The Misty Myths of War

Joshua S. Goldstein writing at Foreign Policy magazine has an article entitled Think Again: War  that is sure to be controversial.  In the article he lays out the case that the world is less violent in the 21st century than it has been in the past.

“The World Is a More Violent Place Than It Used to Be.”

…the last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years, based on data compiled by researchers Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleditsch of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. 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), a third of what they were during the Cold War (180,000 a year from 1950 to 1989), and a hundredth of what they were in World War II. If you factor in the growing global population, which has nearly quadrupled in the last century, the decrease is even sharper. Far from being an age of killer anarchy, the 20 years since the Cold War ended have been an era of rapid progress toward peace.

“America Is Fighting More Wars Than Ever.”

…the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken place against a backdrop of base closures and personnel drawdowns elsewhere in the world. The temporary rise in U.S. troop numbers in South Asia and the Middle East, from 18,000 to 212,000 since 2000, contrasts with the permanent withdrawal of almost 40,000 troops from Europe, 34,000 from Japan and South Korea, and 10,000 from Latin America in that period. When U.S. forces come home from the current wars — and they will in large numbers in the near future, starting with 40,000 troops from Iraq and 33,000 from Afghanistan by 2012 — there will be fewer U.S. troops deployed around the world than at any time since the 1930s.

“War Has Gotten More Brutal for Civilians.”

During World War II, Allied bombers killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Dresden and Tokyo not by accident, but as a matter of tactics; Germany, of course, murdered civilians by the millions. And when today’s civilians do end up in harm’s way, more people are looking out for them. The humanitarian dollars spent per displaced person rose in real terms from $150 in the early 1990s to $300 in 2006. Total international humanitarian assistance has grown from $2 billion in 1990 to $6 billion in 2000 and (according to donor countries’ claims) $18 billion in 2008. For those caught in the crossfire, war has actually gotten more humane.

… analysis done in 1989 by peace researcher William Eckhardt shows that the ratio of military to civilian war deaths remains about 50-50, as it has for centuries (though it varies considerably from one war to the next).

“Wars Will Get Worse in the Future.”

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.

“A More Democratic World Will Be a More Peaceful One.”

The well-worn observation that real democracies almost never fight each other is historically correct, but it’s also true that democracies have always been perfectly willing to fight non-democracies. In fact, democracy can heighten conflict by amplifying ethnic and nationalist forces, pushing leaders to appease belligerent sentiment in order to stay in power. Thomas Paine and Immanuel Kant both believed that selfish autocrats caused wars, whereas the common people, who bear the costs, would be loath to fight. But try telling that to the leaders of authoritarian China, who are struggling to hold in check, not inflame, a popular undercurrent of nationalism against Japanese and American historical enemies. Public opinion in tentatively democratic Egypt is far more hostile toward Israel than the authoritarian government of Hosni Mubarak ever was (though being hostile and actually going to war are quite different things).

“Peacekeeping Doesn’t Work.”

…the 15 missions and 100,000 U.N. peacekeepers deployed worldwide today are meeting with far greater success than their predecessors. Overall, the presence of peacekeepers has been shown to significantly reduce the likelihood of a war’s reigniting after a cease-fire agreement. In the 1990s, about half of all cease-fires broke down, but in the past decade the figure has dropped to 12 percent.

“Some Conflicts Will Never End.”

In 2005, researchers at the U.S. Institute of Peace characterized 14 wars, from Northern Ireland to Kashmir, as “intractable,” in that they “resist any kind of settlement or resolution.” Six years later, however, a funny thing has happened: All but a few of these wars (Israel-Palestine, Somalia, and Sudan) have either ended or made substantial progress toward doing so. In Sri Lanka, military victory ended the war, though only after a brutal endgame in which both sides are widely believed to have committed war crimes. Kashmir has a fairly stable cease-fire. In Colombia, the war sputters on, financed by drug revenue, but with little fighting left. In the Balkans and Northern Ireland, shaky peace arrangements have become less shaky; it’s hard to imagine either sliding back into full-scale hostilities. In most of the African cases — Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ivory Coast (notwithstanding the violent flare-up after elections there in late 2010, now resolved) — U.N. missions have brought stability and made a return to war less likely (or, in the case of Congo and Uganda, have at least limited the area of fighting).

Is he correct? I really don’t know. One of the things that has changed is the immediacy of information flow. Cell phone cameras, Facebook, and Twitter enable violence to be in our living rooms moments after it happens in full colour techni-gore. The ability for any military to sanitize conflicts is thus decreased, although certainly not ended.

There does seem to be a tendency to more ‘surgical’ type strikes that attempt to minimize both military and civilian casualties. Are refugees receiving more benefits today than they were in the past? Again I don’t know. He refers to the amount of money spent per individual, but that is a meaningless number if the relief is intercepted by corruption and not providing supplies where it is actually needed.  Some regions are becoming more stable over time, a trend we hope will continue. Do the areas that are more becoming stable impact more individuals than the areas becoming less stable?

We also know that certain segments of society have a lot to gain by preaching the mantra that military expenditures are critical to our safety. These people and groups will do anything to discredit any ideas that are critical of this stance.

One criticism that could be made of Goldstein is the short term comparison of his analysis. He is only looking at the past decade, and the immediate future. Even if his analysis is correct, how long will the decrease continue?  Could a decade be picked in the past with a comparable decrease, only to be followed by horrific violence?  The launching of a nuclear attack by one of the unstable states currently having, or developing, the technology could totally reverse his numbers.

On a comparative note, many people are convinced that violent crime in our society has increased and feel less safe than they did 30 years ago. This, is spite of the fact, repeated by statisticians and criminologists that virtually all types of crime are on the decrease.

Whether or not Gloldstein is correct on all his points, his ideas are certainly worth being read and discussed.

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