Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has leveraged his authority to tackle some tough questions. Much like his predecessor, Adm. Mike Mullen (and the former vice chairman, Gen. James Cartwright), Dempsey has not shied away from controversial topics, ranging from what the Israeli military could do to Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program (delay "probably for a couple of years") to the growing scourge of sexual assaults in the military (which "deeply scar our profession"). You might question some of what Dempsey says (I have), but he deserves credit for raising the public profile of critical issues to a degree that is rare among his civilian counterparts.
One of his favorite and oft-repeated issues is the security paradox, which he expanded on in a public speech in October:
We live in an era where we're at an evolutionary low in violence.… State-on-state conflict is far less likely than it has been in the past. The problem is that other kinds of conflict, other kinds of violence, are exponentially more likely as technology spreads, as the information age allows organizations and individuals, middleweight nations, if you will, to have capabilities that heretofore were the purview of major nation-states. So it's a paradox … -- large conflict is less likely … but the chance of violence and those using violence for ideological and other purposes is exponentially greater.
It is worth unpacking this observation, because it presumably underpins his remarkable claim that the world is more dangerous than at any point since (at least) 1952. As Dempsey declared in April, "I believe I'm chairman at a time that seems less dangerous, but it's actually more dangerous." However, recent data about armed conflict trends to paint a very different picture and has important implications for the proper role of the U.S. military in preventing, mitigating, or responding to such violence.
The marked decline in human violence was made prominent by Harvard University professor Steven Pinker, whom Dempsey has quoted directly. In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker draws on a seemingly inexhaustible survey of research to demonstrate that "violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence." This trend applies to interpersonal violence, criminal violence, pogroms, and war. (The one form of violence that has increased substantially is self-inflicted. According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates increased almost 50 percent for men and 33 percent for women between 1950 and 2000. Framed another way, for every one person who is killed by another person, two more kill themselves -- for a total of 1 million global suicides each year.)
The drastic drop in violence seems counterintuitive given the unrelenting news coverage that promotes and sensationalizes terrorism, ethnic violence, and deadly riots around the world. As Pinker notes, "We tend to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which we can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age." The statistical evidence that Pinker summarizes, however, shows that people have never been less at risk of dying at the hands of another person than today.
Dempsey is also correct that the number of armed conflicts -- and particularly state-on-state conflict -- has trended toward a historical low after reaching a zenith in 1992. Armed conflict is defined by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program as a "contested incompatibility which concerns government and/or territory where the use of armed force between two parties, of which at least one is the government of a state, results in at least 25 battle-related deaths [per year]." In 1992, there were 53 ongoing armed conflicts around the world. By 2010, this number had fallen to 31, though it increased to 37 in 2011. Moreover, for the past 67 years, the great powers have not fought wars directly against one another, in the "longest period of major power peace in centuries," according to the Human Security Report Project.
When armed conflicts do erupt, they are far less bloody than in the past. Among all state-based armed conflicts, the number of battle deaths has fallen dramatically. After peaking at 596,086 deaths in 1950, there were 153,485 in 1975 and 92,485 in 2000. To put it another way, in the 1950s there were 65,000 deaths per conflict/per year; now there are less than 2,000.