It would be frighteningly easy to have much larger wars than any we have ever seen in history

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

In Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age Ohio State University professor of political science Bear Braumoeller argues that war is not declining:

Braumoeller used the Correlates of War data set, which scholars from around the world study to measure uses of force up to and including war.

What he found with the statistical analyses was that any decline in the deadliness of war that we think we see in the data is within the normal range of variation — in other words, our period of relative peace right now could easily be occurring simply by chance.


Once an armed conflict has had more than 1,000 battle deaths (the criteria for being included in the Correlates of War database), there’s about a 50 percent chance it will be as devastating to combatants as the 1990 Iraq War, which killed 20,000 to 35,000 fighters.

There’s a 2 percent chance — about the probability of drawing three of a kind in a five-card poker game — that such a war could end up being as devastating to combatants as World War I. And there’s about a 1 percent chance that its intensity would surpass that of any international war fought in the last two centuries.

“This is pretty bleak. Not only has war not disappeared, but it would be frighteningly easy to have much larger wars than any we have ever seen in history,” Braumoeller said.


  1. Graham says:

    Not to be too blase, but one also needs to consider that phrase “to combatants”.

    I appreciate that we need to consider the implications of such wars in which our countries might become involved, but when historians and social scientists raise these matters they are also considering the analytical, detached, global perspective, and sometimes elide the two.

    World War One was devastating but survivable for the major combatants, with large but highly variable human losses when considering the Central Powers, the original Entente trio, Italy and the US, and with only a few countries suffering significant physical damage to their homelands, but massive economic and social disruption. Vast regions of the world were minimally to unaffected. China was starting to tear itself apart for their own stuff.

    World War Two was fought on a larger scale and caused far worse physical and human destruction in core theatres, in Europe and Asia. Economic disruption was worse. Still, human losses still varied a lot depending on which combatant country one was in, and several combatants had little to no substantive damage to their homelands. Some neutral countries close to core theatres had to tread some narrow wires but also evaded harm. Large regions of the world were, again, minimally to unaffected.

    The Cold War nuclear balance changed all that.

    I suppose my point is threefold-

    Yes, it is possible to wildly exceed the harm done by any war in history- the Cold War gave us the tools and the mental framework for understanding that. It isn’t revelatory. We still need to guard against WMD usage, and now we need to consider their use by more countries, so that part is new albeit around a little while.

    Yes, it is also likely that a conventional war will be more devastating for combatants, and costly for their countries, than ever before. Not necessarily in sheer numbers of men lost, but of those engaged at the start yes, and in the cost of expensive armaments whose timely resupply would be impossible. The Cold War by the 80s already seemed to assume that would be the case. Even public writings like Hackett and Macksey laid out that case for public audiences.

    But, absent going nuclear, not every war even now necessarily will have that much effect on non-combatant countries or regions. So decide carefully which ones you want or need to get involved in.

    Then again, perhaps it’s just me. If the war doesn’t involve my country, I’m usually not that troubled. This seems to be a shocking position to more people than I’d like. Also, if my country is involved in a war that looks like the 1990 Gulf War and the casualties are lopsided against the other side, I will mourn those of my side who died and not be overly troubled about the rest. That assertion would really wake up some of my colleagues, and not in a supportive way.

    Maybe it’s also that I have a distorted sense of numbers, but 1-2% odds never strikes me as that bad.

  2. Kirk says:

    Every time I read these desperately hand-wringing affairs where the author is certain, certain that we are dooomy-doom doomed…? I’m reminded of how often they’ve been wrong before.

    Controversy and the end times sell books. Period. It’s an artifact of our noosphere, such as it is. Meanwhile, the really “off” things that are going on, they get ignored. The rise of the Zuckerborg, where a software/social phenomenon is basically eating a bunch of our public infospace up? Ignored. We hear incessant rants about global warming, but little or nothing about the drop in insect populations, which I’m starting to look at and wonder. My Mom’s in her 80′s, and we were just talking about things that are different now than they were “then”. One of the things that she said struck me, and I started thinking about it: She’s absolutely right–We used to have to deal with massive amounts of dead bugs on the cars in summertime around here. They’d be plastered all over the front of the cars, and you’d have to go down to the car wash periodically to get rid of them. They’d be on the windshield such that you had to do the windshield nearly every time you got gas, and you ran through damn near as much windshield washer fluid getting them off in the summer as you did ice in the winter… Now? I can’t remember the last time I cleaned a windshield or a car grille because of insect spatter. Little to no mention of that, in the news. So… What happened? Why is nobody talking about this? Why isn’t it mentioned as a bit of a “crisis”?

    The noosphere is corrupted, and not doing the things it should, in terms of drawing attention to the issues that are really important. That, perhaps, is the real “hidden crisis” we have going on.

  3. Kirk says:

    And, on the specific subject of “War”.

    Let us stop and think carefully, here: What are the historic precedents, exactly?

    Yes, we had eras, lasting for lengthy periods of time, where wars were immensely destructive and horrible. We’ve also had eras where they were low-level annoyances, like during the European era of “Cabinet Wars”, where the participants barely impinged on the lives of the people on either side.

    Which is the norm? Is there even a “norm” to be observed, here? A natural state, the default?

    I’d submit not. Conflict between humans is nearly inevitable, but the forms it takes are not. The current reality is that there are immensely destructive WMD, like nuclear weapons, chemicals, biologic agents, and all the lovely, lovely rest.

    WMD put quite a different face on things. The Soviet Union? If you had asked me, in 1985, what the Soviets would do when the inevitable contradictions in their system finally caught up with them, my bet would have been on a final throw of the dice, and an apocalyptic war, rather than they gave up power. Instead? It’s like the will to make war as a solution vanished under the over-arcing umbrella of apocalypse through nuclear annihilation. A sort of sanity prevailed.

    It’s almost as if war were some sort of diabolic game we play… And, if the stakes are too great, we opt out of the game, the players not wanting to bet the mortgage on victory or loss.

    The question of what happens when an apocalyptic sect like the Iranian Twelvers get their hands on the actual button hasn’t really arisen yet, but we’ll likely see. It’s possible that sanity will prevail, its possible it won’t. I’m actually sort of surprised that it’s been nearly a generation since the Pakistanis and Indians went nuclear, and we’ve only got a couple of nasty border incidents out of either one of them. That theater is my number-one pick for a nuclear war getting started, and it still is.

  4. Graham says:

    I’m not always [or often] a huge fan of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or at least I recognize it as a stupendous and genre-defining work of historical writing without accepting all his arguments, but he has a passage in book 1 about how the age of the five good emperors from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius were the most prosperous, peaceful, and happy times in human history, at least in the West.

    I think he was discounting some improvements in things like farming capability that were coming online in his own century, the benefits of trade in larger ships, and so on. But given how limited were the signs of the boom that was soon to come, and how comparatively static the conditions of human life until that time, and allowing that the cabinet wars of the 18c still had some costs, I can almost see his point. That long second century AD was Rome’s golden early afternoon, with almost no internal war and even limited external war on its fringes, and without major plagues or massive monetary inflation, a for-Rome weird era of political stability, before all the cool stuff that happened in the 3rd century.

    OK, we have to allow that the international system and sphere of discussion is global now, not regional/civilizational, but I think the comparison could be made to some era of China or India too.

    We haven’t had system-wide more or less peace for as long yet as they did. Not even close. Maybe we are still building up to our imperial peace. Maybe this was it and its ending. Maybe technology will make this model/comparison obsolete.

    Still, when I read the Pinker thesis I’m torn. On one hand, the long view suggests we aren’t breaking records yet. On the other, I’m actually troubled that the instinct for violence gets too weak, since it might yet be linked to other ambitions and positive qualities, and at any rate is not declining evenly.

    And yes, India/Pakistan is my pick too.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    The evident decline in insect population would be a hard thing to gin up a moral panic over. Rachel Carson put her emphasis on the birds. Birds are a bit more likable.

    War. Everybody hates it, as Malaclypse the Younger pointed out.

  6. Felix says:

    I’ve written no-bugs off to the sleekness of modern cars. As, like, the *back* window of my current jalopy is magical. It never needs cleaning despite seeing a lot of dirt roads. MPG in the high 30′s.

  7. Kirk says:

    Yah… Maybe. I don’t see the insect remains on the front of any of the cars I see around that were also on the road, back then. Made a point of checking the old flat-front farm trucks during what was the usual insect season, and they’ve got nowhere near the accumulation I’m remembering. Talked to a couple of other folks, and they say the same thing. One guy said it’s better insecticides in the orchards around here, but… I dunno. It’s not like we used to take a census of the insect populations. There also a lot fewer birds around than I remember.

    I may be wrong, but I feel that this is a significant issue, one that may be sneaking up on us all.

  8. Graham says:

    I don’t find there to be no coverage of these issues, exactly- bird populations have come back into focus again recently with some coverage of an apparent decline, though I haven’t looked to see how much, where, and what types. Some species fluctuate wildly- crows seem to have a cycle, some are thriving where I live [geese, gulls, prolific this year; turkey vultures and turkeys have taken up residence on the building in which I work]. songbirds, though, seem to be declining. Even in Ottawa, it seemed as though there were fewer of all types this year, though I’m depending more on audio than visual for that, and I might have been paying less attention too. We’ll see.

    Bees, of course, get tons of attention.

    I believe I have seen some discussion of decline in other useful insects, like ants.

    Usually it’s presented as a subset of climate change, but there are specialists focusing on them.

    I agree, though, even if its getting attention it’s not getting huge media play, even the bees only come up now and then.

    If science could tell me mosquitos are useless, I’d vote to exterminate them at least. But they are probably food for something, the bastards.

  9. CVLR says:

    Occam’s razor: if for seventy years every insect that hangs out five feet over a road dies….

  10. Kirk says:

    I can’t remember if it was Heinlein, or some other classic science fiction author, but I’m remembering a line in one of their books to the effect that you only go screwing around with an environment if you’ve got a very powerful computer, an accurate model for how everything works, and even then, exercise a lot of caution.

    I don’t think we have a real clue as to how things work. As in, really work–I have a nasty suspicion, based on my reading, that the various and sundry interdependencies we’ve managed to trace out are only the tip of the icebergs.

    Case in point–Look at the difference up in Yellowstone between today, and when we didn’t have wolves managing the herds for us. What does that say about “unexpected consequences”? Wipe out the mosquito, starve the bats, destroy another part of the ecosystem we didn’t even thing connected to it all.

    One of the things I’d like to know is what the hell happened to all the guano deposited by the dinosaurs over the course of their existence…? There had to be massive, massive deposits, somewhere, no? So… What the hell happened to all of that? Where’d it go? We find coprolites all the time, but nothing resembling guano that I’ve been able to trace out in the literature. Sure seems like there should have been absolutely massive deposits of it, but… Where did it go? Hell, I can’t even find where the paleontologists have really discussed things beyond the idea of isolated coprolites…

  11. Graham says:


    You never know. Some of the higher order lifeforms seem to have figured out the human environment to a sufficient degree to survive and thrive.

    How they understand or interpret it and with which senses eludes me, but crows and geese seem about as clever handling road traffic as small children, and better than some small furry mammals. I’ve seen geese move en masse across a 6 lane road, at a traffic signal, and waiting until it is green for them. I don’t know what was actually happening or what drove their behaviour, but it sure looked like they had mastered traffic lights. The stragglers even sped up at the end.

    I am sure it would be something to do with sound and vibration, but it was still impressive.

  12. Kirk says:

    I think there’s a definite thing going on, where humans are dragging the rest of the animal kingdom along to greater and greater heights of cognitive function. Not to mention, sheer manipulative skill.

    Dogs are a really good example. I think there’s a case to be made that its entirely possible that instead of us domesticating the dog, that humanity was domesticated by the dog. You stop and think about it, and you have to wonder: Which way did that go, there at the beginning? Why didn’t Neanderthal Man have domesticated dogs or other things…? From what I’ve been able to glean, they’ve never, ever found Neanderthal remains in association with dogs, and there’s little evidence that they practiced anything like farming, in terms of what we know early modern man did. I’ve seen one paper that said that the two most noticeable things to look for, when trying to determine whether or not you were dealing with early modern humans or Neanderthal, was whether there were dogs, or any signs of deliberate alcohol being fermented.

    Dogs and beer, people: The founding fathers of human civilization.

    And, I’ll lay you long odds it happened because the nascent dogs, being playful wolves, wanted someone to throw stuff for them. Some early human probably threw a stick or a pinecone at a wolf that was hanging around the camp, a light went on in the wolf’s head, and Hey! Presto!, the wolf took it back.

    Either that, or the early games included trying to lure the smaller humans out by dropping the damn throwy-thing further and further away… Could be it grew out of predator behavior, and not play. Dunno. Haven’t made my mind up–The Border Collie I have flatly refuses to bring me her throw-things, always dropping them just out of reach. I’ve often wondered just what the hell the point of that is, and it occurs to me that this might be “lure lumbering idiot into ambush” rather than “play”. Hard to say…

  13. Harry Jones says:

    Mankind is the environment to which other life forms adapt. To those we domesticate, we are as gods. To those we hunt, we are as devils. At any rate, man is demiurge.

  14. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    One of El Chapo’s sons seized the entire city center of Culiacán to compel the liberation of his brother. Do you ever get the feeling that we’re living in “Papers, Please” but El Chapo’s sons are living in a first-person shooter?

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