“Winning the War on War”

Joshua Goldstein is professor emeritus of International Affairs, American University.  If his new book, “Winning the War on War: the Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide” is as insightful as his current article in Foreign Policy, I’ll run to get to the bookstore first.  Goldstein overturns seven conventional ‘wisdoms’ on war and peace starting with the false statements that the ‘world is a more violent’ place than it’s ever been, and war is ‘more brutal to civilians’.

Expectations for the new century were bleak even before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and their bloody aftermath: Political scientist James G. Blight and former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara suggested earlier that year that we could look forward to an average of 3 millionwar deaths per year worldwide in the 21st century.

So far they haven’t even been close. In fact, the last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years, based on data compiled by researchers Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleditsch of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Worldwide, deaths caused directly by war-related violence in the new century have averaged about 55,000 per year, just over half of what they were in the 1990s (100,000 a year), a third of what they were during the Cold War (180,000 a year from 1950 to 1989), and a hundredth of what they were in World War II…

During World War II, Allied bombers killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Dresden and Tokyo not by accident, but as a matter of tactics; Germany, of course, murdered civilians by the millions. And when today’s civilians do end up in harm’s way, more people are looking out for them. The humanitarian dollars spent per displaced person rose in real terms from $150 in the early 1990s to $300 in 2006.

I hope this book stirs all types of controversy.  Goldstein’s thesis, that humankind may actually be progressing to an era in which war is passe, is based on facts, not idealism or grand philosophy.  Yes, the assymetrical wars of late are frightening, but they don’t come close to the savage slaughters of WW1 and WW2.

I’ve been commenting a long time  that cultural attitudes towards war and civilian deaths have undergone historical change.  When in history have military operations been judged not just on how effective they were in killing the enemy, but how ‘surgical’ they were in not harming civilians?  When have top generals apologized for civilian deaths? Professor Goldstein expands on this as a global trend and reflects how popular attitude 180 degrees opposite what it was when civilians accepted the destruction of London, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagazaki as legitimate tactical moves in war strategy

This is a great achievement of mankind and should be celebrated as such. Of course, it’s not set in stone.  But the revulsion of survivors of WW1 and WW2 and an opposition to the Vietnam War that brought about cultural revolutions throughout the West have had lasting impact.  Despite attempts by neoconservatives to reverse the verdict on America’s disaster in Vietnam, so far they are failing.   The opposition to the Vietnam war took many years to solidify during the 1960s and early 1970s.  Yet, global opposition to the US invasion of Iraq preceded the invasion, and majority US opposition gelled within two years.

Mr. Goldstein’s point are especially provocative because they:

a) are made against a backdrop of seemingly endless war by the US

b) offer a plausible defense of unmanned drone attacks which should inform the ethic debate surrounding their use today; and

c)  underscores the demagoguery of those war hawks peddling China as the next ‘enemy’ the US will face by noting that China has not shot a single bullet in military confrontation in 25 years and even with the ‘big naval build-up’ in the South China Sea, it’s defense budget is 1/9th of the US.


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