Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war

In an essay challenging Steven Pinker’s thesis that the world is becoming progressively more peaceful, John Gray writes: While it is true that war has changed, it has not become less destructive. Rather than a contest between well-organised states that can at some point negotiate peace, it is now more often a many-sided conflict in fractured or collapsed states that no one has the power to end. The protagonists are armed irregulars, some of them killing and being killed for the sake of an idea or faith, others from fear or a desire for revenge and yet others from the world’s swelling armies of mercenaries, who fight for profit. For all of them, attacks on civilian populations have become normal. The ferocious conflict in Syria, in which methodical starvation and the systematic destruction of urban environments are deployed as strategies, is an example of this type of warfare.

It may be true that the modern state’s monopoly of force has led, in some contexts, to declining rates of violent death. But it is also true that the power of the modern state has been used for purposes of mass killing, and one should not pass too quickly over victims of state terror. With increasing historical knowledge it has become clear that the “Holocaust-by-bullets” – the mass shootings of Jews, mostly in the Soviet Union, during the second world war – was perpetrated on an even larger scale than previously realised. Soviet agricultural collectivisation incurred millions of foreseeable deaths, mainly as a result of starvation, with deportation to uninhabitable regions, life-threatening conditions in the Gulag and military-style operations against recalcitrant villages also playing an important role. Peacetime deaths due to internal repression under the Mao regime have been estimated to be around 70 million. Along with fatalities caused by state terror were unnumbered millions whose lives were irreparably broken and shortened. How these casualties fit into the scheme of declining violence is unclear. Pinker goes so far as to suggest that the 20th-century Hemoclysm [the tide of 20th-century mass murder in which Pinker includes the Holocaust] might have been a gigantic statistical fluke, and cautions that any history of the last century that represents it as having been especially violent may be “apt to exaggerate the narrative coherence of this history” (the italics are Pinker’s). However, there is an equal or greater risk in abandoning a coherent and truthful narrative of the violence of the last century for the sake of a spurious quantitative precision.

Estimating the numbers of those who die from violence involves complex questions of cause and effect, which cannot always be separated from moral judgments. There are many kinds of lethal force that do not produce immediate death. Are those who die of hunger or disease during war or its aftermath counted among the casualties? Do refugees whose lives are cut short appear in the count? Where torture is used in war, will its victims figure in the calculus if they succumb years later from the physical and mental damage that has been inflicted on them? Do infants who are born to brief and painful lives as a result of exposure to Agent Orange or depleted uranium find a place in the roll call of the dead? If women who have been raped as part of a military strategy of sexual violence die before their time, will their passing feature in the statistical tables?

While the seeming exactitude of statistics may be compelling, much of the human cost of war is incalculable. Deaths by violence are not all equal. It is terrible to die as a conscript in the trenches or a civilian in an aerial bombing campaign, but to perish from overwork, beating or cold in a labour camp can be a greater evil. It is worse still to be killed as part of a systematic campaign of extermination as happened to those who were consigned to death camps such as Treblinka. Disregarding these distinctions, the statistics presented by those who celebrate the arrival of the Long Peace are morally dubious if not meaningless. [Continue reading…]

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