2015 has begun with horrific violence: the slaughter in Paris, allegedly by Muslim extremists, of the staff of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Outbursts like these lead many people to despair over the prospects for peace.
A recent essay in Slate, "The World Is Not Falling Apart"--subtitled "Never mind the headlines. We’ve never lived in such peaceful times"--provides a valuable, albeit flawed, counter-perspective. Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard, and Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University, note that daily journalism, by focusing on wars, terrorism and other acts of violence, provides a distorted view of violence.
In spite of an uptick over the last four years in war-related deaths, stemming primarily from the civil conflict in Syria, most major forms of violence have dropped sharply relative to historical levels, Pinker and Mack show. Political repression is also declining.
"The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable—homicide, rape, battering, child abuse—have been in steady decline in most of the world," Pinker and Mack state. "Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states—by far the most destructive of all conflicts—are all but obsolete. The increase in the number and deadliness of civil wars since 2010 is circumscribed, puny in comparison with the decline that preceded it, and unlikely to escalate."
Pinker and Mack conclude with a plea for more contextual reporting on violence. "Reporters give lavish coverage to gun bursts, explosions, and viral videos, oblivious to how representative they are and apparently innocent of the fact that many were contrived as journalist bait. Then come sound bites from 'experts' with vested interests in maximizing the impression of mayhem: generals, politicians, security officials, moral activists."
Pinker and Mack urge journalists, and all of us, to "consult the analyses of quantitative datasets on violence that are now just a few clicks away. An evidence-based mindset on the state of the world would bring many benefits. It would calibrate our national and international responses to the magnitude of the dangers that face us."
I'm all for an "evidence-based mind-set," especially if it counteracts the widespread fatalism of our era about the prospects for peace, which can become self-fulfilling. That's why I discuss the recent decline of war in my book The End of War and in posts on this site—for example, in my recent rebuttal of the fears of some environmentalists that global warming might provoke more war.
But my mindset diverges in a crucial way from that of Pinker and Mack. While noting that many conflicts around the world involve "radical Islamist groups," Pinker and Mack fail to recognize the enormous contributions of the U.S., especially since September 11, 2001, to global violence. Pinker's 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, an exhaustive documentation of the decline of violence, suffers from this same oversight.
The Costs of War Project, based at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies, has compiled data on wars that the U.S. has been waging since 2001 in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. (Explaining the inclusion of Pakistan, Costs of War notes: "The armed conflict in Pakistan, which the US helps the Pakistani military fight by funding, equipping and training them, is in many ways more intense than in Afghanistan although it receives less coverage in the US news.")
As the graph above shows, the three wars have claimed more than 350,000 lives so far, including "armed forces on all sides, contractors, journalists, humanitarian workers" and at least 220,000 civilians. Hundreds of thousands more civilians have died of disease, exposure, malnutrition and "indirect" consequences of the conflicts, and more than 6 million have been forced from their homes. More than 6,800 U.S. soldiers have died in the conflicts—and an almost equal number of military contractors--and more than 970,000 troops have filed disability claims.
Costs of War does not estimate the number of civilians killed directly by U.S. forces. But according to the reputable group Iraq Body Count, between 2003 and 2001, U.S.-led coalition forces were directly responsible for 15,060 civilian deaths in Iraq.
Rather than eliminating violent extremism, U.S. military actions have arguably exacerbated it. According to The New York Times, one of the suspects in the Charlie Hebdo massacre was allegedly radicalized by "fury over the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, particularly the mistreatment of Muslims held at Abu Ghraib prison."
The U.S. contributes to violence—and the threat thereof--in other less direct ways. The U.S. is the dominant innovator, manufacturer and exporter of arms in the world. Aggressive U.S. development and deployment of drones and cyber-weapons have inspired other nations to pursue these technologies.
That brings me to another valuable but flawed essay, "The Tragedy of the American Military," by journalist James Fallows. Writing in The Atlantic, Fallows argues that the post-9/11 U.S. military has become virtually immune to criticism either from within or from civilians; as a result, it has become dysfunctional, dedicated less to maintaining security than to maintaining its bloated budgets.
Fallows does an excellent job analyzing how the Pentagon wastes its resources on such colossal boondoggles as the F-35 fighter jet, which has been plagued with "delays, cost overruns and mechanical problems" and may end up costing taxpayers $1.5 trillion. He notes that, in spite of recent dips in Defense Department budget, the U.S. is now spending more than $1 trillion annually on national security, not even counting the interest paid on the military-related debt.
"After adjustments for inflation," he elaborates, "the United States will spend about 50 percent more on the military this year than its average through the Cold War and Vietnam War. It will spend about as much as the next 10 nations combined—three to five times as much as China, depending on how you count, and seven to nine times as much as Russia. The world as a whole spends about 2 percent of its total income on its militaries; the United States, about 4 percent."
Recent U.S. wars could end up costing as much as $6 trillion, Fallows says. "Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human costs, most of those dollars might as well have been burned." Our actions "brought no lasting stability to, nor advance of U.S. interests in, that part of the world."
Fallow's essay, like that of Pinker and Mack, suffers from a flawed conclusion. The major problem with our military, he suggests, is that it is ineffective, especially relative to its cost. He recommends reforms in the structure of the military and its civilian oversight to make the armed forces more competent and cost-efficient.
Our ultimate goal, he says, should be to "choose our wars more wisely, and win them." I disagree. Rather than worrying about how to win wars, we should seek to prevent them from breaking out in the first place. Our ultimate goal should be for the U.S. armed forces—and all armed forces--to become obsolete.
Impossible? Not at all. As the data presented by Pinker and Mack show, humanity is already headed in the right direction. If the U.S. can transform itself from a warmonger into the leader of an international peace movement, war could end soon.