State of the world: Is war on the wane?

Part 2 of the surprisingly upbeat state of the world: Long-term statistics show war is on the wane.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters/File
A U.S. Marine from Bravo Company of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, gestures during a gun battle in the town of Marjah, in Nad Ali district of Helmand province, Afghanistan, in this 2010 file photo.
Source: 'The Better Angels of our Nature' by Steven Pinker/Graphic: Rich Clabaugh

Car bombs in Afghanistan, firefights in Libya, skirmishes in Sudan – look at today's international news, and it's just the same-old same-old, isn't it? Mankind has been at war since the dawn of anger. Won't war always be with us?

Maybe not – or maybe not as much, at least. War is on the downswing, argue some scholars. Its frequency has lessened considerably since the cataclysm of World War II.

"There really aren't very many wars anymore," says John Mueller of Ohio State University in Columbus.

Consider this number: zero. That's how many international wars were fought between developed countries in the years since 1945, says Professor Mueller. (Some argue that the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 would count as such a conflict. That would bring the total to one.)

This is notable because, in centuries past, great powers thought of war as an acceptable means of settling differences. Think of all the Franco-Prussian-Austrian-British conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries. The casualties of the World Wars put an end to that. So far.

"Shattering centuries of bloody practice, these countries have substantially abandoned war as a method for dealing with their disagreements," wrote Mueller in Political Science Quarterly in 2009.

Other forms of warfare have waned as well, argues Harvard University cognitive science professor Steven Pinker in his recent book "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined." His assertion, based on statistical evidence, is that violence – from spanking children to police-blotter murder, genocide, torture, and war – has decreased markedly. His suggestion that this is mankind's least violent era sparked great debate about human nature when the book came out in October. The book raised questions about what the appropriate lens is for viewing modernity and progress in an era that did, after all, produce the Holocaust and various genocidal conflicts.

Interstate wars since 1945 are bunched into three periods, roughly coinciding with the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iran-Iraq War, writes Mr. Pinker. Since the end of the cold war their numbers have fallen precipitously, the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts notwithstanding. Civil wars remain the most common kind of conflict, but even they have become less common and less deadly since 1989. (The genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur represent "atrocious" numbers of dead, Pinker argues, but are nonetheless spikes in an overall downward trend since 1971.)

Perhaps more important, war casualties have plunged, according to Pinker. A bar chart of the number of people killed in conflicts per decade shows steady downward progress since the 1950s.

"In 1950 the average armed conflict (of any kind) killed thirty-three thousand people; in 2007 it killed less than a thousand," Pinker writes.

What's behind this drop? Pinker argues that our better angels – empathy, self-control, morality, and reason – have combined to convince mankind there is more to be gained in peace than war. Thus not just war, but terrorism, murder, and other kinds of human-on-human violence have been on a downward trend in recent centuries, he writes. Maybe there is something to this civilization thing, after all.

"Humans are not innately good (just as they are not innately evil), but they come equipped with motives that can orient them away from violence and toward cooperation and altruism," writes Pinker.

Really? Human nature has failed us at many points in history. And as even those who document the decline in war note, all they are showing us is the past. They're not predicting the future, per se. A few determined nihilists with weapons of mass destruction could reverse the decline in casualty figures in an instant.

Well, perhaps. But something has been going right in recent decades, notes Pinker. It would be nice to know what it is. If we figure that out, we could encourage these better angels – to at least keep us on the right track in decades ahead. Maybe war is not inherent in humans but a learned concept humans come to accept. Belief in witches was such a concept. So was the belief it was OK to keep other humans as slaves.

That's how Mueller sees war – as something mankind can learn to do without: "The way I look at it, war is an idea that is sold [to ordinary people]."

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