Overview: War and Weapons

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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  1. Tony Gerber, “How Jane Goodall Changed What We Know About Chimps,” National Geographic, October 2017  (back)
  2. Brian Handwerk, “An Ancient, Brutal Massacre May Be Earliest Evidence of War,” Smithsonian.com, Jan. 20, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/ancient-brutal-massacre-may-be-earliest-evidence-war-180957884/  (back)
  3. Max Roser, “Ethnographic and Archaeological Evidence on Violent Deaths”; “Our World, in Data”  (back)
  4. Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, p. 37.  (back)
  5. Conway W. Henderson (9 February 2010). Understanding International Law. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 212–. ISBN 978-1-4051-9764-9. Retrieved 12 Feb. 2019  (back)
  6. Douglas Fry, “Worlds Without War,” Greater Good Magazine, March 31, 2008; retrieved Feb. 12, 2019.  (back)
  7. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature, p. 194, cites Matthew White, The. Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The 100 Worst Things People Have Done To Each Other. (New York: Norton, 2011  (back)
  8. Pinker, Enlightenment Now, p. 157. (Get the graph he shows there.  (back)
  9. Pinker, loc 286 in Kindle version of The Better Angels of Our Nature. He attributes this theory to the sociologist Norbert Elias.  (back)
  10. Steven Pinker, loc 280-301. In Kindle version of The Better Angels of Our Nature.  (back)
  11. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Loren W Christensen, Evolution of Weaponry, loc 241 in Kinde edition.  (back)
  12. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Little, Brown , 1996). Grossman cites F. A Lord on the Gettysburg evidence.  (back)
  13. Dave Grossman and Kristine Paulsen, Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing. (Kindle edition, 2016).  (back)
  14. Grossman, ibid.  (back)
  15. National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/series/465454102/missed-treatment  (back)
  16. New Oxford English Dictionary  (back)
  17. Constance I. Smith, “Hegel on War,” Journal of the History of Ideas. 25(2), Ap-June 1965), pp 282-85.  (back)
  18. William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” a speech given at Stanford University in 1906.  (back)
  19. Matthew A. Sears, Understanding Greek Warfare (New York: Routledge, 2019), p. 45. Sears calls the hoplite soldiers “the first citizens” because they fought as free men for their own homes, not as conscripts.  (back)
  20. Sears, p. 17.  (back)
  21. Tonio Andrade, The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History, Princeton University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-691-13597-7  (back)
  22. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concluded Sarin was used as a weapon in the south of rebel-held Latamina on 24 March 2017, and chlorine at its hospital the next day. The OPCW was not authorized to attribute responsibility for such attacks, so a debate ensued in the press.  (back)
  23. Howard B. Gill, Jr. “Colonial Germ Warfare,” The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. https://www.history.org/foundation/journal/spring04/warfare.cfm retrieved Feb. 16, 2019.  (back)
  24. “The Spanish Flu,” https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/1918-flu-pandemic  (back)
  25. Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, Third edition. (London: Polity, 2013).  (back)
  26. Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation.” See Max Weber, Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, translated and edited by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters. New York: Palgrave Books, 2015, pp. 129-198.  (back)
  27. Max Roser and Mohamed Nagdy, “Nuclear Weapons,” Our World in Data, https://ourworldindata.org/nuclear-weapons  (back)
  28. Egon Bahr, in a telephone interview with Metta Spencer, 1994. For the whole transcript see: http://russianpeaceanddemocracy.com/egon-bahr-1994  (back)
  29. Bahr interview.  (back)
  30. Arms Control Association, “Who Has What at a Glance?” https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat Retrieved Feb. 12, 2019.  (back)
  31. Theodore A. Postol, “Russia May Have Violated the INF Treaty. Here’s How the United States Appears to Have Done the same,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Feb. 14, 2019, https://thebulletin.org/2019/02/russia-may-have-violated-the-inf-treaty-heres-how-the-united-states-appears-to-have-done-the-same/ . See also a video discussion with Postol, https://youtu.be/97WgR73QLLg  (back)
  32. United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs, “Treaty Overview: Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/tpnw/  (back)
  33. Lara Seligman, “No the Pentagon is Not Working on Killer Robots — Yet,” Foreign Policy, Feb. 13, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/02/13/no-the-pentagon-is-not-working-on-killer-robots-yet/ Retrieved Feb 16, 2019.  (back)
  34. Rhys Blakey, “It’s Time to Terminate Killer Robots, World Leaders are Told,” The Sunday Times (UK) Feb. 14, 2019. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/it-s-time-to-terminate-killer-robots-world-leaders-are-told-lqqqbswrn?fbclid=IwAR11rzGFJSy9O7EglJXvdr0J3NxuedZl2pBho_3379UQP7blDidONHONU8M  (back)
  35. Paul Meyer, “Give Cyber Peace a Chance,” Peace Magazine, Jan=Mar. 2017, p. 20. http://peacemagazine.org/archive/v33n1p20.htm  (back)
  36. Sam Perlo-Freeman, “The Opportunity Cost of World Military Spending,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 5 April 2016. https://www.sipri.org/commentary/blog/2016/opportunity-cost-world-military-spending Retrieved Feb 21, 2-19.  (back)
  37. Ronan Farrow and Rich McHugh. “America’s Chernobyl: Inside the Most Toxic Place in the Nation.” CBS News video: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/welcome-most-toxic-place-america-n689141 retrieved Feb 21, 2019.  (back)
  38. Samuel Oakford, “The United States Used Depleted Uranium in Syria,” Foreign Policy, Feb. 14, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5340465/Concrete-dome-holding-radioactive-waste-LEAKING.html Retrieved Feb, 21, 2019.  (back)
  39. Michael Havis, “Radioactive waste from 43 nuclear explosions is LEAKING into the Pacific because a reinforced concrete dome built by the US military on an island to store it is disappearing under the sea,” Daily Mail.com, Feb 1, 2018. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5340465/Concrete-dome-holding-radioactive-waste-LEAKING.html Retrieved Feb. 21, 2019.  (back)

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16 thoughts on “Overview: War and Weapons

  1. 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.

    1. Polls show that most of the world’s population opposes killer robots. We need to stop them now.

      1. 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.

  2. Shared by
    Symon Hill (UK)
    “Army misses recruitment target as young people reject militarism: (Peace Pledge Union).

    The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) has welcomed the news that the British army is still failing to meet its recruitment targets.
    The army’s “2020 Strategy”, adopted in 2015, included an aim to have 82,000 regular troops and 30,100 reserves, by March 2019. However, latest statistics show the army has fewer than 80,000 regular troops and around 27,000 reserves.
    The PPU said it is a sign that young people are increasingly aware of the failure of war to solve the world’s problems. The Peace Pledge Union is the British section of War Resisters’ International, which unites people challenging war, militarism and miltiary recruitment around the world.


  3. From Sudan Peace Direct

    In Sudan, we work with a local organisation called Collaborative for Peace Sudan (CfPS) whose network of Peace Committees intervene and help resolve local level disputes in the southern region of South and West Kordofan.This is important in the context of a country where local issues can escalate and feed into a wider conflict – one which has claimed two million lives over the last fifty years.
    Sudan’s 21-year civil war left two million people dead and split the country in two. Weapons are everywhere in the countryside and inter-communal battles occur with frightening regularity.
    Simple disputes over water rights, farmland or cattle theft can leave scores dead and breed local hostilities with wider implications.
    The continued bombing by the Sudanese Air Force of villages under the control of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – North results in the deaths of many civilians.
    The UN estimates that 100,000 people have fled into neighbouring South Sudan. The growth of weapons in the region along with existing armed groups destabilises communities and entrenches cycles of revenge.


  4. From Joe Cirincione
    May 29 at 1:22 PM ·
    This may be the best podcast we’ve done yet. You MUST hear Beatrice Fihnof International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). She is powerful and profound. I thank Michelle Dover for hosting our Ploughshares Fund show while I was away.

    Listen here: https://www.ploughshares.org/pressthebutton

  5. From Marylia Kelley,
    Dan Ellsberg will be a keynote speaker on Hiroshima Day, August 6, 2019, at the rally, march and nonviolent direct action at Livermore Lab. The 8 AM rally will take place at the corner of Vasco Road and Patterson Pass Road, Livermore, California.
    Sharing this comment by Joe Cirincione
    June 25 at 11:55 AM
    I spoke with Daniel Ellsberg on the 50th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers. He gave me the details of the equal volume of nuclear war plans that he had copied back then and is only now revealing. Listen to our new podcast, #PressTheButton.


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