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Think Again: War
August 15, 2011 9:53 PM   Subscribe

World peace could be closer than you think. Joshua S. Goldstein, author of Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide writes in Foreign Policy Magazine on why things are getting better. "The last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years."
posted by joannemullen (48 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well, don't jinx it!
posted by shii at 10:04 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


War has finally moved far enough from the battlefield that its deaths don't count against it.
posted by fartron at 10:05 PM on August 15, 2011 [9 favorites]


And imagine if we hadn't gone into Iraq and Afghanistan how many fewer deaths there would have been!
posted by symbioid at 10:12 PM on August 15, 2011


and... it's because of Facebook yeah?
posted by the noob at 10:16 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some would say that as we edge closer to a cosmocracy of sorts, yes, war deaths do go down. Regardless, globalization has taken one right in the jaw and the stumbling around on the mat could prove a harbinger of many war deaths.
posted by circular at 10:22 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Heh. Global warming, acidification of oceans, depleting oil and fresh water reserves, increasing population.

War: not going away in the next 50 years, I'd guess.
posted by jaduncan at 10:28 PM on August 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


Well, actually as someone who had academic interest in this for the past 20 years, this is a trend that has been gradually escalating (since previous to FB even!).

You are absolutely right symbioid the Afgh/Iraq is a serious blip in this data, but there are serious indications that we may have moved beyond the godawful near blood soaked travesty the 20th century was. This is not saying war is over, or that we will never experience serious megadeaths due to war again but that the consistency seems to be, over time, dying down. Now, keep in mind, just prior to WWI people where saying almost the exact same thing.

This is a little complex, and I am no longer active in this area of study, but over the last 6 years I have slowly begun to think we are in the midst of a scale shift, from global society towards inter-global, marked in part by communication and transportation technology. It wouldn't surprise me that the current global political crises are part of the "birthing pangs" (shall we say) of this new scale system. In the end though only time will accurately tell.
posted by edgeways at 10:30 PM on August 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


Edgeways: what do you think of the thesis that interests/investments are now so cross-border that it is effectively impossible for two advanced nations to wage war without huge economic damage to each other's companies?
posted by jaduncan at 10:34 PM on August 15, 2011


War: not going away in the next 50 years, I'd guess.

No, it won't. As a highly organized system to settle disputes, both political and economic that has evolved from roughly 3000BC, 50 years will not see it's end. Start talking 100-150 years and if we manage to avoid extinction by various means I think we stand a decent shot to re-imagine it so it looks nothing like today, perhaps highly stylized low death rates. Counter-intuitively there are some trends that look to me like we are looping around to organizations much similar to small scale societies.
posted by edgeways at 10:35 PM on August 15, 2011


Hmmm, whilst I agree with his broader point, I think a lot of these "myths" he sets up to demolish are mostly straw - unnattributed quotation marks are the smallpox of op-ed writers - and I question whether anybody actually contends most of them, let alone anyone with a remote interest in conflict. "War Has Gotten More Brutal for Civilians." Really? Who's saying that???

Additionally, some of his refutations are just flat wrong. Rebutting "America is fighting more wars than ever", he says that yes, they're in more wars; yes, they're spending more money on the military; but less people are dying. That doesn't really refute the argument.

Likewise the "myth" that "A More Democratic World Will Be a More Peaceful One." Is refuted with Thomas Paine and Kant? The barrel just called, dude, and it wants its bottom back. He says, in the same para, "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. " That's just flatly and totally wrong: the CCP spend much more time stoking this fire rather than tamping it down, and the idea that this is the popular sentiment they're struggling to contain is almost mind-bogglingly naive and ignorant.

So, okay piece, but a bit simplistic and he could probably make a great pie with all those cherries.
posted by smoke at 10:35 PM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Um, you're leaving out troop suicides. Which account for more dead than battle. Those are called war deaths. Count them. They matter.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 10:37 PM on August 15, 2011 [11 favorites]


Edgeways: what do you think of the thesis that interests/investments are now so cross-border that it is effectively impossible for two advanced nations to wage war without huge economic damage to each other's companies?

That is something that always comes into play,of course. And may play a role in limiting, or helping prevent some conflicts. However it is not an absolute. France and Germany, for example, had some pretty massive economic co-dependance int he very early part of the 20th century
posted by edgeways at 10:38 PM on August 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's not hard to imagine a case where company A might desire a war as a way of acquiring company B's assets, or a way of installing a more compliant government. Over all I wouldn't say globalism or corporatism has reduced the instances of warfare, just the number of casualties and how they're accounted for.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:52 PM on August 15, 2011


"The last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years."

This statement has little basis in fact, when the individuals actively prosecuting illegal wars go out of their way to prevent the accurate accounting of civilian deaths.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:54 PM on August 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


Today's asymmetrical guerrilla wars may be intractable and nasty, but they will never produce anything like the siege of Leningrad.

Of the multitude of points made by the article I find this one the most relevant, in that it encapsulates how the nature of warfare has changed since WW2. As Goldstein notes, the Big Boys with the nukes and tank battalions have essentially come to recognize that interstate warfare is far more costly than its gains. That does mean huge set-piece battles like Leningrad or Stalingrad are unlikely in the near future, but compare the Siege of Leningrad with the War in the Congo: Leningrad was part of violent spasm between nations that (50 million dead later) wrapped up 6 years later, while the 2nd Congo War is basically still on-going in parts of the country almost a decade after the official end of hostilities.

The difference is that war (as in a formal conflict between two or more states) is, was, and always will be an aberration in normal life. When two states remain locked in constant warfare, we consider than an extraordinary circumstances and give it name (e.g. he Cold War, the 100 Years War). We can then marvel at what a weird time period that was, and how bizarre the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Battle of Agincourt seems upon reflection.

The problem is, this is a definition of war that in no way captures the way war has mostly been fought throughout history, in that good old fashioned traditional warfare is not a singular event, but an ongoing process of slow-motion genocide. The proxy war in Kivu between Congo and Rwanda may have elements of interstate warfare, but at it's heart it's just another continuation of the ethnic clash between Hutus and Tutsis. Groups like FDLR, the Lord's Resistance Army, or Al-Qaeda are motivated by the desire to obtain a strategic area or resource solely in the way it helps their actual goal: improving their neighborhood by helping anyone who is not with them into a mass grave. That's war as humans have fought it since we first picked up a pointy stick. It's not the kind of war that involves divisions and regiments -- and which has discernible start and end points -- it's a different sort of total war that ends when the other guys are all dead.

I don't disagree with Goldstein's premise (maybe I should have mentioned that earlier), because the states with the tanks and the aircraft carriers are -- for now -- pretty OK with each other's existence. The problem is that the same kind of self-reflection on how awful war can be, combined with the increasing ability to hear about that awfulness in increasingly distant places, means we're going to have to confront the ugly fact that the one thing humans have always hated above all else is other humans.

Also, didn't we fight a war that was supposed to end war like a century ago? When is that finally going to pay off?
posted by Panjandrum at 10:56 PM on August 15, 2011 [8 favorites]


It's not hard to imagine a case where company A might desire a war as a way of acquiring company B's assets, or a way of installing a more compliant government.

Desiring a war and fighting in one are two different things; most companies don't have large private armies, and thus still rely on nation-states to wage wars for them. Also, your comment does get into interesting semantic grounds in that war is typically viewed as something that happens between nation states or between a nation and an opposition (i.e. civil wars), rather than between other actors, so I literally do have trouble imagining that case - though it's certainly interesting attempting to do so.
posted by smoke at 11:00 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm also guessing he doesn't count the drug war?
posted by symbioid at 11:00 PM on August 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


The explanation for the numbers is Europe, which pulled the world average way up in the centuries before 1945 and down afterward.

Fewer war deaths?
Optimist: We're safe forever!
Pessimist: We're due.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:43 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Don't forget that advances in medicine and body armour mean many soldiers who would've died from their injuries in previous wars are now surviving, albeit often with very serious injuries.
posted by stinkycheese at 1:13 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


"It's not hard to imagine a case where company A might desire a war as a way of acquiring company B's assets, or a way of installing a more compliant government."

History called. It mumbled something about the 17th and 18th centuries, ranted a bit about the India, Africa, and China, then hung up.
posted by Pinback at 2:01 AM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: "The explanation for the numbers is Europe, which pulled the world average way up in the centuries before 1945 and down afterward. "

And the explanation for that may be related to Panjandrum's earlier comment regarding war on the other. From Tony Judt's excellent Postwar:

At the conclusion of the First World War it was borders that were invented and adjusted, while people were on the whole left in place. [Footnote: With the significant exception of Greeks and Turks, following the Lausanne Treaty of 1923.] After 1945 what happened was rather the opposite: with one major exception boundaries stayed broadly intact and people were moved instead. There was a feeling among Western policymakers that the League of Nations, and the minority clauses in the Versailes Treaties, had failed and that it would be a mistake even to try to resurrect them. For this reason they acquiesced readily enough in the population transfers. If the surviving minorities of central and eastern Europe could not be afforded effective international protection, then it was as well that they be dispatched to more accommodating locations. The term 'ethnic cleansing' did not yet exist, but the reality surely did -- and it was far from arousing wholesale disapproval or embarrassment...With certain exceptions, the outcome was a Europe of nation states more ethnically homogenous than ever before.

The exceptionally diverse state that he refers to is Yugoslavia, which would be the exception that proves the rule (in the original sense of the phrase) that ethnic homogeneity reduces the likelihood of catastrophic conflict. Seen in this light, it is interesting to consider the manner in which the European colonial powers exported their recipe for conflict by blithely ignoring historical and ethnic boundaries in the geographical delineation of the nation states that they left behind around the world, and depressing to consider the legacy.
posted by Jakey at 2:16 AM on August 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


So all those Miss Worlds really meant it!
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:37 AM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Does anyone else find the following quote rather shocking:
But though the conflicts of the post-9/11 era may be longer than those of past generations, they are also far smaller and less lethal. America's decade of war since 2001 has killed about 6,000 U.S. service members, compared with 58,000 in Vietnam and 300,000 in World War II
The conflicts that the US is involved in are less lethal because fewer American soldiers die in them, the author notes. There is no mention of locals that died as a result of those wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The figures are disputed, but reasonable estimates of excess deaths are, in all three wars, above a million. The total numbers of civilian excess deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are surely in the same ballpark as those in Vietnam, yes? These numbers also might cause someone to question the author's allegation of a 50-50 distribution of deaths among military and civilians. Something that one could also question based on the experience of the Congo wars alone...
posted by talos at 3:09 AM on August 16, 2011 [10 favorites]


Don't forget that advances in medicine and body armour mean many soldiers who would've died from their injuries in previous wars are now surviving, albeit often with very serious injuries.

I agree with medicine, but not technology.

Yeah, people are surviving with injuries that may have killed them in previous wars (yup, even tetanus and disease). But people are just amping up the weapons to ensure maximum killing.

People aren't dying from musket wounds having gone through 2 petticoats. They're dying from huge rounds coming from huger and more efficient weapons through their anti-fragmentation vests.

And yeah, people were still messed up in other wars like they are messed up today...it just didn't take an electronic grenade to get them that way.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:36 AM on August 16, 2011


World 1, War 0 after World War 2

Humankind's long war against war "may finally be over" - with war as the loser. Except in the aforementioned war, in which it is also the winner. But - whatever. The important thing is, pundits say that war has been killed. In a war.

The findings of an expert study into war show that war is no longer humanity's favourite dispute resolution method. It has, in recent years, been replaced by bitching about things on the internet.

The findings were published on the internet, which caused an immediate war of words between rival groups of arrogant idiots with no social skills. "This study is bullshit, lies, hate-speech and p.s. fuck you," said one hyperventilating geek. "No it isn't, you shit-snuffling fuck-belch," typed another. "You are BOTH turdholes," rejoined a third.

However, the Vatican has accepted the report and announced that changes will be made to the Book of Revelation, the Church's official end-times TV guide. Pope Benedict XVI announced that the four horsemen of the apocalypse will be updated for a new generation, with former members Death, War, Famine and Pestilence being replaced by "YouTube Comments", "Twitter Riots", "Search Engine Optimization" and "Scott Adams".
posted by the quidnunc kid at 3:42 AM on August 16, 2011 [12 favorites]


The total numbers of civilian excess deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are surely in the same ballpark as those in Vietnam, yes?

I wonder about that, actually. The common number given for Vietnam of civilian deaths is 2 million, but I don't think that this estimate was calculated at all in the same, more-inclusive way as the Lancet excess mortality study in Iraq.

And for all the death and misery in Iraq, there has been nothing comparable to the indiscriminate carpet bombings of the Vietnam War, for example.

So while I'm willing to put all three conflicts in the "totally awful" category, in a lot of ways I suspect that they fit into the claimed trend rather than contradict it.
posted by Forktine at 3:47 AM on August 16, 2011


John Keegan suggested this over twenty years ago. Likened it to the sudden collapse of slavery after so many millenia.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:00 AM on August 16, 2011


IndigoJones, that comparison may be more apt than you know: there are more people in slavery today than at any other time in history. It's just not happening in the developed world.
posted by smoke at 5:30 AM on August 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


I wonder what will happen once we're able to just send remote controlled/autonomous robots with guns to places with no Americans at risk.
posted by floam at 5:34 AM on August 16, 2011


I wonder what will happen once we're able to just send remote controlled/autonomous robots with guns to places with no Americans at risk.

We're already halfway there, with the flying drones controlled from the other side of the world. Though I think it will still take a while before robots become more cost-effective than humans (Not to mention the lack of flexibility).
posted by ymgve at 5:52 AM on August 16, 2011


I don't think that this estimate was calculated at all in the same, more-inclusive way as the Lancet excess mortality study in Iraq
You have a point there, I wonder if there is some such estimate anywhere in the literature for Vietnam. Numbers from Iraq and Afghanistan vary (especially Afghanistan) but I agree that the methods for assessing mortality are dissimilar enough to make comparisons difficult...

Regardless of the actual numbers (and I realize that there plenty of room for statistical argument here), and as far as the actual article is concerned, the idea that "lower number of American troops dead" = "declining deadliness of wars" - and this is exactly the argument the author is making in said paragraph - without a mention of the victims numbers, is rather strange to say the least...
posted by talos at 6:18 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots.

---

Largely agree with the premise of the article - big governments of big states do war best, and right now, big governments of big states don't seem much interested in total war. Recently, when big governments of big states do go to war, they do so with professional armies and try to hide/minimize civilian casualties. But that's barely beyond stating the obvious.
posted by kithrater at 6:27 AM on August 16, 2011


You are absolutely right symbioid the Afgh/Iraq is a serious blip in this data, but there are serious indications that we may have moved beyond the godawful near blood soaked travesty the 20th century was. This is not saying war is over, or that we will never experience serious megadeaths due to war again but that the consistency seems to be, over time, dying down. Now, keep in mind, just prior to WWI people where saying almost the exact same thing.

Unfortunately, we're in the middle of a world-wide revolutionary spasm right now and wars tend to follow revolutions.
posted by empath at 6:30 AM on August 16, 2011


One thing I have always found curious is that the total number of American military personnel who have died in combat from the American Revolutionary War to present stands at 800,000 and change; averaged out, this is about seven per day. Even the Afghanistan/Iraq situations have produced barely 20% of that number.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:48 AM on August 16, 2011


The total numbers of civilian excess deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are surely in the same ballpark as those in Vietnam, yes?

Doesn't look like it. Wikipedia gives a range of estimates for Vietnam as somewhere between one and three million dead Vietnamese, with a further 300,000 Cambodians and 200,000 Laotians (high-end estimates). Iraq's estimates range from 100,000 to one million. Afghanistan's estimates are harder to find, but they're all well under 500,000 - which isn't surprising, considering the far smaller and more thinly spread population.

On the other hand, the comparison itself seems a bit odd to me. Vietnam was a war fought by people who still considered mass bombings of civilians to be an explicitly legitimate form of attack, aimed at breaking the will of the North Vietnamese to fight, used against population centers belonging to an enemy (proto-)state. Whereas Iraq and Afghanistan are wars in which the general population is not seen as an acceptable target, and where relatively small groups of rebels or whatever you want to call them are the actual enemy. There's a different dynamic - I'm pretty sure that if the Iraq and Afghanistan cases were being fought with the same conception of war as we had during Vietnam, casualties would be a lot steeper. I don't think that this says as much as the author of the piece thinks regarding changes in warfare more generally.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:54 AM on August 16, 2011


Civilian casualties would be a lot steeper, anyway.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:56 AM on August 16, 2011


Cool! Time to ramp up the War On Peace.
posted by spicynuts at 6:58 AM on August 16, 2011


Unfortunately, we're in the middle of a world-wide revolutionary spasm right now and wars tend to follow revolutions.

I don't think that 'revolution' is much of a factor, really, outside some wishful thinking on the Left - or perhaps better to say that it's a symptom, not a cause. It's the economic downturn and resource conflict as environmental problems finally come due that will drive conflict this coming century, I think. One thing the author doesn't really look at is why warfare has gotten less prevalent and less costly - he talks about technological changes (drones) and the UN's role, but growing prosperity through the post-Cold War period had a lot to do with it as well. Much the same can be said for the relatively peaceful middle of the 1800s in Europe - peace was a function of economic growth and change (and colonialism, as Europe turned its military power outwards more systematically than before). When economies start to stagnate or decline again, that's when things will start getting ugly.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:01 AM on August 16, 2011


I suspect this is going to be one of those articles we look back at like Fukuyama's "The End of History" and wonder what were they thinking. I mean, I wish it was true, but there's a whole new category of resource-based conflict that's on the horizon, most importantly water.
posted by longdaysjourney at 7:26 AM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


yes, an end to war! In fact to show how serious we are, how about getting all the countries to sign a General Treaty for the Renunciation of War, maybe call it the World Peace Act.

Oh, wait they already did that. In 1928. Three years before the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, the Italians invaded Abyssinia in 1935 and when all godamn hell broke loose in 1939.
posted by storybored at 8:00 AM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Note "Related Posts" at bottom of page.

Planet War
From the bloody civil wars in Africa to the rag-tag insurgencies in Southeast Asia, 33 conflicts are raging around the world today, and it’s often innocent civilians who suffer the most.

War isn't going anywhere, nor are the other three very much related Horsemen.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:44 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was in Russia for 3 weeks while the S&P downgrade was going on. One of the best quips I heard on the English language Russian-run news station was from an American talking head working out of Germany. And I quote:

"When I was growing up the business of America was business. Now the business of America is war."
posted by spicynuts at 9:42 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Armed conflict has declined in large part because armed conflict has fundamentally changed."
this

"The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence," so that we see today's atrocities -- though mild by historical standards -- as "signs of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen."
and this

"in that good old fashioned traditional warfare is not a singular event, but an ongoing process of slow-motion genocide."

Part of the problem is that warfare has gotten more refined and more subtle. It's ok when two cultures are a bit displaced on the curve and maybe one is dominant. Get too far ahead and you have what Cortez or Pizarro did in South America or settlers did in North America where the population has no idea how defend because the conceptual frameworks regarding what "war" is (or even the things wars are fought over) are so different.
(What do you mean you "own" the land? How is that even possible?)
And then genocide is possible. Likely even.

And sometimes oppression is so rarefied you have no idea you're even at war. It's not even really called war, the economic systems, etc. are so subtle.
No one's pointing a gun at you. And if you had weapons, it wouldn't matter because your enemy is thousands of miles away. Even if you could hit them, they can hit you with a machine from nowhere. Unless you have some concept of the culture that's doing that to you, there's no chance of being 'at war' in any real meaning of the word.
And yet, there is conflict and suffering.

I have seen the changes and I know enough about this subject to get a handle on where we're headed. We're very complex and integrated. And that changes the power relationships and how power flows. You can't just deliver ordinance en masse anymore to force the change you want because you're hooked into those systems. It's inefficient to use force that way in the modern era.
And yes, I think the world will settle into very low intensity conflicts with very precise armaments that might not even cause a casualty (maybe just reconfigure your computer, or change some of your bank statements, etc) that come from what appears to be nowhere. Even now, a predator strike with a hellfire comes, effectively, out of nowhere. One minute you're sitting having coffee, the next, you're legs are gone. Or your a cab driver, business has been good. Suddenly someone decides the local honcho employing everyone is a terrorist. Business drops and your town goes to hell. And you starve because you can't leave town (mother is sick, wife and kids, etc.), there's no gas or animals, etc.
Not a shot fired but your life changes. A keystroke thousands of miles away and you're an incidental casualty.

So there will be an end to "war." But not to conflict. The simple fact that people aren't being killed violently doesn't mean that force won't be used on them or they won't suffer.
Only nice thing I can say about being shot at, at least you know someone's taken a personal interest in trying to kill you.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:05 AM on August 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Um, you're leaving out troop suicides. Which account for more dead than battle. Those are called war deaths. Count them. They matter.

Not every suicide by a soldier is related to them being a soldier.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:02 PM on August 16, 2011


I suspect this is going to be one of those articles we look back at like Fukuyama's "The End of History" and wonder what were they thinking.

General neoliberal naivete aside, Fukuyama remains essentially correct about this some twenty years later...
posted by smoke at 3:31 PM on August 16, 2011


And for all the death and misery in Iraq, there has been nothing comparable to the indiscriminate carpet bombings of the Vietnam War, for example.

By some reliable statistical measures, we're around a million civilian deaths in Iraq, alone. After two decades of turning Iraq into an environmental wasteland (burning oil fields, dumped chemical feedstocks and banned pesticide use, depleted uranium contamination, etc.) it's almost certain that hundreds of thousands, if not more, will be sickened and killed in the years to come.

Those numbers do not even begin to touch upon what's going on in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya.

The source of the content of this post is, as the physicist Dirac would say, not-even-wrong — which is worse than being wrong, in some ways, especially if any kind of public policy comes out of this. And it's a bit contradictory to say that peace is on the way when weapons sales are at an all-time high, particularly by the United States, the world's biggest arms dealer.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:51 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Surging Iraq violence: Have we seen this story before? Violence across Iraq yesterday was horrific, and likely carried out by Sunni Arab militants. It all feels so 2004.
posted by homunculus at 6:23 PM on August 16, 2011


Lessons of two wars: We will lose in Iraq and Afghanistan
posted by homunculus at 12:37 PM on August 17, 2011


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