Monday, March 30, 2009

Winning the War on War?

Professor Joshua Goldstein recently presented his newest research project, "Winning the War on War," as part of the Middle East Seminar Series at the University of Maryland.

His talk is advertised with the following blurb:

"The number and size of wars is near an all-time low. From the killing of tens of millions in the World Wars, to millions in the Cold War, hundreds of thousands in the 1990s and tens of thousands today, war appears to be waning. Is this a stable trend or merely an interlude, and what explains the decline in war over recent decades?"

The most interesting part of the talk was Goldstein's point that the oft-quoted statistic that the majority of deaths in the 19th century were military but that the majority of deaths today are civilian is the result of a measurement error and in fact civilians have always been the source of most casualties. He frames the research project as a response to reports that emphasize the increasing incidences of civil conflict and generally increasing global levels of violence that are assumed to characterize contemporary society.

There were of course a lot of critiques of Goldstein's thesis, among them that levels of indirect deaths from conflict did not reflect this general downturn in battle deaths; that large conflicts are being replaced by smaller ones that are more diffuse and more difficult to track; and that although wars may be less lethal they are not less disruptive to society. I would agree with all of these, although Goldstein does point out an interesting quantitative trend.

I would argue the source of the trend is the increasing sophistication of technology that allows militaries to avoid civilian casualties - but which may also make war more likely (Iraq would certainly be evidence of this). And that this increasingly sophisticated technology probably isn't driven by international norms regarding the sanctity of civilian life so much as the increasing participation of communications and IT companies in the production of defense material. They can't exactly get new contracts for weapons that are less-precise and involve less engineering and technological implements. . . .

Perhaps as weapons get increasingly accurate incidences of attacks will increase. Casualties may also decrease, but living with the imminent threat of being a target won't, and therefore neither will the indirect effects of war like psychological trauma and low levels of economic investment.

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