral repertoire. Primatologists have observed or inferred the killings of almost fifty individuals in attacks between communities, and more than twenty-five in attacks within them. The reports have come from at least nine communities, including ones that have never been provisioned.

      Those numbers may not sound impressive at first blush, but it should be understood that these are incidents of primatologists witnessing actual, live “murders” between chimpanzees — not just the discovery of corpses or whatever after the fact. Pinker’s primary source for this, for what it’s worth is “Lethal Violence in Chaimpanzees” by Wilson and Wrangham.

      Pinker does address the bonobo counterargument, but doesn’t find it terribly compelling. I’ll quote from him on the subject:

      The idea that humans evolved from a peaceful, bonobolike ancestor has two problems. One is that it is easy to get carried away with the hippie-chimp story. Bonobos are an endangered species that lives in inaccessible forests in dangerous parts of the Congo, and much of what we know about them comes from observations of small groups of well-fed juveniles or young adults in captivity. Many primatologists suspect that systematic studies of older, hungrier, more populous, and freer groups of bonobos would paint a darker picture. Bonobos in the wild, it turns out, engage in hunting, confront each other belligerently, and injure one another in fights, perhaps sometimes fatally. So while bonobos are unquestionably less aggressive than common chimpanzees—they never raid one another, and communities can mingle peacefully—they are certainly not peaceful across the board.

      The second and more important problem is that the common ancestor of the two chimpanzee species and humans is far more likely to have been like a common chimpanzee than like a bonobo. Bonobos are very strange primates, not just in their behavior but in their anatomy. Their small, childlike heads, lighter bodies, reduced sex differences, and other juvenile traits make them different not only from common chimpanzees but from the other great apes (gorillas and orangutans) and different as well from fossil australopithecines, who were ancestral to humans. Their distinctive anatomy, when placed on the great ape family tree, suggests that bonobos were pulled away from the generic ape plan by neoteny, a process that retunes an animal’s growth program to preserve certain juvenile features in adulthood (in the case of bonobos, features of the cranium and brain). Neoteny often occurs in species that have undergone domestication, as when dogs diverged from wolves, and it is a pathway by which selection can make animals less aggressive. Wrangham argues that the primary mover in bonobo evolution was selection for reduced aggression in males, perhaps because bonobos forage in large groups without vulnerable loners, so there are no opportunities for coalitional aggression to pay off. These considerations suggest that bonobos are the odd-ape-out, and we are descended from an animal that was closer to common chimpanzees.

      • Matthew Johnson

        April 17, 2018 at 5:21 pm

        Pinker’s argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that neoteny is also a particular characteristic of anatomically modern humans:

        So if bonobos are on a branch of the ape family tree marked by neoteny, so are we.

        • Jimmy Maher

          April 17, 2018 at 6:33 pm

          Touché. This whole line of argument is starting to sound problematic enough that I’m going to cut it. Thanks!

  10. A Couch

    April 16, 2018 at 1:09 pm

    It seems suspect (even dangerous) to assert that the problem with the United States’ military tactics is that they are not brutal enough, not willing enough to go out and kill civilians, citing Vietnam specifically, on the same Friday that we carpet bomb the airports and most populated cities in Syria for no particular gain. No, the problem since Vietnam seems to me to be an absence of overarching strategy towards actionable goals, epitomized, as you put it, in a war on an abstract tactic.

    Also, I don’t know how much stock we can put in The Illiad as a record of How Things Really Were. What we know archaeologically about war in the classical era is that you would line up in gigantic rectangular masses and slowly chew through one another; brutal stuff, yes, but a model of war-making less favorable to glorious valor (except for the commander) can hardly be imagined. The Illiad is more like the story this culture told itself almost as if to compensate or propagandize, not that this makes it any less valuable as a resource for this essay.

    Fantastic work you’ve done and continue to do, though, especially with this particularly ambitious series. Three cheers!

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 16, 2018 at 1:55 pm

      As I hope comes through within the context of the article, my position is not that the United States should have fought all these wars more brutally. My point is rather more subtle than that: that an issue that isn’t worth going to *total* war over isn’t worth going to war over at all. Since all these lost and inconclusive wars clearly didn’t meet the standard for total war with the American populace — and I agree with them on that — they should never have been fought at all.

      I’m ambivalent as well about the Syria strikes, especially given how mixed up they’ve become with the domestic investigations of the Trump administration; at this point, we can never know if they’re being done for the “right” reason or as domestic distractions. That said, these were “precision strikes,” not carpet-bombing attacks, and they fall into the usual pattern: lots of insistence that civilian casualties will be minimized, etc. In effect, the West tells Assad, “Okay, you can make war on civilians, but you can only kill so many at a time, and you can’t use these particularly nasty weapons against them. If you cross the line, we’ll slap your hand, then everyone can press the reset button until next time.” How can the end result be anything but inconclusive? This strikes me as inherently problematic… but no, I don’t have a great solution either to what’s happening in Syria.

      As you kind of say already, my point in bringing up The Iliad wasn’t that it presents an accurate picture of ancient warfare. It’s rather that it presents an accurate picture of ancient *attitudes* toward warfare, and the glorification of it.

      • Thomas M Schmidt

        April 17, 2018 at 3:37 pm

        I don’t read the Iliad as an anti-war poem, but your take on it in this article is glib and overwrought. We don’t just get lip service to the costs of war, but full throated laments and lengthy descriptions of misery, and the poem is just as sympathetic to the Trojans whose city will eventually be destroyed as it is to the Greeks. You might be interested in Carolyn Due’s work. Kate Mcloughlin’s book about the history of the depiction of war in fiction is also relevant to your argument here.

        The achievement of glory is genuinely important for Homer, but the poem is not univocal but polyphonic in its view of war. And of course the Odyssey, if we think it’s by the same author, is much more of an anti-war epic; all the great heroes have returned from Troy broken in fundamental ways, and even the ghost of Achilles regrets his choice in the Iliad, announcing that he would trade all his glory for the chance to live again. On the other hand, the Odyssey is clearly in favor of retributive violence and revels in its description. My point is that these texts resist simple interpretation and contain a complex, mixed view of war.

        • Jimmy Maher

          April 17, 2018 at 4:02 pm

          I’ll cop to glibness, although I’m puzzled by the adjective “overwrought.” But you make some great points about the text being far more nuanced and complex than I gave it credit for. I don’t want to lose the plot too much due to this issue, but I made a few edits to hopefully at least alleviate my sins. Thanks!

  11. Michael

    April 17, 2018 at 6:33 pm

    “As every Civilization veteran knows, it’s absolutely vital to establish sovereignty over your starting continent during this early stage in order to have enough cities and resources to be competitive later on.”
    This is fascinating to me. Now, I never actually played the original Civ, but I was pretty dedicated to Civ II for many years, until I finally gave in and bumped up to Civ 5 recently (couldn’t get the old one to keep working on new machines, and don’t have the tech savvy to find a workaround). My impression is that II wasn’t radically different from I, but maybe I was wrong. Personally, I always played a very peaceful game until I started to get close to industrialization, because it was virtually impossible to actually conquer an enemy city with the weak units you begin with. As a result, my civs were usually sprawling dis-contiguous entities across several land bodies, which would start to consolidate by absorbing the smaller civs “inside” my borders around the time I developed cavalry units.
    Could be that was a reflection of my personal style, or maybe the games were more different than I ever realized.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 17, 2018 at 6:56 pm

      Didn’t Civilization II have chariots? In the original game, research Bronze Working and The Wheel right off to get chariots and phalanxes, stop all research and devote the whole economy to war production, and you can usually clear the continent in fairly short order. I always make that my first priority, then usually become peaceful and democratic. Sort of like the settlers in the Americas and Australia running off the native populations, then apologizing for it after the fact. ;)

      But your anecdote does point to one really weird thing about Civilization: the lack of national borders.

      • whomever

        April 17, 2018 at 7:33 pm

        One of the nice things about Civilization is that you actually can play with different strategies. I played (both 1 and 2) similar to Michael. Main thing is to have a couple of units to explore/pick up the “goody huts” (can’t remember what Civ actually called them) and explore, you can usually get away with just a smattering of legions guarding. Then push forward for tech, and once you build railroads you can just roll over everyone.

      • Pedro Timóteo

        April 18, 2018 at 9:08 am

        Funny thing; I know many people play Civilization like a war game, but I had never heard of that specific strategy of “cleaning out” the starting continent, then becoming democratic and peaceful. :)

        I don’t think I’ve ever (in over 25 years) actually *started* a war in any game from the Civ series, believe it or not. I typically keep a relatively small but decent army (at least one modern defensive unit per city, and possibly one or two extra units somewhere), and if attacked I typically can defend myself well enough, and then I don’t accept peace until the attacker is reduced to a city or two, and will never be a threat again. But somehow the idea of actually attacking a civilization that isn’t bothering me… doesn’t feel right.

        Flipping cities to your side through cultural influence (beginning with Civ 3), on the other hand, is perfectly OK to me. :)

        • Jimmy Maher

          April 18, 2018 at 9:20 am

          My problem is that other civilizations on my own continent *do* bother me. They’re forever sending their units to camp out next to my cities, thus blocking my access to valuable resources, and building their own cities two or three squares from mine. It’s like living with the most passive-aggressive housemate ever — so irritating that I don’t feel too bad about attacking them. All of this is, once again, caused by the way that Civilization has no concept of national borders. (I really need to find a place to write about that in this series.)

          But I like that about you that you don’t start wars even in games. ;)

      • Michael

        April 24, 2018 at 11:58 pm

        Civ II definitely did have chariots, and I *might* have occasionally overcome a city or two with them, but I didn’t find they were strong enough against city walls to make the expenditure in units worth it on a large scale.
        Commenting on your later comments, it’s also true that other “friendly” civs would sometimes do the most annoying things with their units within my “borders.” I generally just dealt with it until I could afford a full-scale war of extermination. Civ 5 has pretty much cleared up that problem: your cities project (expanding) borders and allies must ask permission to pass through. Certain features let you “steal” territory from your neighbors, but for the most part once an area “belongs” to one or more of your cities, it stays that way unless the city is conquered.

        • Simon_Jester

          September 19, 2022 at 9:48 am

          Coming back to this years later to comment on the game mechanics a bit:

          Civ II has chariots, but they have an attack of 3, and phalanxes (the most common and cost-effective city defender) have a defense of 2. When the phalanx fortifies its effective defense is 2+1=3, and city garrisons will be fortified. Even if the defending city is unwalled (and major cities usually have walls), that means you will usually lose chariots taking each city in the defending empire. Taking major cities becomes nearly impossible, because city walls boost the phalanx’s defensive effectiveness to (depending on how the game engine counts) either 7 or 9, I’m not sure which. Which means chariots tend to go “splat” against the walls of the target city, and you have to write off several of them to wear down the defense force enough to even start killing off their units by attrition. And it is attrition, because Civ II has a hit point mechanic, so a superior defender can usually only be worn down by being repeatedly damaged a bit at a time by each of several units, all but the last of which is sacrificed in the process of finishing it off.

          I’m not saying you can’t overrun cities with chariot rushes in the early game of Civ II, but the defender has enough options that it’s by no means easy.

          Also, the “border” mechanic was definitely present in Civ IV and I think also in Civ III. Civ II implemented a different version of a similar concept, called “zones of control,” which could basically stop most units from passing a unit, though not from approaching it. This made it theoretically possible to create cordons of units that most would-be infiltrators couldn’t get past, but you had to build up a pretty substantial line.

    • Kevin McHugh

      April 18, 2018 at 4:09 pm

      Freeciv hews closest to Civ 2 and is as easy to get running as any other game, and can be downloaded or played online at

      • Pedro Timóteo

        April 20, 2018 at 5:07 pm

        I haven’t played Freeciv in over a decade, but what I remember from that time is that the game, while replicating all of Civ 1 and 2’s rules, took all the “soul” away from those games, with all AI players forgetting about different “personalities” and just trying to expand and win at all costs.

        Which is, I guess, how a lot of players seem to play Civ, especially in competitive multiplayer. And who am I to say anyone’s playing the game “wrong”? Maybe you’ll love Freeciv if you’re the kind of player that thinks playing on Emperor is too easy. :) However, I tend to agree with Meier himself when he says:

        “To be good [at Civilization] you have to try to find or exploit the weaknesses in the game,” Meier said. “I’m not generally doing that. I’m trying to play the way you’re supposed to play and get into the role. ‘What would I do if I was the king of this civilization?’ That’s the fun for me.”

        “I think other players, if you want to be really good, they go, ‘Oh, I realize the chariots here are overpowered, so I’m going to build a ton of chariots,'” he continued. “So I wouldn’t say I’m good. I’m not that competitive.”

        In other words, some prefer playing a role and living a story/history, while some prefer optimizing strategies for maximum efficiency; I’m more inclined towards the former. As I said, however, I haven’t touched Freeciv in more than a decade, so maybe they added “the soul” later and I’m being completely unfair to it. Maybe I’ll try installing it again…

  12. Christopher Dumas

    April 20, 2018 at 12:53 am

    Great post, Jimmy, but I do have one thing that I’d like to point out. Honestly my ideology, being a
    libertarian, is more along the lines of the globalist-idealists, but I do have one thing to point out: the dream of everyone acting in either rational self-interest or idealistic desire to push forward all of humanity is an unrealistic expectation for everyone. ISIS, for instance, acts on completely alternative (dark) motives, and while one can hope that in the future nobody will think like they do, again that’s a little unrealistic. I feel like while on the whole it might be possible for the abolition of other-exclusive nationalism in favor of a more global point of view and free-trade (a libertarian dream!) to take place, there would always be a small but nasty minority that would oppose the global dream and try to mess it up as much as possible, and as long as those people exist, distrust and separation between nations must always persist, to a large extent out of practical necessity. In addition, and I know you didn’t directly support this, I kind of take issue with the idea of a “world government.” That would be a nightmare: huge, inefficient, detached, and corrupt just by the nature of its size and conflicting interests. The closest we could logically come, in my opinion, would be a loose federation of nations, like the early Federalist America, but for countries.

    Anyway, this has been an AMAZING series of articles, and I love this site. Thanks for doing all this work!

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 20, 2018 at 5:28 am

      I don’t think anyone is imagining that your “small but nasty minority” will cease to exist. There will always be bad actors of one kind or another on the world stage, but organs of international cooperation can minimize the damage they do. Things like NATO’s “an attack on one is an attack on all” policy have already caused people like Vladimir Putin to pause before *really* starting to cause trouble, and of course international coalitions already come together to fight rogue movements like ISIS (largely a monster of the West’s own creation, but that’s another subject).

      And I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about a world government either, at least not at this stage of history. But I do think the European Union can serve as a model for, as you say, other “loose federations of nations.”

  13. Alex Freeman

    April 26, 2018 at 4:20 am

    Consider again this assertion that “all things come into being through strife.” There is, it seems to me, some truth there, perhaps more truth than we’d like to admit. As Nietzsche’s contemporary Charles Darwin taught us, this is how biological evolution works. Strife is, in other words, what made us, the human race, what we are as a species. And it would certainly appear that our earliest civilizations too came into being through strife.

    Rather than being their antagonist, violence — or, often, the threat of violence — was a prime driver of early civilizations. Sentiment may have sufficed for primitive humans to keep their family and perhaps their friends close, but it was the logic of survival that pushed them to begin to enlarge their circles of concern, to band together into the larger communities that could form the basis for civilization.

    Yes, I’ve noticed that the world seems like a gigantic crystal with regular repeating patterns that consist of the same pattern on a smaller scale. Just as humans evolved through strife and our civilizations did, so do large, complex systems in general like our economy. A large economy works best as a market system because it mimics nature, and competing businesses act like competing tribes or species (although government regulation is supposed to prevent the market place from getting too savage).

    And we see order emerging from chaos. From the chaos of the Big Bang, emerged the order of stars, planets, and solar systems. On Earth, bacteria emerged from the primordial chaos. From the chaos of the ancient ecosystem, consciousness emerged in some ancient animal species. From the chaos of the law of the jungle, empathy (specifically warm empathy) emerged to enhance the survival of some ancient species. And, finally, from the chaotic circumstances you described, human civilization emerged. Going further, systems of oppression that humans suffer under in various societies can be seen as smaller versions of what human civilization has inflicted on this planet.

    Considering the cruelty involved in the making of different animal species and especially human civilization, I’d say an elegant way to symbolize it would be the infamous scene from Alien. From the chaos and violence stirring in the man’s body, order finally bursts through!

  14. Random Spanish Guy

    June 17, 2018 at 8:46 am

    Another comment way after your blog post, but…

    The UN was preceded by the League of Nations, in between the two World Wars… when the West was still hoping that what was then called the Great War would be the last of its kind.

    I would temper your optimism somewhat on the UN, especially when the US has already initiated wars without its permission. The lack of great wars in the recent past isn’t so much a result of the continued existence of the UN, as the other way around.

  15. Leo Vellés

    April 1, 2020 at 8:54 pm

    Still reading the whole blog in chronollogical order (this series about Civilización is, with those about the WW1 Pilot, the creation of the Atomic Bomb and the genesis of Tetris, another masterpiece) and the first comment about this article, written by Brian in April 2018, says: “We may (hopefully) be entering a post-war era, but watch out for the next pandemic”.
    The future is here


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