Day By Day

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Peace and War

In this season of joy and peace it is perhaps appropriate to note something of which few people are aware -- we are living today in one of the most peaceful periods in modern history. A number of studies conducted by governmental and academic research teams in several countries all confirm this but during the Bush administration they received scant notice from the mainstream media because they didn't fit with the preferred narrative of a world in turmoil. Now, with Obama safely ensconced in the White House, the story is beginning to attract attention. Newsweek recently reported:

[I]f war is defined as a conflict between two or more nations resulting in at least 1,000 deaths in a year, there have been no wars since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and no wars between major industrialized powers since World War II. Civil wars have also declined from their peak in the early 1990s, when fighting tore apart Rwanda, the Balkans, and other regions. Most armed conflicts now consist of low-level guerrilla campaigns, insurgencies, and terrorism— ...the "remnants of war."

These facts would provide little comfort if war's remnants were nonetheless killing millions of people—but they're not. Recent studies reveal a clear downward trend. In 2008, 25,600 combatants and civilians were killed as a direct result of armed conflicts, according to the University of Uppsala Conflict Data Program in Sweden. Two thirds of these deaths took place in just three trouble spots: Sri Lanka (8,400), Afghanistan (4,600), and Iraq (4,000).

Uppsala's figures exclude deaths from "one-sided conflict," in which combatants deliberately kill unarmed civilians, and "indirect" deaths from war-related disease and famine, but even when these casualties are included, annual war-related deaths from 2004 to 2007 are still low by historical standards.
Read it here.

In referring to "historical standards" the obvious contrast is to the Twentieth Century when hundreds of millions of individuals died in wars and the article rightly notes that comparison. But then it starts to get interesting when it observes that even the Twentieth Century carnage pales in comparison [proportionately] to the level of killing characteristic of pre-historic cultures.

Newsweek cited Lawrence Keeley, author of a groundbreaking study War Before Civilization who famously estimated that the level of violence in pre-state societies was an order of magnitude greater than in the Twentieth Century. Keeley's work was not only a stunning repudiation to the romantic Rousseauian notion of the "noble savage" that informs so much of the modern environmentalist movement, it also demolished the Marxist contention [dominant among scholars for most of the Twentieth Century] that warfare resulted from the development of hierarchically ordered complex societies with clearly delineated social classes. It also contradicted the Malthusian argument that levels of conflict correlated with population growth [here].

And this is where things start to get really interesting.

According to Newsweek, while Keeley's work has been generally accepted among prehistorians and anthropologists, some of his conclusions have not. Instead, according to Chicago anthropologist Jonathan Haas, prehistoric warfare is now seen as resulting from overpopulation, resource depletion, and competition for scarce resources in the resulting environmental crisis -- "raiding, killing, and burning appear as a complex response to the external stress of environmental problems". So, as in so many areas of inquiry, the collapse of Marxian doctrine has been succeeded by an emphasis on environmental Malthusianism. Haas also argues that the emergence of warfare owes much to the development of distinctive cultural identities within populations.

The Newsweek article then attempts to account for the recent decrease in levels of violence. Ignoring the obvious point that the sudden downturn coincided with the end of the Cold War, the article suggests that it is the spread of democratic institutions and the role of international organizations such as the United Nations in promoting them as well as increased emphasis on women's rights that have brought about the happy change.

So there we have it, the entire liberal panoply -- environmentalism, population control, cultural relativism, internationalism, and feminism -- advanced as an explanations for the incidence of violence in the world. Quite an accomplishment for John Horgan, the author of the piece. It stands as a striking example of the way in which scientific understanding, in the hands of ideologically-committed journalists at least, can be shaped to support political agendas.

It is also interesting to note what Horgan ignores in making Newsweek's case. He cites Professor Keeley's finding that evidence for warfare dates from approximately 12,000 years BC, but does not note that since the publication of his book more than a decade ago, numerous pieces of evidence suggesting paleolithic interpersonal violence have emerged. What is more, there is reason to believe that warfare may well have antedated the emergence of humans. Studies of our closest relatives among the primates, chimpanzees, shows that gangs of male chimps regularly hunt down and exterminate males from other bands, an activity that looks a lot like the kinds prehistoric human warfare described by Keeley. Humans, like chimps, may well be "killer apes" [here]. It has even been suggested that warfare powerfully influenced the early evolution of the human species, promoting the formation of closely-knit communities capable of defending themselves against marauding bands of young males, and perhaps influencing the development of human cognitive abilities [here].

Horgan makes no mention of these studies because they would undercut his central assertion -- that warfare appeared at a specific point in human history that coincided with specific conditions that he wants to see as causative factors that can explain the existence of warfare. If, however, as these studies suggest, warfare antedates human cultures, then what needs to be explained is not warfare, but peace and that, as I have indicated in earlier posts, opens up a whole other range of controversy [here] and [here].