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!

Infographic-Healthcare-Not-Warfare-GDAMS-3.jpg
Infographic, Global Day of Action on Military Spending (GDAMS)

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

This is a very interesting article by Dr. John Polanyi.

Title: We Must Do More To Prevent Nuclear War
Author: Polanyi, John
Publication(s): Times Higher Education
Date: 9 December 2019
Link: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/we-must-do-more-prevent-nuclear-war
Notes: This article shares some similarities with the “What Can Canada Do To Prevent Nuclear War?” talk that Dr. Polanyi gave at the University of Toronto in October 2019.

Adam Wynne

While reading about the recent wildfires near Chernobyl, I came across several English language articles from Russian News Agency TASS about the Kremlin’s and Russian government’s recent statements on preventing the weaponization of space. This appears to be a response to President Trump’s recent statement on potential commercial activities on the moon. This is very interesting stuff and vital for the future. I thought that readers of Project Save the World would find this interesting. Have other countries made recent statements on preventing the weaponization of space? Of note is the 1966 Outer Space Treaty. Title: Any attempts to ‘privatize’… Read more »

Adam Wynne

This is an interesting, yet exceptionally alarming article (opinion piece) by Dr. Bruce G. Blair – one of the co-founders of Global Zero. I am cross-posting it to the Overview: Cyber-Security/Cyber-Threats Section and Plank 1 due to its intersectional relevance. It is alarming to consider how vulnerable the nuclear weapons systems have – and continue to be – and how even more vulnerabilities could be created via upgrading the nuclear weapons systems to newer computer systems. Title: Why Our Nuclear Weapons Can Be Hacked Author: Blair, Bruce G. Publication(s): New York Times Date: 14 March 2017 Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/14/opinion/why-our-nuclear-weapons-can-be-hacked.html Article Excerpt(s):… Read more »

Adam Wynne

This timely article addresses the rumours that COVID-19 is/was designed as a biological weapons, while simultaneously drawing attention to broader concerns and risks associated with biological weapons threats and/or biological weapons warfare. I am additionally cross-posting this to the Overview: Pandemics comment section due to its relevance. Title: Could the Coronavirus Be a Biological Weapon in the Not-Too-Distant Future? Author: Deen, Thalif Publication(s): Inter Press Service: News Agency Date: 20 March 2020 Link: https://www.ipsnews.net/2020/03/coronavirus-biological-weapon-not-distant-future/ Article Excerpt(s): “The devastating spread of the deadly coronavirus across every continent– with the exception of Antarctica– has triggered a conspiracy theory on social media: what… Read more »

Adam Wynne

This article (an opinion piece) by Dr. Earl Turcotte – the Chair of the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (CNANW) – offers a critical examination of the links between nuclear disarmament and other global crises, such as pandemics. Title: Public Health Crisis Offers New Lens Towards Nuclear Disarmament Author: Earl Turcotte Publication(s): The Hill Times Date: 15 April 2020 Link: https://www.hilltimes.com/2020/04/15/public-health-crisis-offers-new-lens-to-denuclearization/243749 If The Hill Times version is behind a paywall, the article is additionally available on CNANW’s website here: https://www.cnanw.ca/2020/04/ [I will cross-post this article / comment to the Overview: Pandemics and Overview: Enabling Measures section of Project Save… Read more »

Adam Wynne

This article – written by Retired Senator Douglas Roche – discusses the interconnection of conflicts / wars and COVID-19. The article is very interesting, relevant, and encourages a broader examination of conflicts/wars and how these shape common and international security. Retired Senator Roche’s article (2020) additionally offers broader lessons on the interconnected nature and risks of conflicts/wars and other global crises. Retired Senator Roche is also a panelist in Project Save the World’s podcast and talk show – featured in Episode 2 (Abolition of Nuclear Weapons) and Episode 47 (After the INF Treaty?). Please note this link is for an… Read more »

Adam Wynne

These two articles discuss alarming aspects of nuclear weapons planning – pertaining to both deterrence and the results of actual usage. They may be of particular interest to Project Save the World readers. It is particularly alarming – per figures provided in Perkovich’s article – that at one point during President Reagan’s administration 689 nuclear weapons were pointed at targets within 50 miles (~80-81 kilometers) of Moscow. Fortunately, none of these were ever used. Title: “Clean” Nukes And The Ecology Of Nuclear War Author: Burr, William Publication(s): National Security Archive Date: 30 August 2017 Link: https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/nuclear-vault/2017-08-30/clean-nukes-ecology-nuclear-war Title: The Bomb Still… Read more »

Adam Wynne

What are folks thoughts on this statement by Stephen Young – Washington representative for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. This statement is sourced from an article published by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 27 February 2020. Title: House Hearings Should Reveal Recklessness of Administration’s Nuclear Weapons Budget Request Author: Young, Stephen Publication(s): Union of Concerned Scientists Date: 27 February 2020 Link: https://www.ucsusa.org/about/news/trump-administration-charging-ahead-new-nuclear-weapon-systems-and-joining-new-nuclear Article Excerpt(s): “The Trump administration is charging ahead with new nuclear weapon systems and joining a new nuclear arms race with Russia. Not only are these weapons pushing up current budgets by… Read more »

Adam Wynne

This is an interesting article about some (not all) of Canada’s connections to nuclear weapons. Title: Canada Played a Critical Role in Nuclear Development. We Should Play a Critical Role in Reparations Author: Korda, Matt Publication(s): CBC News Opinion Date: 30 August 2019 Link: https://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/canada-nuclear-1.5264768 Article Excerpt(s): “Canada holds contradictory positions in the world of nuclear weapons. We played an essential role in their development, but we never built any bombs of our own. No nukes are stationed on Canadian soil; however, they were for 20 years, until we finally sent the last American warheads back home in 1984. As… Read more »

Adam Wynne

This Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ interview with Dr. Jeffrey Lewis – author of “The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel” – discusses similarities in government response between a hypothetical nuclear attack and the COVID-19 pandemic. This interview may be of interest to readers of Project Save the World. Title: How the Coronavirus Outbreak is like a Nuclear Attack: An Interview with Jeffrey Lewis Author: Lewis, Jeffrey and Krzyzaniak, John Publication(s): Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Date: 20 March 2020 Link: https://thebulletin.org/2020/03/how-the-coronavirus-outbreak-is-like-a-nuclear-attack-an-interview-with-jeffrey-lewis/ Article Excerpt(s): “One thing about nuclear command and… Read more »

Adam Wynne

The South China Morning Post published this editorial last week. It may be of interest to readers of Project Save the World. Title: Talks Give World an Opportunity to Avoid Nuclear Weapons Nightmare Author: SCMP Editorial Publication(s): South China Morning Post Date: 20 March 2020 Link: https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3076212/talks-give-world-opportunity-avoid-nuclear-weapons-nightmare Article Excerpt(s): “The United States sparked fears of a new nuclear arms race when it pulled out of a key missile treaty with Russia little more than six months ago. Hopes of preventing a race are now focused on another pact credited with helping keep us safe since the height of the Cold… Read more »

Adam Wynne

This interesting article by Matt Korda – a researcher at the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists – discusses the role that young people can play in nuclear-related and nuclear disarmament activism. Korda offers some theories as young peoples’ perspectives on nuclear weapons and why young people appear to have not been overly involved in activism and disarmament campaigns in recent decades. Title: Do Young People Care About Nuclear Weapons? Author: Korda, Matt Publication(s): Inkstick Date: 27 February 2020 Link: https://inkstickmedia.com/do-young-people-care-about-nuclear-weapons/ Article Excerpt(s): “Last month, the International Committee of the Red Cross released a report with a… Read more »

Adam Wynne

An interesting article from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in regards to the impacts of COVID-19 on nuclear inspections in Iran. Title: One potential victim of coronavirus? Nuclear inspections in Iran Author: Moore, George M. Publication(s): Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Date: 17 March 2020 Link: https://thebulletin.org/2020/03/one-potential-victim-of-coronavirus-nuclear-inspections-in-iran/ Notes: See article excerpts. Article Excerpt(s): ” Should the new IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi decide to suspend inspection visits to protect the health of his inspectors, it could metastasize concerns about Iranian nuclear proliferation. The same result would occur if Iran acted unilaterally to bar inspectors based on real or manufactured… Read more »