By Andrew Mack and Sebastian Merz
One of the most enduring myths about the last hundred years of warfare is that, as John Arquilla's recent article puts it, "the deaths of noncombatants due to war has risen, steadily and very dramatically." No compelling evidence has ever been produced to affirm this assertion.
This is not surprising. There is none.
A careful review of the available data on the deadliness of 20th century conflicts by Uppsala University's Margareta Sollenberg found that there was no clear trend over time in the ratio of civilian-to-military deaths in warfare -- let alone the century-long increase from 10 percent to 90 percent that Arquilla and many others claim has occurred.
In most wars about half the fatalities are civilians. There is variation in the ratio, of course, but no evidence that civilian deaths have been inexorably increasing relative to combatant deaths over the past 100 years.
Arquilla points to the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as an example of what he and many others believe to have been rising civilian death tolls in recent wars. Ninety percent of the victims, he notes, were non-combatants. But these are not civilians killed -- intentionally or otherwise -- as a result of wartime violence. The overwhelming majority of these "indirect deaths" are individuals who are assumed to have died as a result of war-exacerbated disease and malnutrition.
Arquilla is referring here to the much-cited survey research undertaken by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which found that some 5.4 million individuals perished in Congo between 1998 and 2007. These were individuals who would not have died had there been no war.
But the IRC's findings were seriously flawed in a number of ways. Most importantly, two other surveys, the most recent by UNICEF, found that nationwide mortality rates in the DRC were approximately half those reported in the IRC's surveys.
Moreover, both the UNICEF survey and the earlier survey by the "gold standard" DHS organization show a slow decline in mortality rates prior to and throughout the war. The IRC shows a huge increase in mortality after the war starts in 1998.
If the IRC is right, then the findings of two of the world's major survey organizations must both be wrong.
This isn't the only problem with Arquilla's use of the Congo death toll to help make his case. Reported death tolls in the other "big kill" wars of the last 60 years don't normally include "indirect" deaths caused by war-exacerbated disease and malnutrition. If they did, the toll for the Korean War would likely be some 5-6 million greater than the estimates of direct combat-related deaths -- usually estimated at between 1.5 and 2 million.
Critics may seize on such figures to argue that they demonstrate that war is deadlier than "optimists" like Steven Pinker and the Human Security Report Project suggest. They would be wrong to do so. While it is true that the best estimates of battle deaths from armed conflict tend to be conservative, the critical issue here is not absolute numbers, but trends -- whether or not wars are becoming more or less deadly.
While no one doubts that "indirect" war death tolls can exceed those of violent battle-related deaths -- sometimes substantially -- the evidence suggests that, over recent decades, "indirect" death tolls have likely declined to an even greater degree than violent deaths related to combat.
First, today's wars are not only much less deadly in terms of battle-related deaths, they also tend to be highly localized, with less than 20 percent of the national territory on average being directly affected by repeated fighting.
Second, peacetime health interventions -- notably the immunization programs that have covered greater and greater percentages of national populations over the past three decades -- save lives in wartime.
Third, since the end of the Cold War there has been a huge increase in funding for humanitarian assistance to war-affected countries.
In both the latter cases, countless thousands of individuals have survived who would likely have died in previous decades, when there were far fewer health interventions and much less humanitarian assistance.
During the past two decades, international efforts to prevent wars and stop those that couldn't be prevented have increased dramatically. If wars are increasing in number and deadliness as Arquilla argues, these efforts will have been -- at best -- futile.
This is why getting it right about war trends matters.
The evidence as we read it clearly indicates that major wars are becoming less deadly and less frequent. And this -- and other evidence -- suggests that the large upsurge in peacekeeping and peace-building policies since the end of the Cold War are having an important -- and positive -- impact.
Andrew Mack is director and Sebastian Merz is associate director of the Human Security Report Project at the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.