The spoiling of war

War correspondents need not retire yet - peace isn't blanketing the planet. But a number of scholarly thinkers who tally up wars find a sharp decline in armed conflicts over the past decade. And current wars are inflicting far fewer casualties.

That last conclusion comes from the University of British Columbia's Human Security Center, one of several think tanks trying to track the pattern of conflicts in order to figure out how to prevent or end them. The center finds the average number of deaths per conflict fell to 600 in 2002, down from 37,000 in 1950. And the number of civil conflicts fought last year was the lowest since 1976.

Gathering such statistics is the easy part. Knowing what causes wars or what ends them is often a guessing game. Consider the lingering debate over the real reasons for Japan's surrender in World War II (Hiroshima? The Soviet Union entering the Pacific War?). Often wars simply end from battle fatigue by one nation.

Another peace-promoting think tank, the University of Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management, warned in a report last spring that despite the positive trends, "There is no certainty that strategies which worked in the past are sufficient to deal with emerging challenges." Nor may there be the same resources or international cooperation to prevent wars, most of which are now civil conflicts.

That report also said the "most disturbing countertrend" lies in the spread of violence in Muslim countries, driven in large part by Islamic jihadists. Casualty tallies for past wars, while telling, could be meaningless if Al Qaeda-style terrorists get their hands on atomic devices and use them in big cities. Despite the dropoff in wars, high-casualty terrorist acts are up sharply since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

In its tally of conflicts, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute warned this month that the "unconventional" tactic of significant violence against civilians has become a contemporary feature of war, such as in Chechnya and Nepal.

For its part, the Pentagon has decided that weak and troubled societies have long been a breeding ground for wars that the US participated in and, lately, also for terrorists. That's led US planners to adopt an interest in "nation-building," or installing democracy, creating respect for human rights and the rule of law, and building a market-driven economy with a just distribution of wealth. (Religion is not seen as a primary driver of war.) The University of Maryland report finds half the world's countries have serious enough weakness to justify "engagement" by international groups.

An increasing willingness to intervene is driven in part by a shrinking world: A global media, the Internet, and a proliferation of activist groups have created instant, global compassion, stressing a common humanity and a hope in the inherent goodwill of people to resist tyrants and war.

These scholarly studies help counteract a media impression of rising and bloodier conflicts. They also help sift out the excuses for war from their underlying causes, which often lie in a long and historic battle over which ideas will keep uplifting all of humanity.

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