This recent NY Times article shows statistically how war could now well be an obsolescent phenomenon. Using a generally accepted measure of war violence, there has been a remarkable fall in conflict from the middle of last century to the current time. While the writers conjecturing on the cause of this is debatable, it nonetheless identifies what clearly seems an irreversible trend. This trend follows closely the activities of Maharishi since the late 1950s in moving the world away from ignorance and incoherence to that of world peace and invincibility for all nations, and in particular his establishment of coherence-creating groups like Purusha to usher in not just a world without conflict, but heaven on earth.
The departure of the last American troops from Iraq brings relief to a nation that has endured its most painful war since Vietnam. But the event is momentous for another reason. The invasion of Iraq was the most recent example of an all-out war between two national armies. And it could very well be the last one.
The idea that war is obsolescent may seem preposterously utopian. Aren’t we facing an endless war on terror, a clash of civilisation, the menace of nuclear rogues states? Isn’t war on our genes, something that will always be with us?
The theory that was is becoming passe gained traction in the late 1980s, when scholars noticed some curious non-events. World War III, a nuclear armageddon, was once considered inevitable, but didn’t happen. Nor had any wars between great powers occurred since the Korean War. European nations, which for centuries had fought each other at the drop of a hat, had not done so for four decades.
Armed conflict hasn’t vanished, and today anyone with a mobile phone can broadcast the bloodshed. But our impressions of the prevalence of war, stoked by these images, can be misleading. Only objective numbers can identify the trends.
“War” is a fuzzy category, shading from global conflagrations to neighbourhood turn battles, so the organisations that track the frequency and damage of war over time need a precise yardstick. A common definition picks out armed conflicts that cause at least 1000 battle deaths in a year — soldiers and civilians killed by war violence, excluding the difficult-to-quantify indirect deaths resulting from hunger and disease. “Interstate wars” are those fought between national armies and have historically been the deadliest.
These prototypical wars have become increasingly rare, and the world hasn’t seen one since the three-week invasion of Iraq in 2003. The lopsided five-day clash between Russian and Georgia in 2008 misses the threshold, as do sporadic clashes between North and South Korea or Thailand and Cambodia. Countries remained armed and hostile, so war is hardly impossible. But where would a new interstate was plausibly erupt?
China has not fought a battle in 23 years. India and Pakistan came dangerously close to war in 2002, but they backed off when both sides realised that millions would die and have since stabilised relations. Neither North nor South Korea could win a war at an acceptable cost.
What about other kinds of armed conflict, like civil was and conflicts that miss the 1000 death cutoff? Remarkably, they too have been in decline. Civil wars are fewer, smaller and more localised. Terrible flare-ups occur, and for those caught in the middle the results are devastating — but fewer people are caught in the middle. The biggest continuing war was Afghanistan, last year killed about 500 Americans, 100 other coalition troops and 5000 Afghans including civilians. That toll, while deplorable, is a fraction of those in past wars like Vietnam, which killed 5000 Americans and nearly 150,000 Vietnamese per year. Over all, the annual rate of battle deaths worldwide has fallen from almost 300 per 100,000 of world population during World War II, to almost 30 during Korea, to the low teens during Vietnam, to single digits in the late 1970s and 1980s, to fewer than one in the 21st century.
As the political scientist John Mueller has pointed out, today’s civil wars are closer to organised crime than traditional war. Armed militias — really gangs of thugs — monopolise resources like cocaine in Colombia or coltan in Congo, or terrorise the locals into paying tribute to religious fanatics, as in Somalia, Nigeria and the Philippines.
Nor has the suffering merely been displaced from soldiers to civilians. The much-quoted statistic that war deaths a century ago were 90% military and 10% civilian, while today the ratio is reversed, resulted from an error in a 1994 United Nations report that mistakenly compared deaths in World War I with refugees and wounded in the 1980s. The real ratio is around 50-50 and stable through time. Yes, atrocities against civilians continue, but consider a historical perspective. During World War II, Allied forces repeatedly and deliberately firebombed Axis cities, incinerating tens of thousands of civilians in a night. The Germans and Japanese did far worse. Today’s rapes, ethnic cleansings and suicide bombings are just as atrocious, but much smaller in scale.
Why is war in decline? For one thing, it no longer pays. For centuries, war reallocated huge territories, as empires were conglomerated or dismantled and states wiped off the map. But since shortly after World War II, virtually no borders have changed by force, and no member of the United Nations has disappeared through conquest. The futility of conquest is part of the emergence of an international community regulated by taboos and yielding more effective tools for managing conflicts. Among these tools, the United Nations 100,000 deployed peacekeepers have measurably improved the success of peace agreements in civil wars.
War also declines as prosperity and trade rise. Historically, wealth came from land and conquest was profitable. Today, wealth comes from trade, and war only hurts.