Volume 7, Number 159
30 Nov 2007

In this issue

The Decline of War

by Loren Cobb

Looking back on the escalating horrors of twentieth century warfare and the advances in nuclear and biological weapons, one can hardly avoid wondering whether the practice of modern warfare is heading for some unimaginable apocalypse of terror, death, and destruction. It still might, if our existing methods of conflict resolution fail in any critical moment.

Yet current anthropological thought has recently come to a startlingly different conclusion: the frequency and lethality of warfare has been in continuous decline for many centuries, with no end in sight. If this trend holds for just another few score of years, warfare will become a thing of the past. Which of these diametrically opposed visions of the future is right?

CFB Cornwallis Park, Nova Scotia.
Copyright © Pearson Peacekeeping Center

My first exposure to this paradox began one misty winter evening in 1997, in the little village of Cornwallis Park, Nova Scotia. I had lost my way in an old decommissioned military base, wandering past rows and rows of ghostly barracks, looking in vain for the commandant's residence and, frankly, any signs of life at all.

It was easy to imagine what this base had been like in its heyday in World War II, filled to overflowing with young recruits, laughing and joking and trying not to think about what might await them overseas. Now the old base was deserted and empty, the barracks looming dark and forlorn through the mist and snow. More than a million Canadians went off to fight in WWII, out of a population of only 12 million, and 65,000 never came back. Their ghosts linger on in the lonely barracks of Cornwallis Park.

Eventually I saw lighted windows, and found my way to a source of warmth, light, and human companionship in the magnificently restored residence of the base commander. This building is now the heart and soul of the famed Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, dedicated to training military officers in the military peacekeeping for the United Nations. I stepped into warmth, blinking a little at the sudden change in atmosphere. Where moments ago I had shared a lonely foggy night with the ghosts of departed soldiers, now I was surrounded by men and women from all over the world, vibrantly alive and well lubricated with the best Scotch whisky that Nova Scotia had to offer.

We sat down for a formal dinner with Col. Alex Morrison, founder and (at that time) president of the Pearson Centre. Before we ate, Morrison called for a minute of silence in memory of the thirty-two United Nations peacekeepers killed in the line of duty that year. I remember thinking, "Just thirty-two! How could it be so few?"

Afterwards, consumed by curiosity, I confirmed the figures. As of October 2007, there have been only 2,405 peacekeepers killed in the past 59 years of UN peacekeeping. They occurred in 56 different military missions on every inhabited continent of the world — many of them still ongoing today. It is impossible to know how many wars were not fought, how many soldiers and civilians did not die over this period, due to the work of these troops. And yet one wonders. Does this really mean that warfare is increasingly under control? What about recent mass killings in Rwanda and Darfur, and the bloody occupation of Iraq?

Battle deaths since 1950, in thousands.
From Human Security Brief 2006.

Here is a fact: despite the impression given by news headlines, the world is not suffering a crescendo of warfare and violence. On the contrary — and despite the miseries experienced by the people of Rwanda, Iraq, and Darfur — both the five-year and fifty-year global trends have been strongly downwards. That is true by almost any objective measure, whether the overall number of inter-state armed conflicts, battle death tolls, war-related civilian deaths, genocides, or refugees and population displacements. My source for this? The fascinating Human Security Report 2006, published by Simon Fraser University of Vancouver, Canada.

Unfortunately, even a fifty-year perspective is trivial when compared to the millennia of human warfare, so let us take a whirlwind excursion through the entire panorama of humanity's use of warfare, from the Paleolithic to the Present. The result may surprise you — it certainly came as a surprise to me!

War in Prehistory

Genetically modern homo sapiens emerged in a far colder era, when giant ice sheets extended from the Arctic down across most of Europe, North America, and Asia. Mean temperatures were 10°C (18°F) colder than at present. The earliest human societies were small bands of hunters and gatherers, living with few if any reserves of food and energy. The entire human population of the planet in that era, 100 millennia ago, probably numbered in the tens of thousands at best.

R. Brian Ferguson's 2003 essay, The Birth of War, summarizes the archaeological evidence of war in prehistory. The first unambiguous indication of violence and warfare appears along the Nile River, in Sudan. The planet was thawing out for the first time in a hundred millennia, and the Nile was rich with fish and wildlife. The human population of the earth was increasing — had reached perhaps a million people — and life was better along the Nile than anywhere else. A growing economic surplus permitted not only population growth, but also increasing social organization (tribes and chiefdoms) and organized conflict. The excavation of Site 117 at Gebel Sahaba revealed the remains of 59 men, women, and children, of whom at least 24 died violently (based on arrowheads and bone damage).

The incident at Gebel Sahaba occurred about thirteen thousand years ago. It marks the beginning of the long and extensive archaeological record of war.

Ancient aboriginal rock art
© Metropolitan Museum of Art

Aboriginal rock art in Australia depicts small-scale armed conflict dating back ten millennia. At roughly the same time, frequent warfare appeared in northern Iraq, as early farmers fought off raiders with arrows, maces, and defensive walls. Farming, of course, produced even more of an economic surplus, and the relatively prosperous farming villages of the Fertile Crescent made tempting targets for hungry raiders and less fortunate neighbors. Over the next four millennia, the evidence suggests that frequent brutal warfare spread out through the entire Middle Eastern region, and from there west into Europe, east into China and India, and south into Africa.

Throughout prehistory on every continent, from our Ice Age origins to the invention of writing, about five thousand years ago, it seems that the growth in the risk of dying from warfare paralleled the growth of economic surplus through metallurgical and agricultural technology, the growth of populations, and the development of more complex forms of social organization. But then there is a change...

War in the Historical Era

The body of scientific evidence on the evolution of warfare is impressive. Anthropologists have recently begun pulling together physical and observational evidence from a variety of disparate cross-cultural sources — literally tens of thousands of archaeological, historical, ethnographic, military, economic, and demographic studies — with the goal of finally coming to grips with this, the most violent aspect of human society. Some of the early fruits of this labor are listed under the heading "Sources", below.

Perhaps the most interesting and important result from the first scientific surveys of this body of evidence is the conclusion that deaths due to warfare have declined since the prehistoric era, and not by just a little bit. Lawrence Keeley has estimated that a typical tribe or chiefdom lost about 0.5% of its population each year, on average, due directly to warfare. In a 400-person tribe, that would mean an average loss of two persons per year. Given that more than 75% of bands, tribes, and chiefdoms were engaged in warfare of one sort or another at least once every five years, and more than 50% at least once a year, this rate may well be an underestimate.

Now let's try a thought experiment. What if that same tribal rate were true for modern states? In this purely hypothetical situation, we would be seeing 165 thousand Canadian deaths every year from warfare alone, 2.5 million deaths in the European Union, and 6.6 million in China! Clearly nothing like this is happening.

Here is another way of thinking about it: Richard Rhodes once calculated that warfare of all kinds caused 100 million military and civilian deaths worldwide during the 20th century. But if the entire world had been suffering war-related deaths at the tribal rate then, as Keeley points out, there would have been two billion deaths due to war over the course of that war-torn century.

The dramatic decline in the risk of death due to warfare during the last two or so millennia demands for explanation. There are numerous theories, of course, but essentially all of them include the idea that the growth of states has acted to decrease the risk of death due to warfare — despite the well-documented propensity of states to engage in war, and the staggering growth in military firepower. How is that possible?

Hypothetical graph of the risk of war-related death or injury over time.

One key to resolving this apparent paradox lies in the monopoly of physical force imposed by modern states: throughout their vast territories, disputes are resolved with the institutions of justice and politics, rather than the feuds and open warfare employed by pre-state societies. Even when states fight wars at about the same rate as pre-state tribes and chiefdoms, using weapons of far greater lethality, they are still maintaining the peace within their borders. The net effect is a diminution of the overall risk of death or injury due to warfare as the size of the states increases.


Warfare began very slowly, between ten and fourteen thousand years ago, and then accelerated as growing agricultural surpluses made farming villages tempting targets. Chiefdoms evolved into petty kingdoms, worldwide population blossomed, and wars increased. But then the growth in warfare began to slow as states expanded their domestic peace over larger and larger territories. At some unknown moment in history a turning point was reached, and from this moment forward the overall risk of death or injury as a result of warfare actually began to decrease. It is my hypothesis that the chart may look something like the figure just above.

(The location of the peak in the above figure is pure speculation on my part — it may have been earlier or later. To give credit where credit is due, the upward trend on the left is based on the work of R. Brian Ferguson, while the downward trend on the right reflects the theory of Lawrence Keeley. In this essay I have attempted to unify the two into a single vision of the history of war.)

Just in the last fifty years, the progress towards peace has been startling. If this trend continues — and I am cautiously optimistic that it will — then as pressure from civil society increases and international institutions of conflict resolution mature, warfare as a regular practice may cease sometime late this century.

During my weeklong stay at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, I gradually became aware that many of the most important evolutionary changes in modern warfare are visible there, embedded in the curriculum. I could see the progression from peacekeeping from its origins as a simple separation of combatants with a symbolic military force, to the coordination with large civilian organizations, to the incorporation of diplomacy and economic development, to the use of international police and jurists to re-establish the Rule of Law. It was as if I had a box seat in a planet-sized theatre, watching a historical drama in which few of the actors knew that they were making history right there on the stage.


  • Edgerton, Robert B. (1992) Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony. New York: The Free Press.
  • Ferguson, R. Brian (2003) "The Birth of War", Natural History, July/August Issue.
  • Human Security Report 2006. Vancouver: Human Security Centre, Simon Fraser University.
  • Keeley, Lawrence H. (1996) War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Lacina, Bethany & Gleditsch, Nils P. (2005) "Monitoring Trends in Global Combat: A New Dataset of Battle Deaths," European Journal of Population, vol. 21, #2-3 (June), pp. 145-166.
  • LeBlanc, Steven A. (2003) Constant Battles: Why We Fight. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Otterbein, Keith (1989) The Evolution of War: A Cross-Cultural Study. New Haven, CT: HRAF Press.
  • Rhodes, Richard (1995) The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster.

A Final Note: I can just hear my American readers asking, "But what are we doing for peace?" For a heartening — even frankly amazing — answer, you have only to visit the website of the United States Institute of Peace. This institute was created as "an independent, nonpartisan, national institution established and funded by Congress. Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase peacebuilding capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide." These people are doing wonderful things, all over the world. — Loren

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Loren's mathematical model of war analyzes war only from the view of gross number of victims — a quantifiable variable. To arrive at the optimistic conclusion that it will decline in future wars, the model assumes all the underlying cultural, psychological, and economic conditions are randomly influential as they usually have been.

I have run across a chilling analysis suggesting this is not so in contemporary history: that Friedman-Hayek free market may depend upon the vicious suppression and torture as in Pinochet's Chile, the 'disappearance' of Argentinian idealists (where Friedman students were critical economic planners) by necessary plan with parallels in China, Russia, and many other examples. Though the Chicago School supporters are seeming to begin to admit this necessity of violence in their "shock capitalism", this may not have been covered in Cato Institute writings. Klein sees this "erasing" of boundaries between Big Government and Big Business as "not liberal, conservative or capitalist but corporatist", which features "aggressive surveillance, mass incarceration, shrinking civil liberties and often torture."

I first ran across this idea in Peter's book I Was a Corporate Hit Man. But it is most amply documented to me, a non-economist, in The Shock Doctine, The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein. Howard Zinn and Seymour Hersh, among others, extol this book.

This seems to me to be a real-world criticism of the application of the libertarian Cato Institute perspective. It will be interesting to see the Cato response! Perhaps Jack Powelson is a good interpreter on this? Since these applications of violence are systematic, as against the random violence of war, it seems to me that the Mathematic Model may not fit with it's optimistic reduction of victims for future wars.

Though Klein argues that "not all forms of market systems are inherently violent", she sees hope in a Keynesian mixed economy which I heard Ken Boulding advocate on more than one occasion (along with his beautiful critique of Marxism).

— Bob Michener, Boulder (CO) Meeting.

This article brought to mind a meeting for worship at Princeton Meeting a few years ago that seemed very, very gloomy to me. Lots of "everything is going to hell in a handbasket" sorts of comments. Well, I had just read a very cheerful, fact-filled book, The Progress Paradox, How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, which mentioned some encouraging statistics and trends from the World Health Organization on causes of death: 300,000 deaths from war (as compared to 1,300,000 deaths from traffic accidents) in 2000. Most of the war deaths were from civil wars. I recall the terrible statistic that 20 million people had died in World War Two.

In afterthoughts following meeting for worship, I shared my sense of optimism and gratefulness — especially in light of all of the great long term trends such as the reduction in poverty, huge increase in lifespans and the enormous decrease in war deaths. I don't think that the prevailing sense of gloom was lifted at all by my comments. I wondered afterward if I had annoyed people in Meeting by mentioning the positive trend data.

— John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.

One other possible reason for the decline [in war-related deaths] could be MAD [mutually assured destruction]. Not many folks want to go to war with a STATE, because most states have organized armies and big guns and tanks and planes. Not quite the same as ambushing the neighboring tribe 10K years ago (or for that matter just a few hundred years ago in North America). People are prosperous, rulers have power and prestige, why risk all that in a destructive war in which both sides could incur serious damage to infrastructure. I'm thinking this probably plays as big a role as institutional justice systems (which you pointed out in a different paper are very often corrupt and ineffective).

— An anonymous reader from The Motley Fool.

Extremely interesting. I have some difficulty with your explanation. Since the formation of the UN, hasn't the number of states roughly trebled? On your view wouldn't that entail a considerable increase of war-related deaths over the period?

Haven't you also got to take into account the effect of global hegemons? Nasty word, but they may be helpful keeping the small fry from killing each other.

Also, what of the spread of institutions for creating wealth by trade and production, opening up an easier way to get rich than theft and mayhem?

— Stephen Williams, Washington DC.

Loren Cobb's piece on the history of death due to war was fun to read but appears somewhat flawed in the final projected estimates of how many would have died in the twentieth century if prehistory war death rates had continued. If this is half a percent of a particular population, it projects a total of 400 billion separate folks alive sometime during the last century. That seems a tad high.

— Ted Todd of Princeton, NJ.

Keeley's risk was one half of one percent per year. There are 100 years in a century. The average size of the human population of the earth in the last century was (very roughly) four billion, so there were 400 billion person-years of risk exposure. So, one half of one percent of 400 billion gives the total number who would have been expected to die, i.e. two billion people. The arithmetic is truly grim. — Loren

I hope you are right. Nobody should have to live with my memories. I was a combat infantry soldier in World War II. I was taught by our government that the Japanese were less than human and needed to be killed. I was on a landing craft manpower for the invasion of Japan on August 6, 1945. The bomb saved my life. We went to occupation duty and I was soon in Hiroshima. What have we done?

On occupation duty I made many Japanese friends. I was treated with affection. I was never blamed for the destruction. I walked a pilgrimage and had an epiphany. "Dear God, I have killed thy children. Help me to make amends as best that I can for the time left to me."

— Lee B. Thomas, Jr. a charter member of the Louisville (KY) Friends Meeting.

That seems to correspond with what I've been saying for many years, that the vast majority of the people on earth today, are peacefully getting on with their lives, despite the view of the media that there are wars all around us.

However, the saying about "Lies, damned lies and statistics" is best applied to extrapolation, in my view.

It won't necessarily take wars to devastate life on Earth. It's much more likely we will do something stupid without realising until it's to late. Climate change, or eliminating a vital species, like bees, or perhaps simply accidental release of a WMD, it could be any of these.

— Nick Bagnall, Friends Centre, Auckland.

Loren, welcome back. Janet and I have missed your e-mails. The most recent and the hopeful article on war was most interesting. Thanks.

— Ted Grenda.

Thanks for a very hopeful note...we don't get enough of them.

— Barb Stephens.

Wonderful. It is so great to read something encouraging about mankind. Thanks for the upbeat message.

— Tucker Wood, Boulder, Colorado.

Can you show how you arrived at the 7-generation discount rates in this article? Thanks.

— Robert Fromer.

Sure. Here is how to do it:

  1. If each generation is 25 years, then 7 generations is 175 years.
  2. If the discount rate is p, then the weight after n years is (1-p)^n
  3. So if the discount rate is 1%, then the weight after 175 years is (0.99)^175 = 0.172, or about 17%.
  4. And if the discount rate is 5%, then the weight after 175 years is (0.95)^175 = 0.000126, or about 0.01%.


Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting.

Editor: Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.

Editorial Board

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • William G. Rhoads, Germantown (PA) Monthly Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board do not necessarily endorse the contents of any issue of The Quaker Economist.

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