Overview: War and Weapons

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Author: Metta Spencer

Even before our primate ancestors began to walk upright, there were wars—times when whole human communities or groups within a community tried to kill each other. Scholars have reached this conclusion partly on the basis of Jane Goodall’s discovery that our closest primate relative, the chimpanzee, engages in war,(1) and partly on the basis of archaeological evidence. One site of skeletons was found in Kenya dating back 9,500 to 10,500 years showing that a group of 27 people had been massacred together.(2) Indeed, there is strong evidence that levels of violence were higher in prehistoric times than today.(3) One example is a cemetery about 14,000 years old where about 45 percent of the skeletons showed signs of violent death.(4) An estimated 15 percent of deaths in primitive societies were caused by warfare.

But life did not consistently become friendlier as our species spread and developed. By one estimate, there were 14,500 wars between 3500 BC and the late twentieth century. These took around 3.5 billion lives.(5)

Can we conclude, then, that war is simply an intrinsic part of “human nature,” so that one cannot reasonably hope to overcome it? No, for there is more variation in the frequency and extent of warfare than can be attributed to genetic differences. In some societies, war is completely absent. Douglas Fry, checking the ethnographic records, identified 74 societies that have clearly been non-warring; some even lacked a word for “war.” The Semai of Malaysia and the Mardu of Australia are examples.(6)

We may gain insights about solutions to warfare by exploring the variations in its distribution, type, and intensity. We begin with the best news: We are probably living in the most peaceful period in human history!

Historical Changes in Rates of War

Steven Pinker is the scholar who most convincingly argues that violence has declined, both recently and over the millennia. Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, contains a graph showing the numbers of battle deaths by year from 1945 to 2015. A huge spike represents World War II, of course, for that was most lethal war in human history, causing at least 55 million deaths. How can we reconcile that ghastly number with any claim that the modern era is a peaceful epoch?

Pinker’s proof is based on distinguishing sharply between absolute numbers and rates. To be sure, 55 million is a huge number, but the Mongol Conquests killed 40 million people back in the thirteenth century, out of a world population only about one-seventh the size of the world’s 1950 population. Pinker says that if World War II had matched the Mongols’ stupendous rate of killing, about 278 million people would have been killed.

And there was an even worse war than the Mongol Conquest: the An Lushan Revolt of eighth century China, an eight-year rebellion that resulted in the loss of 36 million people — two-thirds of the empire’s population, and a sixth of the world’s population at the time. Had it matched that level of atrocity, considering the size of the world’s population in the 1940s, World War II would have killed 419 million people! Pinker calls An Lushan the worst war in human history. By his calculations, based on rates or percentages, World War II was only the ninth worst in history and World War I was the 16th worst.(7)

Moreover, Pinker shows that the two world wars were huge spikes in a graph of war deaths that has declined remarkably since 1950. There has been a slight upward bump since 2010, representing the civil war in Syria, but even that increase is minuscule in comparison to the rates of battle deaths over the preceding centuries.(8)

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Adam Wynne

Can you imagine the multi-billion or multi-trillion dollar impact should someone launch a missile(s) (does not necessarily need to be nuclear) at orbiting satellite(s)? In 1978, Donald J. Kessler theorized that kessler syndrome would become a significant issue. This is where debris in orbit collides with other items in orbit, causing a cascading chain reaction. This was a strong plot point in the 2013 movie Gravity – where a satellite that was shot down for decommissioning started a cascading chain reaction that took out communications and research satellites across the world. Orbital decay would take decades in some cases and… Read more »

Personally I find the thought of Nuclear War pretty scary and to have heard stories from survivors makes it even more real and terrifying. To think that our world could end in a heartbeat threatens to throw me into despair. Its only the kindness of some humans that gives me hope in addition to a belief in a God Creator who is taking care of us.

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Adam Wynne

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Are countries that have development projects under partnership with China’s Belt Road Initiative under China’s nuclear umbrella? This is unclear to me at present.

Adam Wynne

Attached is an interesting video that I came across on Seeker’s Youtube channel. A weapons physicist (Dr. Greg Spriggs) at Lawrence-Livermore National Laboratory began digitizing the test films from the mid-twentieth century. It turns out, the initial calculations re: the weapons’ yield were done by hand. There is concern that these calculations may be off by as much as 30%. This reminds me of how one of the US nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands misfired and the nuclear explosion was not a “clean reaction” and the byproducts that were produced had significantly longer half-lives than anticipated. This ended… Read more »

Adam Wynne

Meet Project West Ford — in the 1950s-1960s – the United States of America launched 480 million copper needles into the upper atmosphere for Cold War radio communication. Some of them are allegedly still up there, orbiting in the lower-gravity. “The same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Washington and Beatlemania was born, the United States launched half a billion whisker-thin copper wires into orbit in an attempt to install a ring around the Earth. It was called Project West Ford, and it’s a perfect, if odd, example of the Cold War paranoia and military mentality at work… Read more »

Adam Wynne

On October 21, 1961, NASA launched the first batch of West Ford dipoles into space. A day later, this first payload had failed to deploy from the spacecraft, and its ultimate fate was never completely determined. “U.S.A. Dirties Space” read a headline in the Soviet newspaper *Pravda. * **Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was forced to make a statement before the UN declaring that the U.S. would consult more closely with international scientists before attempting another launch. Many remained unsatisfied. Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle went so far as to accuse the U.S. of undertaking a military project under “a façade of respectability,”… Read more »

Adam Wynne

“But not all the needles returned to Earth. Thanks to a design flaw, it’s possible that several hundred, perhaps thousands of clusters of clumped needles still reside in orbit around Earth, along with the spacecraft that carried them.

The copper needles were embedded in a naphthalene gel designed to evaporate quickly once it reached the vacuum of space, dispersing the needles in a thin cloud. But this design allowed metal-on-metal contact, which, in a vacuum, can weld fragments into larger clumps.”

It seems like war has changed over a long period of time. Traditionally wars were fought with simple weapons such as stones, spears or anything else that could be fired like a projectile. Now the consequence of creating weapons has led us to an arms race and weapons can now be deployed that wipe out not only cities but could lay waste to continents. And rather than fight a war that kills with a flash of light are now fighting a “quiet war”; a war of information, a war of business, a war of words and sometimes it erupts into… Read more »

Richard Denton

Rotarians are Peaceniks! By Richard Denton “What are old conservative Rotarian businessmen (and now women), doing at a United Nations (UN) Preparatory talk on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)”, asked a non-Rotarian female peace person. This is still the concept that many of the public think about Rotary. Some may know us as a service group like Lions and Kiwanis, but that is about it. We need to do a much better job of branding ourselves, of getting our Rotary name out into the public through our community services such as building parks, building youth facilities and Adopting Road clean… Read more »

Howard Wells

Have Rotarians always been so wise? I think you started letting women join a few years ago. Has that changed anything about the organization’s culture?

The amount of information we have to deal with is enormous. The united states is an empire that has been starting to split down the middle, trump vs non-trump supporters. The term “fake news” is bandied around to explain how reliable news sources are becoming few and far between. Television networks are seen as dissemination vehicles of bad information in some cases. Truth and lies are more and more becoming harder to separate. It is important to know the sources of reliable information that are available and stay close to them. That is what I hope people will look for… Read more »

Having a balanced perspective of both males and females is essential for building solutions to the world’s problems. Including women in all aspects of culture is certainly making our world a more tolerant and accepting place. Intelligence and problem solving that both sexes provide is integral to any kind of improvement.

Carlos Umaña

What is “EMP”? A Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) is a short, intense pulse of a radio wave that is produced by a nuclear detonation. Its radius is much greater than the destruction caused by the heat and the blast wave of the nuclear weapon. For example, the pulse of an explosion about 100 km high would cover an area of 4 million km2. An explosion about 350 km high could, for example, cover most of North America, with a voltage of a power that is a million times greater than that of a thunderbolt. That is to say, if the… Read more »

By the way, killer robots don’t look like robots at all. They are just machines that don’t have human operators. One might look like a vacuum cleaner or a street sweeper.

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