Rational Security

The Big Kill

Sorry, Steven Pinker, the world isn't getting less violent.


Writing their Lessons of History in the tumultuous year 1968, Will and Ariel Durant observed that in "the last 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war." The 44 years since they made this observation have added not a single year of peace to that meager total. Yet a number of remarkably hopeful studies published recently suggest war is on the wane. The Human Security Report arrived at this conclusion, which former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan affirmed in its foreword as offering proof that "[t]he world has become much less insecure over the past 20 years." At Harvard, psychology professor Steven Pinker has taken a very long view, finding that our era is far less brutal than ancient, medieval, or even early modern times.

The Human Security Report bases its conclusion on some key trends. First, the number of ongoing conflicts in a given year in which more than 1,000 people die in battle has declined, if a bit choppily, from 25 in the mid-80s to five in 2006. (In 2012, the total I see is back up to about 10.) In addition to this, the number of battle deaths per year, worldwide, has dropped since the end of World War II — with just a few spikes largely explained by the Korean War (1950-1953), Vietnam from the mid-‘60’s to mid-‘70s, and the strife in the Balkans and among former-Soviet republics in the ‘90s. In his Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker goes a little further, noting that over the past 70-plus years the number of battle deaths per 100,000 people has fallen dramatically — with no spikes, just a couple of "blips."    

The problem with the conclusions reached in these studies is their reliance on "battle death" statistics. The pattern of the past century — one recurring in history — is that the deaths of noncombatants due to war has risen, steadily and very dramatically. In World War I, perhaps only 10 percent of the 10 million-plus who died were civilians. The number of noncombatant deaths jumped to as much as 50 percent of the 50 million-plus lives lost in World War II, and the sad toll has kept on rising ever since. Perhaps the worst, but hardly the only, terrible example of this trend can be seen in the Congo war — flaring up again right now — in which over 90 percent of the several million dead were noncombatants. As to Pinker’s battle-death ratios, they are somewhat skewed by the fact that overall populations have exploded since 1940; so even a very deadly war can be masked by a "per 100,000 of population" stat.

There are better ways to parse the problem of war’s prevalence and its patterns over time. One approach would be simply to look at the number of armed conflicts under way at any given time. The Human Security Report actually does this for the period 1946-2008, its compelling graphic showing a steady rise to over 50 wars per year in the early 1990s. The rest of that decade saw a drop of about 40 percent — to a great extent driven by the winding down of the Balkan and post-Soviet wars — and then a rising pattern once again post-9/11. Yes, the number of wars is down by over a third since the peak 20 years ago, but ongoing conflicts today are still more than double the totals seen in the years from the end of World War II until the mid-1950s, and are equal to the numbers of wars ongoing during the Vietnam era. It is hard to describe this as a world in which war is on the wane.

The argument that the world has become more peaceful is even harder to sustain if one focuses on the patterns of the most destructive wars of the past few centuries. In my own work, I chose to search for what I call "big-kill" wars, during which a million or more die — soldiers and civilians. From 1800-1850, only the Napoleonic Wars surpassed the million-death mark. In the latter half of the 19th century, there were two such wars: the Taiping Rebellion, during which 20 million or more Chinese died; and the Lopez War between Paraguay and its neighbors. The latter conflict resulted in "only" a million deaths, but Paraguay lost roughly 80 percent of military-age males during this war, which had a shattering societal effect.

Between 1900 and 1950, the number of big-kill wars doubled, if one is willing to accept the view of some that the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) reached a million deaths. About the two world wars there is no doubt. The same is true of the civil war in China that ultimately brought Mao Zedong to power. And if one wants to consider the forced collectivization of farms that Stalin pursued as a form of internal war — which also saw the deaths of millions — then the total for this period would rise to five.

The troubling rise in big-kill wars in the first half of the 20th century was followed by an even more disturbing pattern in the second half: they doubled once again. There was nothing of the magnitude of World War II in sheer numbers of dead, but the million-mark in war deaths was steadily surmounted, mostly in societies in which such losses had staggering effects.

Six of these wars occurred in Africa. In rough chronological order they took place in Biafra, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Congo. Some debate whether the Rwandan genocide reached a million or fell slightly below, and the Human Security Project asserts that the International Red Cross’s estimate that five million people have died in the Congo war (an estimate echoed by many other reporting agencies) is a bit high — but both wars clearly fit the "big-kill" category in terms of percentages of the populations that have died from these wars and their societal effects. Besides, the more common historical pattern in the statistics of deadly quarrels has been to under-report deaths, so Rwanda and Congo should be kept in the count.

The other four big-kill wars occurred in Asia: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Afghanistan — the last just counting the Russian war there (1979-1989), not the civil strife of the ‘90s and the American intervention over the past decade. All four easily surpassed the million-mark in war deaths. There is debate about whether the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s reached this level — though there is little doubt about the profound effect of the conflict on both countries. 

The rising number of the deadliest conflicts over the past two centuries belies both the conclusions of the Human Security Report and those of Professor Pinker. However, since 2000 there has been only one big-kill war: the one in Congo, which now has the dubious distinction of suffering seven-figure war deaths both before and just after the turn the century. But I don’t see much prospect for yet another doubling of big-kill wars during the first half of this century. The most likely scenario for a war causing massive loss of life would be a second Korean war. Does the dearth of new million-death conflicts mean that war has finally begun to wane?

I don’t think so. For there is another alarming trend that has been getting under way alongside the big-kill wars: the rise of smaller conflicts that nevertheless cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The Balkan wars of the 1990s fit this pattern. As does the Chechen resistance to Russia, both before and since the millennium. The civil war in Burundi (1993-2005) and Somalia (ongoing) fit this bill as well. The same goes for the strife in Darfur, and Syria is on the edge of entering this category as well. Most of the conflicts that fall into this category will occur in failed or failing states — see this magazine’s Failed States Index as a guide to where the next disaster may occur. The "red zones" of critical concern are massive.

No, war is not on the wane. The second horseman of the Apocalypse remains with us. Indeed, it seems he may even have found a fresh mount. 

John Arquilla earned his degrees in international relations from Rosary College (BA 1975) and Stanford University (MA 1989, PhD 1991). He has been teaching in the special operations program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School since 1993. He also serves as chairman of the Defense Analysis department.

Dr. Arquilla’s teaching interests revolve around the history of irregular warfare, terrorism, and the implications of the information age for society and security.

His books include: Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat and the International System (1992); From Troy to Entebbe: Special Operations in Ancient & Modern Times (1996), which was a featured alternate of the Military Book Club; In Athena’s Camp (1997); Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy (2001), named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association; The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror (2006); Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), which is about defense reform; Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011); and Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War (2012).

Dr. Arquilla is also the author of more than one hundred articles dealing with a wide range of topics in military and security affairs. His work has appeared in the leading academic journals and in general publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired and The New Republic. He is best known for his concept of “netwar” (i.e., the distinct manner in which those organized into networks fight). His vision of “swarm tactics” was selected by The New York Times as one of the “big ideas” of 2001; and in recent years Foreign Policy Magazine has listed him among the world’s “top 100 thinkers.”

In terms of policy experience, Dr. Arquilla worked as a consultant to General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm, as part of a group of RAND analysts assigned to him. During the Kosovo War, he assisted deputy secretary of defense John Hamre on a range of issues in international information strategy. Since the onset of the war on terror, Dr. Arquilla has focused on assisting special operations forces and other units on practical “field problems.” Most recently, he worked for the White House as a member of a small, nonpartisan team of outsiders asked to articulate new directions for American defense policy.