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.