Wars are not inevitable.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Aug. 4 2009 2:03 PM

Does Peace Have a Chance?

Wars are less deadly than they've been for 12,000 years. Things could get even better.

Bombed-out Dresden, Germany, in 1945.
Bombed-out Dresden, Germany, in 1945

The West Point War Museum, right across the Hudson River from my home, offers a brisk tour of the history of weaponry, from Paleolithic stone axes to Fat Man, the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. A sign at the museum's entrance states, "Unquestionably, war-making is an aspect of human nature which will continue as nations attempt to impose their will upon each other." Actually, this assertion is quite questionable. A recent decline in war casualties—especially compared to historical and even prehistorical rates—has some scholars wondering whether the era of international war may be ending.

Counting casualties is fraught with uncertainty; scholars' estimates vary according to how they define war and what sources they accept as reliable, among other factors. Nevertheless, a clear trend emerges from recent studies. Last year, 25,600 combatants and civilians were killed as a direct result of armed conflicts, according to the 2009 Yearbook of SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, to be released Aug. 17. Two thirds of these deaths took place in just three trouble spots: Sri Lanka (8,400), Afghanistan (4,600), and Iraq (4,000). In contrast, almost 500,000 people are killed each year in violent crimes and well over 1 million die in automobile accidents.

SIPRI's figure excludes deaths from "one-sided conflict," in which combatants deliberately kill unarmed civilians, and "indirect" deaths from war-related disease and famine. If these casualties are included, annual war-related deaths from 2004 to 2007 rise tenfold to 250,000 per year, according to "The Global Burden of Armed Violence," a 2008 report published by an international organization set up in the aftermath of the Geneva Declaration. Even this much higher number, the report states, is "remarkably low in comparison to historical figures."

For example, Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland's School for International and Security Studies has estimated that war and state-sponsored genocide in the first half of the 20th century killed as many as 190 million people, both directly and indirectly. That comes to an average of 3.8 million deaths per year. His analysis found that wars killed fewer than one-quarter of that total in the second half of the 20th century—40 million altogether, or 800,000 per year.

Even these staggering figures are low in comparison with prehistoric ones, if considered as a percentage of population. All the horrific wars and genocides of the 20th century accounted for less than 3 percent of all deaths worldwide, according to one estimate. That is much less than the probable rate of violent death among our early ancestors.

The economist Samuel Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute recently analyzed dozens of archaeological and ethnographic studies of hunter-gatherer societies like the ones our ancestors are thought to have lived in for most of our prehistory. Warfare and other forms of violence led to 14 percent of the deaths in these simple societies, Bowles concludes.

In his influential book War Before Civilization, the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois estimates that violence accounted for as many as 25 percent of all deaths among early societies. Keeley includes not only hunter-gatherers but also tribal societies such as the Yanomamo in Amazonia and the Enga in New Guinea, which practice simple horticulture as well as hunting. These early people racked up such murderous totals with clubs, spears, and arrows rather than machine guns and bombs—and Keeley's stats don't even include indirect deaths from famine and disease.

Our prehistory seems to have grown more bellicose as time went on, however. According to anthropologist Brian Ferguson, there is little or no clear-cut evidence of lethal group aggression among any societies prior to 12,000 years ago. War emerged and rapidly spread (PDF) over the next few thousand years among hunter-gatherers and other groups, particularly in regions where people abandoned a nomadic lifestyle for a more sedentary one and populations grew. War arose, according to this perspective, because of changing environmental and cultural conditions rather than because of "human nature," as the West Point War Museum suggests.

This view contradicts what many people believe about war. Since 2006, when I first started teaching a college course called "War and Human Nature," I've asked hundreds of students and other people whether humans will ever stop fighting wars. More than four in five—young and old, conservative and liberal, male and female—answer "No." Asked to explain this response, they often say that we have always fought wars, and we always will, because we are innately aggressive.

Of course, all human behavior ultimately stems from our biology. But the sudden emergence of war around 10,000 BCE and its recent decline suggest it's primarily a cultural phenomenon and one that culture is now helping us to overcome. There have been no international wars since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and no wars between major industrialized powers since the end of World War II. Most conflicts now consist of guerilla wars, insurgencies, and terrorism—or what the political scientist John Mueller of Ohio State University calls the "remnants of war."

Mueller rejects biological explanations for this trend, noting in one paper (PDF) that "testosterone levels seem to be as high as ever." At least part of the decline, he says, can be attributed to a surge in the number of democracies since World War II, from 20 to nearly 100 (depending on how democracy is defined). Since democracies rarely, if ever, wage war against each other, we may well see a continuing decline in the magnitude of armed conflict.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker identifies several other cultural factors contributing to the modern decline of violence, both between and within states: First, the creation of stable states with effective legal systems and police forces has eliminated the endless feuding that plagued many tribal societies. Second, increased life expectancies make us less willing to risk our lives by engaging in violence. Third, as a result of globalization and communications, we have become increasingly interdependent on—and empathetic toward—others outside of our immediate "tribes."

If war is not inevitable, neither is peace. "This past year saw increasing threats to security, stability, and peace in nearly every corner of the globe," warns the SIPRI 2009 Yearbook. Global arms spending—especially by the United States, China, and Russia—has surged, and efforts to stem nuclear proliferation have stalled. An al-Qaida operative could detonate a nuclear suitcase bomb in New York City tomorrow, reversing the recent trend in an instant. But the evidence of a decline in war-related deaths shows that we need not—and should not—accept war as an eternal scourge of the human condition.

In fact, this fatalistic view is wrong empirically and morally. Empirically, because war clearly stems less from some hard-wired "instinct" than from mutable cultural and environmental conditions; much can be done, and has been done, to reduce the risks it poses. Morally, because the belief that war will never end helps perpetuate it. The surer we are that the world is irredeemably violent, the more likely we are to support hawkish leaders and policies, making our belief self-fulfilling. Our first step toward ending war is to believe that we can end it.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. His next book, The End of War, will be published in November.