Rational Security

Steven Pinker Sees Peace, I See Dead People

The author responds to his critics.


I would really like to believe that the world is getting safer, but seen even in light of the thoughtful critiques of my article, war still seems a terrible human scourge. Even more dangerous than in the past.

Here’s why: There are significantly more wars going on in the world today than there were 60 years ago — per the Human Security Project’s own listing — and more people are getting killed in or dying directly from them. All too many of the victims are noncombatants.

Professor Pinker’s use of numbers killed per 100,000 people as a key measure over the past half century is a very good one. For me, though, it is the absolute numbers that remain a principal concern. In a world whose population has risen from 3 to 7 billion since 1960, the same percentage killed per 100,000 means more carnage.

And all too often the victims of war are concentrated in the poorest parts of the planet, with the least amount of relief infrastructure available. This leads to very large proportions of national populations dying — even in wars that see "just" a quarter- or half-million dead — a percentage far higher and seen far more often than in most other wars. Those Tutsi living inside Rwanda, for example, were basically wiped out in 1994 –to our shame, as this catastrophe could have been prevented with even a modest military intervention. President Bill Clinton refers to his failure to act there as his "greatest regret." It should be.

I include Rwanda, Cambodia, and other "big kills" because they do indeed represent wars — albeit internal wars, the sort that the Human Security Project has rightly noted have come to dominate conflict. I simply cannot leave them — and other conflicts like them — out, especially because of the genocidal war aims all too often on display.

Which brings me to the point about civilians becoming more and more targeted for killing over the past century — a point that both critiques of my article contest. Here’s how I came to my conclusion (drawn from a range of official tabulations that most scholars agree upon): In World War I, about 10 million soldiers died in battle, while just under a million deaths were "military caused." This is the 10 percent I was referring to: those who were killed when armed men pointed their guns and fired.

Yes, base-line death rates rose in many countries during World War I, due to disease and starvation, reaching a number calculated to be about 6 million. If these deaths are added in, so should the 2 million soldiers who eventually died of their wounds, and the 6 million who went missing in battle — which meant, in most cases, that they had been blown to atoms. By this expansive measure (i.e., beyond deaths in battle and from direct military causes, the categories I compare), just under 30 percent of total deaths were civilians — a percentage that is still much lower than in the next great conflict.

In World War II, the percentage of military-caused deaths skyrocketed. Battle deaths in the 20-25 million range were dwarfed by the 35-55 million military-caused deaths of civilians — precise estimates remain beyond our reach — many by execution in concentration camps and other charnel houses. In Burundi, Rwanda, Darfur and other lands torn by war today, armed men kill the innocent at even higher rates. The noncombatant is without question more in the crosshairs today than a century ago.

Let me close by thanking Steven Pinker, Andrew Mack, and Sebastian Merz for their wonderful bodies of work, which I deeply respect and fervently hope have it right. Or will at least be right one day. For now, though, I continue to worry about, and in my work for the military try to cope with, a world with a rising number of wars, mostly internal and irregular, in which innocent civilians are ever more targeted for killing. My heart is with those who see a world where war is already on the wane, but not my head. Not yet.

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