War and Peace

In fact, the last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years…If the world feels like a more violent place than it actually is, that’s because there’s more information about wars — not more wars themselves.

From Joshua Goldstein in Foreign Policy. Cato Unbound covered some of the reasons for the outbreak of peace earlier this year.

Hat tip: Mike Makowsky.


Thanks, that's an underappreciated point not made often enough.

I recommend Rudy Rummel's Power Kills on the subject of government-inflicted death generally.

This article is pure 100% bullshit and you should be ashamed you quote it without taking even a second to sanity check their figures. They count *battlefield* deaths, not war deaths.

Compare article: "Worldwide, deaths caused directly by war-related violence in the new century have averaged about 55,000 per year, just over half of what they were in the 1990s (100,000 a year)" (total for two decades - 1.5 mln)

With facts: Second Congo War alone caused 3.8-7.8 million deaths.

Just this one war caused 3-5x more deaths than their bullshit estimate of all wars over two decades.

The Wikipedia article says most deaths were from "disease and starvation". I doubt these ought to be considered direct war deaths. So the 3.8 million figure is likely inflated.

In a place like Congo the baseline death rate from disease and famine is likely fairly high to start with; and it seems unhelpful to include this baseline into "direct war casualties". As late as 2009 (long after the war was officially over) the disease and starvation death rate in Congo alone was about 50,000 deaths/month.

If you want to do what Tomasz does and cite another measure you have to do so consistently and include non-battle deaths in other wars. World War II deaths, for example, were double to triple battle deaths leading to a total of ~60-80 million. If you were to do this consistently then the trend would likely be the same.

See the Cato pieces Tabarrok cited for other measures of conflict, such as number of conflicts, which all point in the same direction.

It'd be interesting to see what happened to the evolution of the ratio ( battle-deaths / non-battle deaths ) over time.........

It could be difficult to suss out which deaths are part of the war. The Spanish flu, for instance, would have happened anyway, but all those men cramped together in the mud of Belgium gave it a hell of a start.

I read somewhere (10 years ago, forgot its name) that prior to development of sanitation, germ theory, etc - that stuff from the past 150 years - most war deaths were disease related. People packed closely together in tents, on ships, in beseiged cities, some other germ breeding ground. Don't know if that's true, but seems plausible.

I once heard a talk by a doctor who had studied the American Civil War. He claimed that a key part of the union's victory was their ability to provide quinine to treat malaria. The Wikipedia page on Civil War medicine doesn't discuss this but does claim that "roughly three in five Union and two in three Confederate casualties died of disease.".


The idea that "territory matters" seems to have disappeared from the developed world. The question is whether natural resource scarcity will cause territory to matter a lot more again in the future. According to the article, we have one hundredth the death rate from war now as during WW2. With that in mind, the recent trend toward peace doesn't matter much. The main thing is to avoid another world war. It's kind of like how the most important thing about monetary policy was to avoid another depression. Oh yeah...

Encirclement and communist dominoes weren't that long ago, you know. Even now the PRC worries about being surrounded by a network of US and Russian proxies, whilst the US maintains a presence in the Straits of Malacca for the specific purpose of strangling the oil flow to the PRC should the need arise.

Territory did not stop mattering; for the developed world, mobility of armor and such just meant that territory is less meaningful than an ability to project force quickly (see: Line, Maginot).

I think deaths from war have definitely decreased. I personally think this is little more then Pax-Americana. Just as in the Pax-Romana, the overwhelming power of the hegemon pushes the wars to the periphery of the hegemon and its allies while the vast majority of their citizens live in peace. Moreover, also like the Pax-Romana, this degree of superiority is enormously expensive to maintain and is unlikely to be a permanent situation.

I think this is the most cogent argument. I've tracked my neck of the woods closely all my life, and Africa as a whole was a proxy macro battlefield for the ideological war that was Post WWII conflict. WWII set the foundation for the modern world, the end of the European imperial age was one of the greatest war dividends, with Independent countries springing up everywhere and after a period of experimentation settling into the Pax American sphere. Red Hot wars from the 70's Angola, Mozambique, Sudan, a really nasty three way Ethiopian/Somalian/Sudanese war, Uganda, and on and on...gave way to hot wars from the eighties, and now mostly a landscape of peace, with just a hand full of conflicts. The one outlier was the Congo war, but Congo has suffered for more than a century and a half, and peace will come as the slow march of democracy and development settles into it's neighboring regions. Much of southern Africa and All of East Africa are post conflict zones, with a very low likely hood of war given the emergent political landscape. So I would say undoubtedly peace is on the rise.

"Clearly, the United States has been on a war footing ever since 9/11, with a still-ongoing war in Afghanistan ... and a pre-emptive war in Iraq that proved to be longer, bloodier, and more expensive than anyone expected."

Anyone except George H. W. Bush, Dick Cheney (circa 1990), and anyone with half a brain. But this is a long dead horse...

Yeah, we were at war with Iraq since 1991, and we've been on a war footing since 1941. There's a lot of hindisght bias on the 2003 invasion -- you don't find a lot of 2002 articles worrying that the Iraqis' transition to democracy will be 10x more painful than the removal of Saddam, or a lot of 2006 articles predicting things would come together over the next couple years leaving Iraq a relatively stable and free democratic republic. And does seem to have caused something of a sea change in the region.

But what's really interesting is that Iraq was actually not that difficult a war+occupation relative to Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines (which was the ironic subject of Kipling's White Man's Burden, etc, never mind Japan or Germany. Probably Panama, Grenada, and our quick 1991 victory set expectations too low.

Enough of this brain dead BS from you.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars were among the LEAST Bloody wars in US history when properly measured relative to soldier-days of combat.

The deaths of civilians you so casually attribute to us were mostly murdered by our enemies or in sectarian battles for post-regime power.

That's like adding all the deaths from the Stalin purges and the Holocaust to the allied death count.

About a quarter of the soldier deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were not combat related.

Iraq and Afghanistan have a far greater likelihood of developing stable democracies than Iran, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, or China.

People like you don't seem to have close at hand a body count for all the people murdered by these oppressive regimes before we ended their reigns of terror.

History will show, long after we're gone, that these wars were right as much as the post-WWI line drawing and reparations were wrong.

Or it was just a big waste of our money. It isn't, or shouldn't be, our responsibility to fix everyone's problems, and remove all tin-pot dictators. We killed a bunch of Taliban and AQ assholes. We got our revenge for 9/11. That's good enough for me. Provide a stable centralized government? Fuck that.

Maybe not all of them, but definitely some of them.

OTOH that philosophy served us poorly in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, since the 1940s it's been clear the world needs us way more than we need them, but are also more than happy to make their problems our problems whether we like it or not. While we can't fix every bad gov't, it's arguably in our own best interest to lance some of the worst boils on humanity.

"The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars were among the LEAST Bloody wars in US history when properly measured relative to soldier-days of combat."

I certainly don't think that's the way to measure it considering the difference in the type of conflict. And civilian deaths in war, yeah that's kind of a big deal.

Umm, what about the fact that as technology/medicine improves fewer people
die of war injuries? Are war injuries down that much?

Still, the point about information bias is useful. People probably think there are more earthquakes than ever before, or any number of other events.

What about the fact that weapon technology is far more lethal that it was even compared to the Persian Gulf War. High explosives are hundreds of times more powerful than their WWII equivalents.

You can go to icasualties.org and find the number of wounded in OIF and OEF. Find estimates of the average number of boots on the ground times days of combat and divide.

BTW, I was one of those casualties in OIF. I was RTD in less than 72 hours as were most of the other casualties. I took rock and concrete debris in the belly from an IED explosion. I didn't know I was hit until I took a shower that evening, saw blood on my t-shirt, and the shirt was stuck to my skin. An x-ray and minor surgery later, I was back with my platoon in two days.

I know guys who were back in the fight under 72 hours with a through and through 7.62mm GSW. If they were too sore to dismount, we put them on the 50 cal or let them drive. They'd get hostile with officers if we tried to keep them out of action.

the article addresses this point:

"Recent technological changes are making war less brutal, not more so. Armed drones now attack targets that in the past would have required an invasion with thousands of heavily armed troops, displacing huge numbers of civilians and destroying valuable property along the way. And improvements in battlefield medicine have made combat less lethal for participants. In the U.S. Army, the chances of dying from a combat injury fell from 30 percent in World War II to 10 percent in Iraq and Afghanistan -- though this also means the United States is now seeing a higher proportion of injured veterans who need continuing support and care."

I agree with joshua the poslibertarian. Deaths from every injury are down simply thanks to modern medicine. The question is, are war deaths down more than non-conflict deaths by similar injury.

The same problem arises when we say the roads are safer now then ever - we just hear about more accidents. Ff identical road accidents in identical circumstances to those of the 1970s happened today, more people would survive simply due to medical care. The question is, are there fewer deaths than can be expected from better medical treatment alone?


let's declare a peace dividend and cut the military budget.

While I'm inclined to agree, this doesn't follow in a straightforward fashion.

As others have pointed out, we are experiencing peace _because_ of large American military budgets. So we need to be careful about the cuts.

The last time we cut the military and declared a peace dividend we got dozens of worldwide terrorist attacks, including 9/11.

What has happened is a redefinition of "war" and of "troops". The privatization of war gives them room to fudge the numbers and cover things up. The oil wars have not yet peaked. but it won't be too long.

It will only take one charismatic and touchy leader in one of the enormous population blocs around now and the nuclear weapons etc will fly. And the young will march as they always have done.

Does this mean that anyone will be surprised if/when one single nuclear war (an exchange of nuclear munitions by at least two parties) breaks out, oh, say in the next ten or twenty years? I wonder how habituated to "peace" we have become . . . . and here I reiterate the point that, with conventional wisdom holding that our present economic circumstance is the most perilous since The Great Depression, we hear only relative silence concerning the prospects for an outbreak (or outbreaks) of World War III, inasmuch as World War II was the effective "cure" of The Great Depression.

I think the premise that WWII cured the Depression has been soundly defeated.

Even if you still believe it, you have to account for the enormous destruction of resources. If your measure of economic health is merely GNP, it looks like a recovery, but after writing off all those destroyed assets from the national balance sheet we still ended up in the red.

We still have the option of machinegunning the unemployed and blowing up excess residential and commercial real estate if that's your idea of sound economic stimulus.

On the plus side we gained some intangible assets which helped in the post-war boom - spinoffs of military R&D. The destruction of all our competitors was good for business, but that's not exactly suitable for the free market state of mind.

But yes, you are absolutely correct that while we may live now in relative peace, the capacity of a few to cause tremendous damage and loss of life is greater than ever. But this is why we invaded Iraq. It doesn't matter if they had actually destroyed 95% of the 600 metric tonnes of chemical weapons they possessed. The 5% that was unaccounted for could kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people.

Sadly, it may be beyond anyone's ability to stop the inevitable mass casualty event, and I'm not talking 3000 lives here.

So, were 30 tonnes of potent chemical weapons actually found stockpiled in Iraq? I thought no WMD's were found.

The Duelfer Report (by CIA's Iraq Survey Group) concludes:

"Iraq destroyed its chemical weapons stockpile in 1991, and only a small number of old, abandoned chemical munitions were discovered by the ISG."

Are you talking about these abandoned munitions?


What? Did I blunder?

No, at least 30 tonnes of chemical agents remain unaccounted for if you believe the Ritter assertion that up to 95% of it has been destroyed. That much VX could kill tens of thousands of people if used effectively.

The Duelpher Report concluding no VX remained in Iraq. It provided no answer to the obvious unanswered question: What happened to it?

BTW, Hans Blix said in December 2002 that 1000 tonnes of VX were unaccounted for.

Iraq had no capabilities to destroy it. They didn't have or provide evidence of destruction. The only remaining possibility is that it was moved out of the country.

Is destroying VX stockpiles that hard? US methods of disposal have been dumping in the Atlantic, incineration and caustic soda neutralization. None seem too hard for Iraq.

"Hard" is relative. The US possesses the technology and capabilities to safely incinerate large quantities of VX, Iraq did not. And if they were actually incinerating VX, why wouldn't they permit Inspectors to this facility to witness this destruction.

Dumping VX into the Persian Gulf probably wasn't an option.

Neutralizing VX produces hydrolysate residue which is extremely caustic and can easily be converted back into VX. Iraq never produced this residue for UNSCOM.

So it was not easy for Iraq to destroy and it was really easy for them to prove they destroyed it if they did.

The point remains: where is the 600-1000 tonnes of VX or proof of its destruction?

Do you know how many people even one ton of VX could kill? Do you know how they would die? Any idea what sort of fear and panic that would create everywhere?

So according to you, between 30 and a 1000 tons of vx are still unaccounted for. And according to you, Iraq moved the vx out of the country, rather than destroyed it. Tell me again then what we accomplished by our invasion of Iraq? An invasion that has led to the death of perhaps 600,000 people.

Steve Pinker will sort all of this out. Stay tuned!

i think pinker ted talked this a few years ago.

That too will pass.

I just don't like war, I love peace, and I wish someday I could go somewhere nobody else can bother me but I can bother others...cause I need to buy something there.

As Norman Angell pointed out in 1911, war doesn't pay.

WWII paid pretty well for the US after the war. Of course, it wouldn't have paid nearly as well if the Nazis or Soviets had taken all of Europe and Japan.

So the trick is A) not being the one getting bombed and B) being on commercially friendly terms with the victors

Too bad Afghanistan won't make back what we spent on it in its next 30 GDPs.

Pretty much all the four horsemen are on the decline war, pestilence, particularly famine and even death are less strong than they used to be. http://liveatthewitchtrials.blogspot.com/2011/08/war-is-on-its-last-legs.html

Our (USA) conflicts are because they are relatively easy. Not easy for any individual soldier, but as a whole. We would not have invaded had there been the prospect of historical casualties. Still, the current conflicts have zero significance to an enemy with a comparable military capability.

A period of small wars around the turn of a century. Yep, yep, the era of big wars is over. Just like 1880-1905.

This is a great topic of conversation. My book, from which the Foreign Policy article is drawn, addresses most of those questions including a chapter on the death (mis)estimate in D.R. Congo and how the supposed changing ratio of civilian to military deaths is a straight-up error made in a 1994 report. The book will be available Sept. 15, so I'd urge everyone to buy it :-) You can read the prologue and first chapter now at the website www.winningthewaronwar.com .
Thanks for the thoughtful and witty comments. Discussion to be continued I hope.

One factor not mentioned is that nuclear weapons greatly increase the cost of a war between two major powers. These are the wars that have historically caused massive casualties, and none has happened since the atomic bomb was developed. Of course, if such a war did happen, the death toll would be greater than ever before.

The article is great at observing some trends. However, I think it errs in its prediction that these trends will continue. This is a common assumption during times of peace. Major wars are rarely foreseen.

Also, the section on China seems a bit too trite. "Since Chairman Mao's death, China has been hands down the most peaceful great power of its time." Ok--but the way Chinese government has treated its opponents within its own borders suggests that this is more out of expedience than an actual commitment to peace. China has an authoritarian government, a strong emphasis on national pride, massive resources, and an existing conflict with Taiwan. It seems like there is plenty of potential for things to go wrong.

Steven Pinker has an outstanding TED talk on this, really worth watching


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