The Long Peace

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Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapter 5

(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)

Chapter 5: The Long Peace

“War appears to be as old as mankind, but peace is a recent invention.” ~ Henry Maine

Name five 20th century wars as quickly as you can. Go! … Pretty easy, right? Now, name five 17th century wars as quickly as you can. Go! …(crickets)… Why is that so hard? Don’t you know that the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War, which took approximately seven million European lives? Well, don’t feel too bad. A lot of people don’t. Nor have they heard of Russia’s “Time of Troubles” in the early 17th century, which took another five million, or the Fall of the Ming Dynasty (also 17th), a conflict whose death toll ranks around twenty-five million. You’re getting the picture.

To take some random examples, the Dano-Swedish War (1516–25), the Schmalkaldic War (1546–47), the Franco-Savoian War (1600–1601), the Turkish-Polish War (1673–76), the War of Julich Succession (1609–10), and the Austria-Sardinia War (1848–49) elicit blank stares from most educated people. (p 341)

This is all indicative of a phenomenon called “historical myopia,” and professionals are as guilty as laypeople. Recent events weigh on people’s worldview more heavily than events of the distant past. The result in this context is that people almost universally believe that we live in the most deadly, violent time in all of human history. This is simply, factually not the case. You may know that World War II claimed more lives than any single war in world history, fifty-five million. But you also know there were many more people alive in the 1940s than at any previous time. As a proportion of world population, World War II ranks ninth in deadliness among the major conflicts in human history. What takes first?

The worst atrocity of all time was the An Lushan Revolt and Civil War, an eight-year rebellion during China’s Tang Dynasty that, according to censuses, resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the empire’s population, a sixth of the world’s population at the time. (p 294)

Don’t worry. I hadn’t heard of it either. Thirty-six million 8th century people perished. For comparison, had that conflict taken place in 1940, when the world population was far higher, the equivalent death toll would have been four hundred twenty-nine million. The point is, our intuitive narratives of history are based on our perceptions, and our perceptions are skewed myopically toward the present. When we adjust for this skew and create a narrative of history based on actual data, a new trend comes to light: The frequency, duration, and deadliness of wars, world wide, has been in steady decline from the ancient to the modern world. This trend is visible whether you count the casualties individually or as a proportion of the population. To rephrase, your chances of dying at the hands of another human being, whether on the battlefield or otherwise, as opposed to a natural death, are lower than at any time in human history.

So again, why has war declined? Nobody knows for sure, and again, it’s probably a complex combination of technology, the capacity for empathy, globalism, democracy, medical science, and humanism. If you ask a typical person today “Why did World War III never happen?”, you’ll generally hear that weapons have become so advanced (nukes, drones, biological) that a large-scale war would be too damaging to justify any standard war motive. While that may be partly true, the trend toward peace has been in the works a very long time. In fact, the “weapons too deadly” argument (besides being slightly oxymoronic) fails in application. Most historians attribute the high casualties of the American Civil War to advances in riflery, so proving nations war on in spite of higher casualties. Also, World War I was iconic for its extensive and horrifying use of poison gas, so reviling leaders that World War II was fought entirely (on the battlefield anyway) without it. So, nations do go to war while leaving their deadliest toys at home.

Which brings us to the big one: nukes. No country has used nuclear weapons in war since 1945. You may invoke deterrence and Mutually Assured Destruction, but for the first few years of their development, there weren’t enough in existence for MAD to work. While the world nuke counter ticks ever upward, the length of time the world has gone without using them ticks upward as well. So much that small countries have given up their nuclear programs while bigger ones have started dismantling their stock piles. While “fear of fallout” can’t be completely discounted, the fact of the matter is that war as an institution is fizzling out. It is increasingly unpopular, decreasingly deadly, and marginalized to the poorest and least stable nations in the world. When phrased another way,

If one were to calculate the amount of destruction that nations have actually perpetrated as a proportion of how much they could perpetrate, given the destructive capacity available to them, the postwar decades would be many orders of magnitudes more peaceable than any time in history. (p 368)

Historians call the period from 1945 to present “The Long Peace.” That phrase is not intended to be disrespectful to the millions who died in the Korean War, Vietnam, Kosovo, Iraq or Afghanistan. It is meant to signify that the world powers have transitioned from constantly feuding neighbors to international peacekeepers, and that interstate war has changed from an institution “needed as a cleansing and invigorating therapy for the effeminacy and materialism of bourgeois society” to an increasingly unnecessary evil.

Again, history is not driven by physics equations, and no trend is guaranteed to continue, so the most important lesson here is not that we can breathe easy and ignore the sufferings and threats in the world today. The lesson is that as a species, we are doing something right, and it is important to identify those somethings (multi-country coalitions, democratic self-government, aversion to torture, women’s rights, etc), so that we can keep doing them.

If all of this sounds intriguing, even counter-intuitive, watch Pinker’s TED Talk for a wonderful summary of the book.

Victor A. Davis has always loved reading and writing short stories. He is an avid hiker and even when away from the world of laptops and wifi, keeps a pocket paperback and a handwritten journal to keep him company on trail. He is the author of two short story collections, Grains of Sand and The Gingerbread Collection. Join his Mailing List for special announcements about upcoming works.