ISSUE 39
AUTUMN 2002
Peace Matters index
 

 

 

   

counting the dead

 
 


ONLINE contents

- passing the torch
- war by february
- counting the dead
- conflict map
- remembering


Location of wars 1945-2002
Anti war demonstration London
Click map for larger version


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After a slight dip in the number of wars being fought each year around the world towards the end of the last century this progressive trend is being undermined in particular by the armchair warriors of the US administration. The never ending ‘war on terror’ promised to us by US Vice President Cheney adds a new dimension and further complications to those trying to keep track of wars, armed conflicts, complex emergencies to say nothing of all those events in which people are brutalised or killed by non military agency. War is just one of the category in the lexicon of murderous human activities.

The common image of war as a clash of two groups of soldiers fighting and killing each other for the interests of their states now applies to only a few, mainly border conflicts; it has become the exception rather than the rule.

Wars have become curiously difficult to pin down despite their apparent simplicity when viewed through the lens of a TV news camera or newspaper report. Asked how many wars were underway at present the Foreign Office had no idea and those who keep track of armed conflicts and the resultant casualties differed widely in their estimates. Enquirers are always surprised when told that precise figures of casualties are unavailable for any war let alone an ongoing one. There is no agency that travels the world counting the corpses and opposing sides have their own reasons for exaggerating or understating the number of casualties.

Different compilers over the years have selected different criteria for defining war and war casualties. Some include only battlefield deaths, some exclude deaths causes by bombing since these may be predominantly civilian and not deaths of combat personnel. By some criteria one can have an apparently trivial conflict with a comparatively small number of battlefield deaths but hundreds of thousands civilian casualties. If we think this a curious division keep it in mind on Remembrance Day – that national day to ‘remember’ the British military dead! Counting the dead is a highly political issue.

Ignoring all such restrictive criteria and including deaths caused by starvation and disease during war and conflict when such deaths were a direct result of the conflict we arrive at 50-51 million people killed in war between 1945 and 2000.

Looking at the 20th century as a whole according to similar criteria between 130 million and 142 million people have been killed in war. Taking a slightly wider view which includes deaths caused by political decisions such as the Armenian genocide, the Ukrainian starvation and so on our estimated total grows to between 214 and 226 million.

This scale of casualties parallels the growth in the number, power and availability of weapons and by a continuing willingness by states to resort to force. The aversion to war after the bloodletting of the First World War was genuine but attempts to manage world affairs without recourse to arms faltered very quickly as political leaders jockeyed for advantage on the world stage. In any case going to war has always been easier than building a peace. Whatever the build up of armed forces during the century has done it has not been to provide security.

In advance of September 11th this year we heard a lot about increased security at various sites all around the world but this was curious use of the word. All those surface to air missiles around Washington, US skies full of fighter planes, US embassies around the world closed and with the US Vice President being hidden in some deep bunker for the day surely signified a decrease in security. In this ‘smoke and mirror’ war on terror campaign few things are what they seem.

 
     

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