War Is Not Going To End On Its Own

War Is Not Going To End On Its Own: Part III Of “War No More: The Case For Abolition” By David Swanson


If war were ending on its own, it would be ending because people were causing it to end. That trend could be reversed if enough people found out that anti-war work was succeeding and took that as a reason to stop engaging in it. But we are not yet clearly succeeding. If we want to end war we will have to redouble our efforts and get many more people involved. First, let’s examine the evidence that war is not fading away.

Counting Bodies

Over the centuries and decades, death counts have grown dramatically, shifted heavily onto civilians rather than combatants, and been overtaken by injury counts as even greater numbers have been injured but medicine has allowed them to survive. Deaths are now due primarily to violence rather than to disease, formerly the biggest killer in wars. Death and injury counts have also shifted very heavily toward one side in each war, rather than being evenly divided between two parties.

Understanding that there are countless shortcomings in any comparisons across wars fought in different epochs, using different technologies, operating under different conceptions of law, etc., here are some comparisons that nonetheless seem useful. The following is, of course, a sampling and not intended in any way as a comprehensive discussion of all U.S. or global wars.

In the U.S. War for Independence, some 63,000 died, including 46,000 Americans, 10,000 British, and 7,000 Hessians. Possibly 2,000 French died on the American side in North America, and more fighting the British in Europe. The British and the U.S. each had about 6,000 wounded. Civilians were not killed in significant numbers in battle, as they are in modern war. But the war likely caused a smallpox epidemic, which took 130,000 lives. It is noteworthy that more Americans died than did those on the other side, that more died than were wounded and lived, that more soldiers died than civilians, that the United States won, that the war was fought within the United States, and that no refugee crisis was created (although the gate was opened wide to genocide of Native Americans and other future wars).

In the War of 1812, some 3,800 U.S. and British soldiers died fighting, but disease brought the death total to some 20,000. The number of wounded was smaller, as it would be in most wars before penicillin and other medical advances arrived for World War II and later wars. Until then, more soldiers died of their wounds. The fighting in the War of 1812 did not kill large numbers of civilians. More Americans died than did those on the other side. The war was fought within the United States, but the war was a failure. Canada was not conquered. On the contrary, Washington D.C. was burned. No major refugee crisis resulted.

U.S. wars against Native Americans were one part of a genocide. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 1894, “The Indian wars under the government of the United States have been more than 40 in number. They have cost the lives of about 19,000 white men, women and children, including those killed in individual combats, and the lives of about 30,000 Indians.” These were wars fought within the United States, which the U.S. government “won” more often than it lost, and in which the other side suffered the greater share of deaths, including significant deaths inflicted on civilians. A refugee crisis of major proportions was one of the primary results. In several ways, these wars are a closer model for later U.S. wars than other early wars are.

In the U.S. war on Mexico of 1846-1848, 1,773 Americans were killed in action, while 13,271 died from sickness, and 4,152 were wounded in the conflict. Approximately 25,000 Mexicans were killed or wounded. Once again, disease was the big killer. Again, more died than were wounded and survived. Fewer Americans died than did those on the other side. More soldiers died than civilians. And the United States won the war.

In each of the wars described above, the casualty figures were larger percentages of the overall populations at the time than they are of populations today. Whether and how that makes the wars worse than the absolute casualty counts suggest is a matter for debate. Adjusting for population does not have as significant an effect as one might think. The U.S. population at the time of its war on Mexico was almost as big as Iraq’s population at the time of Shock and Awe. The United States lost 15,000. Iraq lost 1.4 million. To be more precise, the U.S. population was about 22 million and Mexico’s about 2 million, of whom some 80,000 were in the territories seized by the United States. Those 80,000 saw their nationality changed, although some were permitted to remain Mexican. Iraq saw millions made homeless, including millions forced to travel outside Iraq and live as refugees in foreign lands.

The U.S. Civil War, which grew out of the war on Mexico and other factors, stands apart. The death count is usually estimated at something remarkably close to the 654,965 Iraqis killed as of June 2006, as reported by Johns Hopkins. One researcher lists the Civil War casualties as follows:

Total military dead: 618,022, including 360,022 Northern and 258,000 Southern. For the North, 67,058 died in combat, 43,012 from wounds, 219,734 from disease, including 57,265 from dysentery, and 30,218 died as prisoners of war. For the South, 94,000 died in combat, an unknown number from wounds, 138,024 from disease, and 25,976 as prisoners of war. Another 455,175 were wounded, including 275,175 from the North and 180,000 from the South.

More recent research, using census data, estimates the U.S. Civil War dead at 750,000. Estimations and speculation place civilian deaths, including from starvation, at an additional 50,000 or more. A U.S. population of 31.4 million in 1860, reduced by 800,000, means a loss of 2.5 percent, or less than half what Iraq lost in OIL (Operation Iraqi Liberation, the war’s original name); 1,455,590 killed out of 27 million is a loss of 5.4 percent.

The U.S. Civil War numbers finally begin to approach the death toll of major modern wars, while still remaining relatively evenly divided between the two sides. In addition, the numbers wounded begin to surpass the numbers dead. Yet, the killing remains mainly the killing of soldiers, not civilians.

The first U.S. overthrow of a foreign government beyond the destruction of the Native American nations was in Hawaii in 1893. Nobody died, and one Hawaiian was wounded. These overthrows would never again be so bloodless.

The U.S. wars on Cuba and the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century begin to move us in a new direction. These were violent occupations on foreign soil. Disease remained a big killer, but it impacted one side disproportionately, because the conflict was taking place far from the shores of the occupier.

The Spanish-American War was fought in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam, but not in the United States. The war on the Philippines was fought in the Philippines. In the Spanish-American War, the United States saw 496 killed in action, 202 died of wounds, 5,509 died from disease, and 250 were killed by the United States’ own (presumably accidental) destruction of the USS Maine prior to the war. The Spanish saw 786 killed in action, 8,627 died of wounds, and 53,440 died from disease. The Cubans saw another 10,665 dead.

But it is in the Philippines that the death count, as well as the length of the war, really begins to look familiar. The United States had 4,000 killed, mostly by disease, plus 64 from Oregon (not yet part of the United States). The Philippines had 20,000 combatants killed, plus 200,000 to 1,500,000 civilians dead from violence and diseases, including cholera. Over 15 years, by some estimates, the United States’ occupying forces, together with disease, killed over 1.5 million civilians in the Philippines, out of a population of 6 to 7 million. That’s less than a quarter the size of the Iraqi population, with a similar sized slaughter imposed on it, over a period roughly twice as long. A population of 7 million losing 1.5 million lives is losing a staggering 21 percent of its population—making this war, by that standard, if the high-end estimate of deaths is correct, the worst war the United States has engaged in, apart from the Native American genocide. The U.S. death count of 4,000 in the Philippines is very similar to the U.S. death count in Iraq. From here on out, U.S. death counts will be smaller than those on the other side, and military death counts will be smaller than civilian. Victories also become questionable or temporary.

The First World War saw some 10 million military deaths, about 6 million of them on the side of Russia, France, the British, and other Allies. About a third of those deaths were due to the Spanish influenza. About 7 million civilians were killed in Russia, Turkey, Germany and elsewhere by violence, famine, and disease. The “Spanish” flu epidemic was largely created by the war, which increased transmission and augmented mutation; the war may also have increased the lethality of the virus. That epidemic killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide. The Armenian genocide and wars in Russia and Turkey arguably grew out of this war, as arguably did World War II. Ultimately, total death counts are impossible. But we can note that this war involved direct and indirect killing on a larger scale, that the direct killing was relatively evenly balanced between the two sides, and that the surviving wounded now outnumbered those killed.

This was intense, rapid killing that took place in the space of just over 4 years, rather than an occupation as lengthy as those of Iraq or Afghanistan in the 21st century. But the direct deaths were spread over dozens of nations. The highest death count by nation was 1,773,300 in Germany, followed by 1,700,000 in Russia, 1,357,800 in France, 1,200,000 in Austria-Hungary, 908,371 in the British Empire (actually many nations), and 650,000 in Italy, with no other nation’s casualties rising above 350,000. The 1.7 million killed in Germany were taken from a population of 68 million. The 1.7 million killed in Russia were taken from a population of 170 million. Iraq lost a similar number of lives in its recent “liberation,” but from a population of only 27 million. Yet, somehow we think of World War I as a senseless horror of truly staggering proportions, and of the liberation of Iraq as a regime change that didn’t go very well—or even as a shining success.

WWII is the worst single thing humanity has done to itself in any relatively short period of time. Setting aside the catastrophic side effects and repercussions from which we may never recover (any more than U.S. troops may ever leave Germany or Japan), the absolute number of people killed—some 50 to 70 million—easily tops the list. Measured as a percentage of global population killed, World War II is surpassed only by very lengthy series of events like the fall of Rome. The impact of World War II on particular nations varied dramatically, ranging from 16 percent of the population of Poland killed, all the way down to 0.01 percent of the population of Iraq killed. About 12 nations lost more than 5 percent of their population in World War II. Japan lost 3 percent to 4 percent. France and Italy lost 1 percent each. The U.K. lost less than 1 percent. The United States lost 0.3 percent. Nine nations in World War II lost a million or more lives. Among those that did not were France, Italy, the U.K., and the U.S. So, the more recent war in Iraq was worse for Iraq than many nations’ experience in World War II. We can also conclude without a shadow of doubt that the damage done to nations’ population is not what determines the number of Hollywood movies made about one war rather than another.

With World War II we entered the era in which civilian deaths outnumber military deaths. About 60 percent to 70 percent of the deaths were civilian, a figure that includes victims of bombing and all other violence including the holocaust and ethnic cleansing campaigns, as well as disease and famine. (You can find numerous sources on the Wikipedia page on “World War II Casualties”.) We also entered the era in which killing can very disproportionately impact one side. What Germany did to the Soviet Union and Poland, and what Japan did to China account for the vast bulk of the dying. Thus the victorious allies suffered the greater share. We also entered the era in which the wounded outnumber the dead, and the era in which war deaths come primarily from violence rather than disease. And we opened the door to a tremendous escalation in U.S. military presence and operations around the globe, an escalation that is ongoing.

The war on Korea, which has ever officially ended, in its initial intense years killed an estimated 1.5 to 2 million civilians, North and South, plus nearly a million military dead on the side of the North and China, a quarter million or more military dead from the South, 36,000 dead from the United States, and much smaller numbers from several other nations. The military wounded far outnumbered the military dead. As in World War II, some two-thirds of the deaths were civilian, and U.S. deaths were few compared with others. Unlike World War II, there was no victory; that was the beginning of a trend that would last.

The war on Vietnam was Korea, but worse. There was a similar lack of victory and a similar number of U.S. casualties, but a larger number of deaths for the people who lived in the battlefield. The U.S. dead turn out to have accounted for 1.6 percent of the dying. That compares to about 0.3 percent in Iraq. A 2008 study by Harvard Medical School and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington estimated 3.8 million violent war deaths, combat and civilian, north and south, during the years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The civilian deaths outnumbered the combat deaths, again amounting to about two-thirds of total deaths. The wounded were in much higher numbers, and judging by South Vietnamese hospital records, one-third were women and one-quarter children under age 13. U.S. casualties included 58,000 killed and 153,303 wounded, plus 2,489 missing. (Medical advances help explain the ratio of wounded to killed; subsequent medical advanced and body armor advances may help explain why U.S. deaths in Iraq were not at a level similar to U.S. deaths in Korea or Vietnam.) The 3.8 million out of a population of 40 million is nearly a 10 percent loss, or twice what OIL did to Iraq. War spilled into neighboring countries. Refugee crises ensued. Environmental damage and delayed deaths, often due to Agent Orange, continue to this day.

One Big Atrocity

The more recent war on Iraq, measured purely in terms of deaths, may compare favorably to the war on Vietnam, but the details of how the killing was done are remarkably similar, as shown in Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves. Turse documents that policy decisions handed down from the top led consistently, over a period of years, to the ongoing slaughter of millions of civilians in Vietnam. Much of the killing was done by hand or with guns or artillery, but the lion’s share came in the form of 3.4 million combat sorties flown by U.S. and South Vietnamese aircraft between 1965 and 1972.

The well-known My Lai massacre in Vietnam was not an aberration. Turse documents a pattern of atrocities so pervasive that one is compelled to begin viewing the war itself as one large atrocity. Similarly, endless atrocities and scandals in Afghanistan and Iraq are not aberrations even though U.S. militarists have interpreted them as freak occurrences having nothing to do with the general thrust of the war.

“Kill anything that moves,” was an order given to U.S. troops in Vietnam indoctrinated with racist hatred for the Vietnamese. “360 degree rotational fire” was a command given on the streets of Iraq to U.S. troops similarly conditioned to hate, and similarly worn down with physical exhaustion.

Dead children in Vietnam elicited comments like “Tough shit, they grow up to be VC.” One of the U.S. helicopter killers in Iraq heard in the “Collateral Murder” video says of dead children, “Well it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” President Obama’s campaign senior adviser Robert Gibbs commented on a 16-year-old American killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen: “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children.” The “they” may mean foreigners or Muslims or just this particular man. The murder of the son is disgracefully justified by reference to his father. In Vietnam anyone dead was the enemy, and sometimes weapons would be planted on them. In drone wars, any dead males are militants, and in Iraq and Afghanistan weapons have often been planted on victims (See IVAW.org/WinterSoldier). After U.S. troops killed pregnant women in a night-raid in Afghanistan, they dug the bullets out with knives and blamed the killings on the women’s family members. (See Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill.)

The U.S. military during the Vietnam War shifted from keeping prisoners toward murdering prisoners, just as the current war has shifted from incarceration toward murder with the change in president from Bush to Obama. (See “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” New York Times, May 29, 2012.) In Vietnam, as in Iraq, rules of engagement were broadened until the rules allowed shooting at anything that moved. In Vietnam, as in Iraq, the U.S. military sought to win people over by terrorizing them. In Vietnam, as in Afghanistan, whole villages were eliminated.

In Vietnam, refugees suffered in horrible camps, while in Afghanistan children have frozen to death in a refugee camp near Kabul. Torture was common in Vietnam, including water-boarding. But at that time it hadn’t yet been depicted in a Hollywood movie or television show as a positive occurrence. Napalm, white phosphorus, cluster bombs, and other widely despised and banned weapons were used in Vietnam, as they are in the global war on terra [sic]. Vast environmental destruction was part of both wars. Gang rape was a part of both wars. The mutilation of corpses was common in both wars. Bulldozers flattened people’s villages in Vietnam, not unlike what U.S.-made bulldozers do now to Palestine.

Mass murders of civilians in Vietnam, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, tended to be driven by a desire for revenge. (See Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse.) New weaponry allowed U.S. troops in Vietnam to shoot long distances, resulting in a habit of shooting first and investigating later, a habit now developed for drone strikes. Self-appointed teams on the ground and in helicopters went “hunting” for natives to kill in Vietnam as in Afghanistan. And of course, Vietnamese leaders were targeted for assassination.

Vietnamese victims who saw their loved ones tortured, murdered, and mutilated are—in some cases—still furious with rage decades later. It’s not hard to calculate how long such rage will last in the nations now being “liberated.”

Recent Wars

Throughout the centuries, overlapping with the larger wars I’ve been describing, the U.S. has engaged in numerous smaller wars. These wars continued between the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. An example is the 1983 invasion of Grenada. Grenada lost 45 lives and Cuba 25, the United States 19, with 119 U.S. wounded. Another example is the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. Panama lost between 500 and 3,000, while the U.S. lost 23 lives.

The United States assisted Iraq in its war on Iran during the 1980s. Each side lost hundreds of thousands of lives, with Iran suffering perhaps two-thirds of the deaths.

Operation Desert Storm, 17 January 1991 – 28 February 1991, killed some 103,000 Iraqis, including 83,000 civilians. It killed 258 Americans (making them 0.25 percent of the dead), although disease and injuries showed up in the years that followed. At the end of the war 0.1 percent of participating U.S. troops were considered killed or wounded, but by 2002, 27.7 percent of veterans were listed as dead or wounded, many diagnosed with Gulf War Syndrome.

As of September 2013, the U.S. war on Afghanistan was ongoing, with U.S. defeat inevitable. As with Iraq, it has a back-story of death and destruction dating back many years—in this case at least to what Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted was a U.S. effort to provoke a Soviet invasion in 1979. U.S. deaths in Afghanistan since 2001 are about 2,000, plus 10,000 wounded. Additionally there are much greater numbers of troops with brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). During some years, suicides have outpaced combat deaths. But, as in other modern wars, the occupied nation has suffered most of the injuries and deaths, including about 10,000 Afghan security forces killed, 200 Northern Alliance forces killed, and tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians killed violently, plus as many as hundreds of thousands or millions dead from nonviolent results of the war including freezing, starvation, and disease. Afghanistan’s refugee crisis has been expanded by millions during the current occupation, while U.S. missile strikes in northern Pakistan have created another 2.5 million refugees.

Documentation for all of the above statistics can be found at WarIsACrime.org/Iraq along with an analysis of the casualty studies in Iraq which places the most likely total there at 1,455,590 excess deaths. These are deaths above the high death rate that existed in 2003, following the worst sanctions and longest bombing campaign in history.

U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are producing significant numbers of deaths, almost all of them on one side. These numbers come from TheBureauInvestigates.com:

CIA Drone Strikes in Pakistan 2004–2013
Total US strikes: 372
Total reported killed: 2,566-3,570
Civilians reported killed: 411-890
Children reported killed: 167-197
Total reported injured: 1,182-1,485

US Covert Action in Yemen 2002–2013
Confirmed US drone strikes: 46-56
Total reported killed: 240-349
Civilians reported killed: 14-49
Children reported killed: 2
Reported injured: 62-144
Possible extra US drone strikes: 80-99
Total reported killed: 283-456
Civilians reported killed: 23-48
Children reported killed: 6-9
Reported injured: 81-106
All other US covert operations: 12-77
Total reported killed: 148-377
Civilians reported killed: 60-88
Children reported killed: 25-26
Reported injured: 22-111

US Covert Action in Somalia 2007–2013
US drone strikes: 3-9
Total reported killed:7-27
Civilians reported killed: 0-15
Children reported killed: 0
Reported injured: 2-24
All other US covert operations: 7-14
Total reported killed: 47-143
Civilians reported killed: 7-42
Children reported killed: 1-3
Reported injured: 12-20

The high end of these counts totals 4,922, remarkably close to the figure of 4,700 that Senator Lindsey Graham has made public—without, however, explaining where he got it. These numbers compare very favorably to Operation Iraqi Liberation (meaning they are smaller), but making that comparison may be dangerous. The U.S. government did not replace a ground war or a traditional bombing campaign with a drone war in the countries above. It created drone wars where it would have been very unlikely to create any wars at all, in the absence of drones. It created these drone wars while escalating a massive occupation in Afghanistan of which drone kills were only one element.

Looking at the wars of the earth’s leading war-making nation, measured by death counts, the wars do not seem to be on a path toward ending. If only drone wars are fought in the future, that could mean a reduction in death counts. But it would not mean an end to wars, and therefore it would be difficult to guarantee that wars would be limited in any manner—wars being very difficult beasts to control once started.

The chart below displays the estimated number of people killed in major U.S. wars over the years, from oldest on the left to most recent on the right. I’ve included major wars and left out many quite minor ones, both early and more recent. I’ve not included wars against Native Americans, primarily because they were spread over such a long period of time. I’ve also not included the sanctions that came in between the Gulf War and the Iraq War, even though they killed more people than the Gulf War did. I’ve included only the relatively brief bursts of killing that we commonly call wars. And I’ve included deaths on all sides, including those killed by disease during a war, but not post-war epidemics, and not injuries. The injured who survived were few in the wars at the left. The injured were more than the dead in the wars at the right.

The chart below is the same as the chart above, only with the two world wars removed. Those two wars took place in so many different nations and killed on such an enormous scale, that it is easier to compare the other wars if they are omitted. Common references to the Civil War as the deadliest U.S. war appear wildly off when looking at this chart; that’s because this chart—unlike most U.S. news media—includes the deaths on both sides of foreign wars. I have not tried to break each column into combatants and civilians, a practically difficult and morally dubious operation, but one that would inevitably show civilian deaths heavily present only on the right-hand side of the chart. I have also not separated U.S. from foreign deaths. Doing so would result in the five wars toward the left being colored all or significantly a color representing U.S. deaths, and the five wars on the right being colored almost entirely a color representing foreign deaths, with a little sliver indicating U.S. deaths as part of the total.

The third chart, on the next page, displays, not the number of deaths, but the percent of a population killed. One might have assumed that the earlier wars saw fewer deaths because the populations of the countries involved were smaller. However, when we adjust for population, the chart doesn’t change very much. The earlier wars still appear less deadly than the later wars. The populations used for this calculation are the populations of the countries where the wars were fought: the United States for the revolution and the civil war, the United States and Canada for the war of 1812, the United States and Mexico for the Mexican-American war, Cuba and Puerto Rico and Guam for the Spanish-American war, the Philippines or Korea or Vietnam for the wars bearing those nations’ names, and Iraq for the last two wars.

Counting Dollars

When Americans hear “the cost of war” they often think of two things: dollars and U.S. soldiers’ lives. During the G.W.O.T. (global war on terror/terra) Americans have not been asked to sacrifice, to cut back, to pay more taxes, or to contribute to the cause. In fact, they’ve had their taxes reduced, especially if they have large incomes or are among the population of “corporate persons.” (Wealth concentration is a common result of wars, and these wars are no exception.) U.S. people have not been drafted for military or other duty, except through the poverty draft and the deceptions of the military recruiters. But this lack of sacrifice hasn’t meant no financial cost. Below is a menu of past wars and price tags in 2011 dollars. The trend seems to be moving mostly in the wrong direction.

War of 1812 – $1.6 billion
Revolutionary War – $2.4 billion
Mexican War – $2.4 billion
Spanish-American War – $9 billion
Civil War – $79.7 billion
Persian Gulf – $102 billion
World War I – $334 billion
Korea – $341 billion
Afghanistan – $600 billion
Vietnam – $738 billion
Iraq – $810 billion
Total post-9/11 – $1.4 trillion
World War II – $4.1 trillion

Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes in 2008 calculated the true total cost of OIL (the Iraq War) as three to five trillion (higher now that the war went on for years longer than they expected). That figure includes impacts on oil prices, future care of veterans, and—notably—lost opportunities.

Brown University’s “Cost of War” Project garnered attention in 2013 by claiming that the U.S. cost for the war on Iraq would be $2.2 trillion. A few clicks into their website one finds this: “Total US federal spending associated with the Iraq war has been $1.7 trillion through FY2013. In addition, future health and disability payments for veterans will total $590 billion and interest accrued to pay for the war will add up to $3.9 trillion.” The $1.7 trillion plus the $0.59 trillion equals the $2.2 trillion placed in the headline of the report. The additional $3.9 trillion in interest has been left out. And, even though Brown is taking its data from papers by Linda Bilmes, it leaves out numerous considerations that were included in Bilmes’ and Stiglitz’ book The Three Trillion Dollar War, including most notably the impact of the war on fuel prices and the impact of lost opportunities. Adding those to the $6.19 trillion listed here would make the estimate of $3 to $5 trillion in Bilmes’ and Stiglitz’ book look as “conservative” as they said it was.

Measured in dollars, as in deaths, wars by the nation most invested in wars right now don’t show any long-term trends toward disappearance. Instead, wars appear to be a constant, enduring, and growing presence.

Who Says War Is Vanishing?

Most influentially, the argument that war is going away has been made by Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. But it is an argument that can be found in various forms in the work of numerous Western academics.
War, as we have seen above, is not actually going away. One way to suggest that it is involves conflating war with other varieties of violence. The death penalty seems to be going away. Spanking and whipping children seems to be going away in some cultures. And so on. These are trends that should help convince people of the case I made in Part I above: War can be ended. But these trends say nothing about war actually being ended.

The fictional account of war going away treats Western civilization and capitalism as forces for peace. This is done, in large part, by treating Western wars on poor nations as the fault of those poor nations. The U.S. war in Vietnam was the fault of the Vietnamese who weren’t enlightened enough to surrender as they should have. The U.S. war in Iraq ended with Bush’s declaration of “mission accomplished!” after which the war was a “civil war” and the fault of the backward Iraqis and their lack of Western capitalism. And so on.

Missing from this account is the relentless push for more wars in the U.S., Israeli, and other governments. U.S. media outlets routinely discuss “the next war” as if there simply must be one. Missing is the development of NATO into a global aggressive force. Missing is the danger created by the proliferation of nuclear technology. Missing is the trend toward greater corruption of elections and governance, and the growing—not shrinking—profits of the military industrial complex. Missing is the expansion of U.S. bases and troops into more nations; as well as U.S. provocations toward China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran; increases in military spending by China and many other nations; and misconceptions about past wars including the recent war in Libya and proposals for wider war in Syria.

Wars, in the view of Pinker and other believers in war’s vanishing, originate in poor and Muslim nations. Pinker indicates no awareness that wealthy nations fund and arm dictators in poor countries, or that they sometimes “intervene” by dropping that support and dropping bombs along with it. Also likely countries to make war are those with ideologies, Pinker tells us. (As everyone knows, the United States has no ideology.) “The three deadliest postwar conflicts,” Pinker writes, “were fueled by Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese communist regimes that had a fanatical dedication to outlasting their opponents.” Pinker goes on to blame the high death rate in Vietnam on the willingness of the Vietnamese to die in large numbers rather than surrender, as he thinks they should have.

The U.S. war on Iraq ended, in Pinker’s view, when President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished,” since which point it was a civil war, and therefore the causes of that civil war can be analyzed in terms of the shortcomings of Iraqi society.
“[I]t is so hard,” Pinker complains, “to impose liberal democracy on countries in the developing world that have not outgrown their superstitions, warlords, and feuding tribes.” Indeed it may be, but where is the evidence that the United States government has been attempting it? Or the evidence that the United States has such democracy itself? Or that the United States has the right to impose its desires on another nation?

Early in the book, Pinker presents a pair of charts aimed at showing that, proportionate to population, wars have killed more prehistoric and hunter-gatherer people than people in modern states. None of the prehistoric tribes listed go back earlier than 14,000 BCE, meaning that the vast majority of human existence is left out. And these charts list individual tribes and states, not pairs or groups of them that fought in wars. The absence of war through most of human history is left out of the equation, dubious statistics are cited for earlier wars, those statistics are compared to the global population rather than the population of the tribes involved, and—significantly—the deaths counted from recent U.S. wars are only U.S. deaths. And they’re measured against the population of the United States, not the nation attacked. At other times, Pinker measures war deaths against the population of the globe, a measure that doesn’t really tell us anything about the level of devastation in the areas where the wars are fought. He also omits indirect or delayed deaths. So the U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam get counted, but those killed more slowly by Agent Orange or PTSD do not get counted. Of course spears and arrows used in ancient wars did not have the same delayed effects as Agent Orange. U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan get counted by Pinker, but the greater number who die a bit later from injuries or suicide do not.

Pinker acknowledges the danger of nuclear proliferation only in a very glass-half-full kind of way:

If one were to calculate the amount of destruction that nations have actually perpetrated as a proportion of how much they could perpetrate, given the destructive capacity available to them, the postwar [meaning post-World War II] decades would be many orders of magnitude more peaceable than any time in history.

So, we’re more peaceful because we’ve built more deadly weapons!

And civilization’s progress is good because it progresses.

And yet, after all the fancy footwork calculating our path to peace, we look up and see bloodier wars than ever before, and machinery in place to wage more of them—machinery accepted as unquestionable or literally unnoticed.

Our Wars Aren’t Bad Like Your Wars

Pinker isn’t alone. Jared Diamond’s latest book, The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn from Traditional Societies, suggests that tribal people live with constant war. His math is as fuzzy as Pinker’s. Diamond calculates the deaths from war in Okinawa in 1945, not as a percentage of Okinawans, but as a percentage of all the combatant nations’ populations, including the population of the United States, where the war was not fought at all. With this statistic, Diamond claims to prove that World War II was less deadly than violence in an “uncivilized” tribe.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity argues that genocide is distinct from war and worse than war. By this means, he redefines portions of wars, such as the U.S. firebombing of Japan or the Nazi holocaust, as not war at all. The portions of wars that are left in the category of war are then justified. For Goldhagen, the war on Iraq was not mass-murder because it was just. The 9/11 attacks were genocide, despite their smaller scale, because unjust. When Saddam Hussein killed Iraqis it was mass murder, but when the United States killed Iraqis it was justified. (Goldhagen doesn’t comment on U.S. assistance to Hussein in killing Iraqis.)

Goldhagen argues that ending war should be a lower priority than ending mass murder. But without his Western blinders, war looks like a type of mass murder. War is, in fact, the most acceptable, respectable, and widest spread form of mass-murder around. Making war unacceptable would be a huge step in the direction of making all killing unacceptable. Keeping war in place as a “legitimate” foreign policy tool guarantees that mass murder will continue. And redefining much of what war consists of as non-war fails dramatically at making the case that war is going away.

“There Is Evil in the World”

A common response to arguments for abolishing war is. “No. No. No. You need to understand that there is evil in the world. The world is a dangerous place. There are bad people in the world.” And so forth. The act of pointing out this obvious piece of information suggests a very deep acceptance of war as the only possible response to a troubled world, and a complete conviction that war is not itself something evil. Opponents of war do not, of course, believe there is nothing evil in the world. They just place war in that category, if not at the very top of it.

It is the unthinking acceptance of war that keeps war going. Campaigning for president, Hillary Clinton said that if Iran were to launch a nuclear attack against Israel, she would “totally obliterate” Iran. She meant this threat as deterrence, she said. (See video at WarIsACrime.org/Hillary.) At the time, the Iranian government said, and U.S. intelligence agencies said, that Iran had no nuclear weapons and no nuclear weapons program. Iran had nuclear energy, pushed on it decades earlier by the United States. Of course, Iran’s theoretical obliteration of Israel would be just as evil as a U.S. obliteration of Iran. But the United States really does have the capability to launch nuclear weapons at Iran and has repeatedly threatened to do so, with both the Bush and Obama White Houses showing great affection for the phrase “All options are on the table.” They shouldn’t be. Such threats should not be made. Talk of obliterating nations should be left behind us. That sort of talk makes it much more difficult to make peace, to truly engage with another nation, to move relations forward to the point where no nation imagines that another is going to develop a horrible weapon and use it.


Authors who view war as ending, and as a third-world phenomenon, tend to miss some of the major contributing factors to war, including those encompassed by the phrase “military industrial complex.” These factors include the skill of propagandists, the open bribery and corruption of our politics, and the perversion and impoverishment of our educational and entertainment and civic engagement systems that lead so many people in the United States to support and so many others to tolerate a permanent state of war in search of enemies and profits despite decades-long demonstrations that the war machine makes us less safe, drains our economy, strips away our rights, degrades our environment, distributes our income ever upward, debases our morality, and bestows on the wealthiest nation on earth miserably low rankings in life-expectancy, liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness.

None of these factors are insurmountable, but we won’t surmount them if we imagine the path to peace is to impose our superior will on backward foreigners by means of cluster bombs and napalm meant to prevent primitive atrocities.

The military industrial complex is a war-generating engine. It can be dismantled or transformed, but it is not going to stop generating wars on its own without a big push. And it is not going to stop just because we come to the realization that we would really, really like it to stop. Work is going to be required.

A couple of years ago, National Public Radio interviewed a weapons executive. Asked what he would do if the hugely profitable occupation of Afghanistan were to end, he replied that he hoped there could be an occupation of Libya. He was clearly joking. And he didn’t get his wish—yet. But jokes don’t come from nowhere. Had he joked about molesting children or practicing racism his comments would not have aired. Joking about a new war is accepted in our culture as an appropriate joke. In contrast, mocking war as backward and undesirable is just not done, and might be deemed incomprehensible, not to mention unfunny. We have a long way to go.

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