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The Big Kill

Sorry, Steven Pinker, the world isn't getting less violent.

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.

The argument that the world has become more peaceful is even harder to sustain if one focuses on the patterns of the most destructive wars of the past few centuries. In my own work, I chose to search for what I call "big-kill" wars, during which a million or more die -- soldiers and civilians. From 1800-1850, only the Napoleonic Wars surpassed the million-death mark. In the latter half of the 19th century, there were two such wars: the Taiping Rebellion, during which 20 million or more Chinese died; and the Lopez War between Paraguay and its neighbors. The latter conflict resulted in "only" a million deaths, but Paraguay lost roughly 80 percent of military-age males during this war, which had a shattering societal effect.

Between 1900 and 1950, the number of big-kill wars doubled, if one is willing to accept the view of some that the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) reached a million deaths. About the two world wars there is no doubt. The same is true of the civil war in China that ultimately brought Mao Zedong to power. And if one wants to consider the forced collectivization of farms that Stalin pursued as a form of internal war -- which also saw the deaths of millions -- then the total for this period would rise to five.

The troubling rise in big-kill wars in the first half of the 20th century was followed by an even more disturbing pattern in the second half: they doubled once again. There was nothing of the magnitude of World War II in sheer numbers of dead, but the million-mark in war deaths was steadily surmounted, mostly in societies in which such losses had staggering effects.

Six of these wars occurred in Africa. In rough chronological order they took place in Biafra, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Congo. Some debate whether the Rwandan genocide reached a million or fell slightly below, and the Human Security Project asserts that the International Red Cross's estimate that five million people have died in the Congo war (an estimate echoed by many other reporting agencies) is a bit high -- but both wars clearly fit the "big-kill" category in terms of percentages of the populations that have died from these wars and their societal effects. Besides, the more common historical pattern in the statistics of deadly quarrels has been to under-report deaths, so Rwanda and Congo should be kept in the count.

The other four big-kill wars occurred in Asia: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Afghanistan -- the last just counting the Russian war there (1979-1989), not the civil strife of the ‘90s and the American intervention over the past decade. All four easily surpassed the million-mark in war deaths. There is debate about whether the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s reached this level -- though there is little doubt about the profound effect of the conflict on both countries. 

The rising number of the deadliest conflicts over the past two centuries belies both the conclusions of the Human Security Report and those of Professor Pinker. However, since 2000 there has been only one big-kill war: the one in Congo, which now has the dubious distinction of suffering seven-figure war deaths both before and just after the turn the century. But I don't see much prospect for yet another doubling of big-kill wars during the first half of this century. The most likely scenario for a war causing massive loss of life would be a second Korean war. Does the dearth of new million-death conflicts mean that war has finally begun to wane?

I don't think so. For there is another alarming trend that has been getting under way alongside the big-kill wars: the rise of smaller conflicts that nevertheless cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The Balkan wars of the 1990s fit this pattern. As does the Chechen resistance to Russia, both before and since the millennium. The civil war in Burundi (1993-2005) and Somalia (ongoing) fit this bill as well. The same goes for the strife in Darfur, and Syria is on the edge of entering this category as well. Most of the conflicts that fall into this category will occur in failed or failing states -- see this magazine's Failed States Index as a guide to where the next disaster may occur. The "red zones" of critical concern are massive.

No, war is not on the wane. The second horseman of the Apocalypse remains with us. Indeed, it seems he may even have found a fresh mount. 

ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Killer Swarms

It wasn't the Russian winter that stopped Napoleon.

Today marks the bicentennial of the culminating catastrophe that befell the Grande Armée as it retreated from Russia. This past weekend one of the French Emperor's descendants, Charles Napoleon, traveled to Minsk in Belarus to attend ceremonies commemorating the disaster at the nearby Beresina River crossing, where thousands died -- many by drowning -- in a final, panicked rout in freezing weather. Bonaparte had marched deep into Russia with nearly half a million soldiers; he returned with less than 25,000.

Given that Napoleon was the great captain of his time -- perhaps of all time -- and that his armies had conquered and held most of Europe, the tragic events on the Beresina demand explanation. His defeat is something of a puzzle, too, as the Grande Armée won the campaign's pitched battles fought at Smolensk and Borodino. Harsh winter weather, the commonly assumed culprit, cannot explain the result either; the first frost didn't arrive to bedevil the retreat until just a few weeks before the Beresina crossing.

The answer to the puzzle is that Napoleon and his forces were beaten by what a young Russian hussar, Denis Davydov, called his "indestructible swarm" of Cossacks and other raiders who constantly harried the French columns on the march. They also struck relentlessly, repeatedly, and to fatal effect at the Grande Armée's supply lines. As David Chandler, an eminent historian of Napoleon's campaigns, put it: "raids of Cossacks and partisan bands did more harm to the Emperor than all the endeavors of the regular field armies of Holy Russia."

Davydov, who probably inspired Tolstoy's character "Denisov" in War and Peace, had lobbied his superiors hard for the creation of a small force of behind-the-lines raiders. General Pyotr Bagration, not long before his death in battle at Borodino, gave Davydov permission to launch his swarm -- though he detached only a single troop of riders to accompany him. This was all that Davydov needed, though, as he picked up Cossacks, freed Russian soldiers taken prisoner, and recruited willing peasants along the way. Soon the French knew no rest. In Davydov's own words, they "had no choice but to retreat, preceded and surrounded by partisans."

The Beresina bicentennial provides us a moment to contemplate one of history's greatest military debacles from an alternative point of view: as an outcome driven not by the clash of hundreds of thousands of troops massed tightly on some constricted battlefield, but rather as the result of constant pinprick attacks from all directions, mounted by a relative handful of irregulars. Who acted like a swarm of bees.

Davydov's concept of operations portended an entirely different approach to military affairs, one that would grow ever more valuable with the advance of technology. The Russian partisans of 1812 attacked French wagon convoys. Fifty years later, in the Civil War, Confederate raiders disrupted rail lines, imposing near-fatal delays on the advance of Federal forces. In World War I, T.E. Lawrence and his Arab irregulars swarmed the 800-mile-long rail line from Damascus to Medina, contributing mightily to the eventual Turkish collapse. At sea in World War II, U-boat wolf packs swarmed Allied convoys, nearly winning the war for Hitler.

Throughout the Cold War, and on into the post-9/11 era, the swarm -- simultaneous attack from several directions -- has been the favored fighting method of insurgents and terrorists. The Viet Cong swarmed helicopter landing zones and American foot patrols in Vietnam. Hezbollah did the same to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in southern Lebanon during the long war to evict the IDF -- and then did so again during the 2006 conflict there. The Free Syrian Army today regularly strikes many places at once, too, giving the Assad regime's military a problem it cannot solve. Iranian naval strategy embraces swarming as well, the idea being to attack the relatively few, large vessels of the 5th Fleet from all directions with hundreds of small, explosive-laden boats. Even in cyberspace one sees swarms in the form of the millions of hits to single sites, coming from all over the world, that often characterize debilitating "distributed denial-of-service" attacks. If al Qaeda were ever to develop a capacity for sustained swarming in the United States, rather than just mounting rare, one-off attacks, the consequences would be truly dire.

Swarms matter, and have done much to shape the world. As my colleague David Ronfeldt and I have noted in our RAND study of swarms, the phenomenon began long ago. The Mongols were particularly adept at this way of war, following a doctrine they actually named "Crow Swarm." Edward Luttwak, in his masterful The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, observed that the success of the Byzantines in protecting the edges of empire for nearly a thousand years after the fall of Rome had much to do with their employment of defensive swarm tactics. But Davydov, in a brief campaign launched only after he overcame bureaucratic resistance, helped defeat one of history's greatest adventurer-conquerors, giving us perhaps the single most dramatic example of swarming ever seen.

Clearly, the insurgents, terrorists, and other irregulars -- including "black hat" hackers -- who cause most of the world's mischief today are highly attuned to swarm tactics. In addition to being the bicentennial of Bonaparte's disaster on the Beresina, today also marks the fourth anniversary of the small terrorist swarm -- composed of five two-man teams -- that hit Mumbai simultaneously at several different spots and held the city hostage for three days. Nearly 200 were killed, and hundreds more were wounded, as it took days for Indian counter-terrorist forces to mass and move into place to deal with them. Even small swarms are deadly.

Those who must contend with swarms will fail if they rely simply on the heavy hitting of massed forces. Swarms easily slip such punches, and hit back in stinging ways. No, the answer must be to learn to "swarm the swarmers." The Sri Lankan Navy did this against the Tamil Sea Tigers a few years ago, by shifting to a fleet of light, swift vessels that proved even nimbler than those of their enemy. The Sri Lankans quickly proved adept at attacking the Sea Tigers from many directions. And in Gaza, where Hamas leaders think they deterred the Israelis from mounting a ground invasion, the IDF was absolutely ready to move in from several directions simultaneously, reflecting both a refinement of the swarm tactics used the last time they raided Gaza some years ago and the lessons they have learned from Hezbollah.

Denis Davydov's official report on his operations during the war against Napoleon concluded that his "indestructible swarm" was likely to change the face of war. In fits and starts over the past two centuries, it has begun to do just that. But now the period of fitful progress is over; take warning of the coming swarms that threaten to sweep all before them.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images