Let's open the newspaper, turn on the TV. We are inundated with bad news. Could it be that the world is going from bad to worse? In an effort to see more clearly, we measured the warlike violence of Napoleon to the present day.
Surprise. We discovered that the September 11 attacks, as spectacular as they were, ushered in the world's most peaceful decade with a significant drop in the number of casualties compared to previous decades. This downward trend in violence is confirmed after 2011, despite ISIS and the war in Syria. . .
Our investigation focuses on state violence. It includes all the violence that results from a political or ideological decision: civil wars, invasions, organized famines, terrorism, and attacks.
It excludes domestic violence and ordinary crime, as well as other sources of human hardship: poverty, social injustice, economic violence (due to underdevelopment, oppression, or exploitation), not to mention disasters (earthquakes, aircraft accidents, etc.).
For a relevant comparison from decade to decade, we have counted only those deaths that are attributable to this kind of violence (i.e., those of civilians, soldiers, snipers, mercenaries). This is the only indicator that is, for the most part, objective and dependable. It should be noted that the same indicator is also used to measure ordinary crime, road violence, or the relative scale of a disaster.
The sources to which we refer give approximate estimates within fairly wide ranges. Even at the high end of the range, our findings are unequivocal: state violence caused fewer than one million deaths in 2001–2010, which is far fewer than in each previous decade since 1840 (with the exception of the decade 1900–1910).
State violence has also been less lethal than, for example, ordinary crime in Brazil (50,000 homicides in 2011) or South Africa.
Is this downward trend sustainable? One can hope, despite the fiasco of the Arab revolutions which is already responsible for more than half a million casualties (2011–2017). If the war continues in Yemen and Afghanistan, it has practically stopped in Iraq and Syria. In sub-Saharan Africa, there are still several pockets of violence and poverty, but no declared war. The rest of the world also knows no declared war, only pockets of tension in Ukraine and Burma.
The planet’s current situation is relatively exceptional. If new tensions remain contained (European crises, tensions in the China Sea, the Trump-Kim duel), we can hope for a decade even less violent than the last.
Better still, the year 2018 could become the first year of universal peace since 1975 (that year, for the first time since the 19th century, the world experienced a few months of total peace between the end of the Vietnam War and the resumption of the war in Angola).
Below is the count of the victims of state violence over the past two centuries, decade after decade.
In the first decade of the 21st century, we identified three areas of conflict:
- the Iraq-Afghanistan region:
In Iraq, following the invasion on March 20, 2003, the death toll, which is rather variable according to the sources, could be estimated at 200,000.
In Afghanistan, since the invasion on October 7, 2001, most victims are civilians (imprecise sources, about 100,000 deaths).
- the Near East:
The media impact of the Israeli-Palestinian clashes is incommensurate with their lethal violence, which is fortunately very modest.
- the Eastern Congo: Tutsi and Hutu groups from neighboring Rwanda are still fighting in this area, which is perhaps the most hostile zone of the times, though it certainly receives the least media coverage (a few tens or hundreds of civilian victims each week, after a peak in the previous decade).
Let us also remember the tragedy of Darfur (200,000 to 300,000 victims).
The news is also nourished by minor conflicts, take for instance Somalia, a territory without government delivered to gangs and pirates. The war in Georgia caused a few hundred victims. In the West, Islamist terrorism resulted in a total of about 4,000 deaths from 2001 to 2005 (New York and Washington, Madrid, London).
For good measure, let’s add riots in Lhasa and Maputo, bombs in Bilbao, a war in Libya, some coups or revolutions here and there. From one decade to the next, these minor conflicts culminate in a total of a few thousand individual tragedies; they have great media resonance but statistically constitute an insignificant ‘background noise,’ even in comparison to ordinary violence (homicides, road violence . . .).
The essayist Jean-Claude Guillebaud noted this distortion between media resonance and statistical reality: ‘In 2004, for example, according to statistics from the US State Department, the world experienced 655 terrorist attacks, which killed 1,907 and injured 7,000. In the same year, wars and massacres in Africa (Congo, Sudan, etc.) caused hundreds of thousands of victims’ (The Beginning of the World, Gallimard, 2008).
Let's recap the state violence: Iraq (200,000), Darfur (200,000 to 300,000), Afghanistan (100,000), Congo (100,000 to 200,000), other conflicts and unrest (100,000).
Taking into account the important uncertainties surrounding victim censuses, these conflicts and tragedies, intolerable as they are, resulted in a total of under one million deaths between 2001 and 2010.
A Past More Deadly than the Present
Previous decades appear much more hawkish in nature, with each reaching a total of well over one million deaths (two million deaths or more in most cases, including the 1990s):
- 1990s: Chechnya, Rwanda and the Great Lakes (800,000 victims of genocide and 2–5 million in the Great Lakes war that followed in Congo-Zaire), Liberia, Eritrea-Ethiopia, Yugoslavia, the Gulf War and blockade of Iraq, the Taliban offensive in Afghanistan
The last decade of the 20th century was one of violence disproportionate to that of the first decade of the 21st; if we have already forgotten, it is probably because the conflicts in the heart of Africa have had less media resonance than the attacks on September 11, 2001 on American soil. . . .
- 1980s: Iraq-Iran (between 500,000 and one million dead), the Eritrean war of independence (70,000 dead), invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets (about 100,000 military deaths, and between 500,000 and 2 million civilian deaths), the Falklands War
Is it worth extending to the beginning of the 20th century?
- 1920s: civil wars in Russia, China, Hungary, Mexico . . .
- 1910s: obviously World War I (10 million killed) and some secondary conflicts (the Balkan wars)
The first decade of the 20th century (1900–1910), which would later be called the Belle Époque, was rather calm compared to the following decades of the century.
The European continent was experiencing strong social tensions, but its elites benefitted from unprecedented well-being in a very open world. Like today, the main wars were held on the periphery of empires: the Boer War in southern Africa, the Russo-Japanese War, the Herero genocide . . . These conflicts resulted in a total of under one million deaths.
The first third of the century, 1914–1947, appears to be the most deadly period in the history of humanity, with 100 to 200 million violent deaths on a planet then populated by about 2 billion living beings.
If the number of war-related deaths is compared to the total number of deaths during the same period, an exceptional rate of 5 to 10% is obtained. In other words, state violence directly affected 1/20 to 1/10 of human beings who died in the period 1914–1947, which is five to ten times more than usual in periods of war (Napoleonic era, 18th century wars . . .).
Consequently, an astonishing contrast is formed with our present times: anyone born in the early 20th century who was able to reach the 21st century has passed through both the most lethal generation in history (1914–1947) and probably history's least violent period (2001–. . .).
The Respite After Napoleon
It is ultimately necessary to go back to the years 1815–1840 in order to discern a level of international violence as low as it is today (about one million victims per decade).
Indeed, after the Napoleonic wars (one million deaths in Europe alone, from 1804 to 1814), the world had only to deal with minor, moderately deadly conflicts from 1815 to 1840: Latin America, Greece, Serbia.
But this respite would not last and things were spoiled again in the 1840s, in Europe and in the rest of the world:
During the 18th century, China, a rather closed-off nation, had lived in relative ease. But, convinced by the English to open up to the rest of the world in the name of free trade, the country entered a period of serious turbulence starting in 1842: the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion (20 million victims), the Boxer Rebellion . . . China would not emerge from conflict until the 1970s.
At the same time, Westerners embarked on colonial ventures which cost many human lives (India, Mexico, Afghanistan–already–, Algeria, southern Africa . . .) not to mention internal wars: the American Civil War (600,000 dead), the Crimean War, etc.
Europe proper experienced an exceptional period of peace from 1815 (Waterloo) to 1912 (the Balkan Wars), barely interrupted by three or four conventional conflicts which were quickly extinguished: the Second Italian War of Independence (the Battle of Solferino, 1859), the Austro-Prussion War (the Battle of Sadowa, 1866), the Franco-Prussian War (1870). The first two conflicts would result in a few thousand deaths, while the last, relatively deadly, would leave about 200,000 dead. Overall, not much more than the clashes that plunged Europe into mourning over the last seven decades (Budapest, 1956; Yugoslav Wars, 1992–1995).
A small technical remark: to better appreciate today’s low level of violence compared to that of the second half of the 19th century, let us emphasize that it refers to a world population of seven billion people (including 700 million Europeans), while there were only 1.5 billion human beings (including 400 million Europeans) during the American Civil War and the colonial wars.
Compared to all the deaths of his time, a war victim today ‘weighs’ about four times less than a war victim in 1865 . . . and thirty times less than a victim of the Gallic Wars, when the world had at most 250 million inhabitants! In other words, the million Gauls who perished at the hands of Julius Caesar could be compared to the death toll of either of the two World Wars.
On this basis, we can think that the current level of violence, relative to the world's population, is lower than it has ever been in world history.
Increasingly Intolerable Violence
After the above assessment, how can we explain our sentiment that today we suffer violence without equal?
It is likely that we are all the more sensitive to violence as it has become more rare (a paradox highlighted by Tocqueville about feudal rights: they stopped being tolerated from the moment they became marginal).
Perhaps we are also victims of a form of media saturation. Day after day, newspapers and television networks have to find material to fill their pages and newscasts, so that the story of Israelis boarding a humanitarian cargo ship comes to occupy as many pages in newspapers around the world as did the Battle of Stalingrad (two million dead) in 1943.
Perhaps the current violence, far less lethal in a quantitative sense, but blind and diffuse, is proving more agonizing than the major military operations of the past. The 16 casualties of an Islamist attack in Barcelona are comparable to that of a large traffic accident but arouse more popular emotion than the 10,000 deaths caused by an earthquake in China.
It is a task for the sociologists to identify the reasons for this newfound peace, however relative it may be.
- Perhaps the reasons lie in the incredible economic growth enjoyed at the beginning of the 21st century by Asian, South American, and, to a lesser extent, African and Eastern countries. Statistics (infant mortality, life expectancy, illiteracy, famines) show that economic violence has diminished, notwithstanding the threats that exist for all of humanity (financial disorder, global warming). It can be assumed that the ‘allergy to violence’ (Jean-Claude Guillebaud) increases with the improvement of living conditions.
- Perhaps they are also in the ‘modernization’ of lifestyles, with fertility rates in Asia and the Middle East finally meeting those of the West. We are reluctant to go to war when we have only one or two children and a reasonable hope of giving them a prosperous future. Is it any wonder that the current main hotbeds of war coincide with the poorest and most fertile regions (Afghanistan, Yemen, Central Africa, Sahel)?
- Perhaps they are ultimately in the balance achieved with terror, and the great nuclear powers’ aggression is restrained by the fear of inducing humanity’s ‘suicide.’
Whatever the case may be, our assessment is in line with historian Emmanuel Todd’s premonitory analysis of a world in the process of appeasement (Après l'Empire, 2002, Gallimard). These analyses are likely to comfort men and women of peace who are fighting tirelessly in daily life and within governments and international institutions to stomp out sources of conflict as much as possible.
But we must be realistic. If we seldom kill each other in the world today, it is not because the world has become peaceful:
The egoism of the wealthy today reaches summits reminiscent of the injustices of the Belle Époque. However, if the first decade of the 20th century was relatively peaceful, let us not forget that it preceded World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, at the origin of the massacres of the last century.
On the other hand, today’s social tensions and international imbalances, particularly those of demographic and environmental natures, are greater than ever.
Finally, outside of state violence, we may also have to take into account more and more new forms of violence, such as gang wars in Latin America. In El Salvador, they cause a mortality rate much higher than homicide mortality in Europe in the year 1000, with 100 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants (i.e., one in seven deaths) in 2015.