Writing their Lessons of History in the tumultuous year 1968, Will and Ariel Durant observed that in "the last 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war." The 44 years since they made this observation have added not a single year of peace to that meager total. Yet a number of remarkably hopeful studies published recently suggest war is on the wane. The Human Security Report arrived at this conclusion, which former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan affirmed in its foreword as offering proof that "[t]he world has become much less insecure over the past 20 years." At Harvard, psychology professor Steven Pinker has taken a very long view, finding that our era is far less brutal than ancient, medieval, or even early modern times.
The Human Security Report bases its conclusion on some key trends. First, the number of ongoing conflicts in a given year in which more than 1,000 people die in battle has declined, if a bit choppily, from 25 in the mid-80s to five in 2006. (In 2012, the total I see is back up to about 10.) In addition to this, the number of battle deaths per year, worldwide, has dropped since the end of World War II -- with just a few spikes largely explained by the Korean War (1950-1953), Vietnam from the mid-‘60's to mid-‘70s, and the strife in the Balkans and among former-Soviet republics in the ‘90s. In his Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker goes a little further, noting that over the past 70-plus years the number of battle deaths per 100,000 people has fallen dramatically -- with no spikes, just a couple of "blips."
The problem with the conclusions reached in these studies is their reliance on "battle death" statistics. The pattern of the past century -- one recurring in history -- is that the deaths of noncombatants due to war has risen, steadily and very dramatically. In World War I, perhaps only 10 percent of the 10 million-plus who died were civilians. The number of noncombatant deaths jumped to as much as 50 percent of the 50 million-plus lives lost in World War II, and the sad toll has kept on rising ever since. Perhaps the worst, but hardly the only, terrible example of this trend can be seen in the Congo war -- flaring up again right now -- in which over 90 percent of the several million dead were noncombatants. As to Pinker's battle-death ratios, they are somewhat skewed by the fact that overall populations have exploded since 1940; so even a very deadly war can be masked by a "per 100,000 of population" stat.
There are better ways to parse the problem of war's prevalence and its patterns over time. One approach would be simply to look at the number of armed conflicts under way at any given time. The Human Security Report actually does this for the period 1946-2008, its compelling graphic showing a steady rise to over 50 wars per year in the early 1990s. The rest of that decade saw a drop of about 40 percent -- to a great extent driven by the winding down of the Balkan and post-Soviet wars -- and then a rising pattern once again post-9/11. Yes, the number of wars is down by over a third since the peak 20 years ago, but ongoing conflicts today are still more than double the totals seen in the years from the end of World War II until the mid-1950s, and are equal to the numbers of wars ongoing during the Vietnam era. It is hard to describe this as a world in which war is on the wane.