September 11, 2011

2001-2011: the least violent decade since 1840

Following the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we would do well to recall that although the tragic event was senseless and bloody, the aftermath has ushered in the least violent decade in recent memory... [french version]

In this first decade of the twenty-first century, we can identify three areas of conflict :

- The Iraq-Afghanistan region, where the number of casualties on both sides - about 200,000 in each country - remains approximately five times lower than in Vietnam during the period 1964-1973 ;
- The Middle East, where media coverage of violence is out of proportion with respect to casualties ;
- The Eastern Congo, perhaps the deadliest area today (a few hundred civilian casualties every week) with competing groups of Tutsis and Hutus from neighboring Rwanda, but ignored by the media.

The tragedy of Darfur is on the mend (there were from 200,000 to 300,000 victims). On the other hand, Somalia is a country without an effective government, controlled by gangs and pirates. There are some lingering animosities, such as in Georgia.

Elsewhere there may be a background of sporadic violence, such as riots in Lhassa and Maputo, bombs in Madrid and Bilbao, which are prominent in the press but represent rather few victims.

While the toll of violent deaths remains deplorable, the total comes to one million more or less.

The present is less murderous than the past

The last few decades appear to be much more bellicose than currently, with a death toll of more than a million in each period.

- 1990s : Chechnya, Rwanda and Zaïre, Yugoslavia
- 1980s : Iran-Iraq (one to two million deaths), Ethiopia-Eritrea
- 1970s : Vietnam, Cambodia, Angola, Bangladesh
- 1960s : China-India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cultural Revolution (China), Congo
- 1950s : Korea, Indochina, Algeria, Great Leap Forward (China)...

And what about the first half of the 20th century? Fifty million persons perished in World War II, ten million died in1914-1918, the European War ; there was the Soviet gulag, the split between India and Pakistan, etc. This third of a century (1914-1947) appears to be the bloodiest period in human history.

Note : To have a relevant comparison of state violence from decade to decade, the procedure is to look at the number of fatalities (civilian, military, snipers and mercenaries), excluding wounded and other victims; figures are based on both official and unofficial sources, inevitably approximate.

The lull after Napoleon

To appreciate the relatively low level of international violence in our time, one can draw a comparison with the period 1815-1840, when there were fewer than one million victims per decade.

Thus, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars (one million deaths in Europe alone between 1804 and 1814), the world made do with minor conflicts that were less bloody (cf. Latin America, Greece, Serbia).

But this lull does not last and things deteriorate again in the 1840s in Europe and the rest of the world. China begins a turbulent period : opium wars, Taipei (20 million victims), the Boxer Rebellion, etc. Stability came only in the 1970s.

At the same time, the West launched various colonial enterprises that were costly in human lives (India, Mexico, Afghanistan, Algeria already, southern Africa...), not to mention various internal wars (the American Civil War (600,000 killed), Crimean War, etc.

To better appreciate the comparatively low level of violence today, consider that we now have a global population of 6.5 billion human beings, whereas the Napoleonic wars or the American Civil War were fought at a time when the world population was only one billion: statistically, each death had more "weight" .

The unacceptable scourge of violence

Considering the statistics, how can we justify the feeling that violence is more widespread than ever ?

It may be in part because as violence has diminished, we are more sensitive to it (a paradox brought to light by Tocqueville with respect to feudal rights : they were no longer tolerated once they were marginalized.)

Could it be that we are victims of a form of media saturation ? On a daily basis, newspapers and television have to report the news, such that the impounding of a humanitarian cargo ship by the Israelis ends up having the same number of pages worldwide as the report in 1943 on the battle of Stalingrad (two million deaths).

In any case, this line of thought is in keeping with the analysis of Emmanuel Todd (Après l'Empire, 2002, Gallimard), who sees a world that is growing more peaceful.

It is only natural to offer solace to peace-loving men and women who struggle on a daily basis, who rely on governments and international institutions to stifle conflict as well as possible.

André Larané (,
English verstion : Pr James Day (South Carolina)
Publié ou mis à jour le : 2018-11-27 09:50:14


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