john_horgan's picture
Director, Center for Science Writings, Stevens Institute of Technology
Director, the Center for Science Writings, Stevens Institute of Technology; Author, Rational Mysticism

War Will End

I'm optimistic that one day war—large-scale, organized, group violence—will end once and for all.

Many people find my optimism naive, if not delusional. Last semester, I taught a class called "War and Human Nature," and my students polled classmates on the following question: "Do you think humanity will ever stop fighting wars once and for all time?" Of the 205 respondents, 185 replied "No"; 20 said "Yes" or "Maybe. " Several of the "optimists" added comments like "Yes, war will end when the human race will end," and "Yes, because in the future the human species will unite to fight alien species. "

Recent scholarship on warfare seems, at first glance, to support this fatalism. Just a few decades ago, many scholars believed in the "myth of the peaceful savage," which depicts war as a byproduct of modern civilization that did not exist in pre-state societies. In his book Constant Battles, the anthropologist Steven LeBlanc debunks this myth, pointing out that the vast majority of primitive, pre-state societies engaged in at least occasional warfare. Mortality rates from violence in some societies reached as high as fifty percent.

But these grim statistics yield a surprisingly upbeat message: Things are getting better! Hard as it may be to believe, humanity has become much less violent than it used to be. In fact civilization, far from creating the problem of warfare, is apparently helping us to solve it. In War Before Civilization, the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley estimates that in the blood-soaked 20th century 100 million men, women, and children died from war-related causes, including disease and famine. The total would have been 2 billion, Keeley notes, if our rates of violence had been as high as in the average primitive society.

Moreover, conventional war between the armies of two or more nations is becoming rare. Three years have passed since the last international war. (Israel's incursion into Lebanon last summer doesn't count, because the Lebanese army did not fight. ) This is "the longest episode of interstate peace in more than half a century," the scholars Charles Kurzman and Neil Englehart point out in their recent essay "Welcome to World Peace. " Although they are dominating the headlines, civil wars have also declined since peaking in the early 1990s. We are dealing now with guerilla wars, insurgencies, terrorism—or what the political scientist John Mueller calls the "remnants of war. "

These statistics do not provide much solace to the victims of war's "remnants" in Iraq, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Colombia and other troubled regions. But they show that we are moving in the right direction. Other recent events offer more grounds for optimism. As recently as the late 1980s, we still faced the threat of a global nuclear holocaust. Then, incredibly, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended peacefully. Apartheid also ended in South Africa without significant violence, and human rights have advanced elsewhere around the world.

The first, crucial step toward ending war is to believe that we can do it. We should also recognize that war is over-determined—stemming from many different possible causes—and so peace must be over-determined too. In their final papers, most of my students wisely advocated pursuing not a single, silver-bullet solution to the problem of war but multiple approaches. Their proposals included supporting democracy in other countries, bolstering the U.N. 's peacekeeping efforts, fighting poverty and improving education, restricting or eliminating arms sales, inculcating tolerance for other cultures in children, giving women more of a role in government.

"Achieving peace on a global level will not be easy," one student wrote, "but things already seem to be moving in the right direction. Humanity's best shot at ending war is now. "

His optimism fuels my optimism.