„Has War Declined Through Human History?“ - Erster Vortrag von Prof. Michael Mann im Rahmen der Ringvorlesung: „The End of Pacification? The Transformation of Political Violence in the 21st Century“

By Johanna Schafgans

For over 150 years liberal optimism has dominated theories of war. It has been repeatedly argued that war either is just declining or will shortly decline. There have been exceptions, especially in Germany and more generally in the first half of the twentieth century, but there has been a recent revival of such optimism, especially in the work of Azar Gat, John Mueller, Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker who all perceive a long-term decline in war and violence through history, speeding up in the post-1945-period.
But is it really like that? Has war declined through human history? Or has it just being transformed? These questions among others were discussed with Prof. Michael Mann in his lecture “Has War Declined Through Human History?“, as part of the lecture series of the Cluster of Excellence “The Formation of Normative Orders”, entitled: “The End of Pacification? The Transformation of Political Violence in the 21st Century”. Michael Mann is Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology, UCLA, and Honorary Professor, Cambridge University.

Michael Mann started his lecture posing a simple question: Has war declined or not? The predominant view in social sciences for 250 years was either that it is declining or that it shortly will. He pointed out that in the enlightenment of the 19th century the view was that war was going to decline because of a variety of structures depending who the theorist was: the rise of industrial society as it was for Henri de Saint-Simon, or capitalist society as for Karl Marx, market society, democratic society, etc. The common element of these diverse theories was that war would decline.
After 1945 there was a similar situation when the two main systems: liberal capitalism and state socialism won the war and proclaimed an era of peace. Although there was a cold war going on, it was not something that gripped the population as a whole. And so once again sociology and much of the political social sciences neglected the threat of war.
Further, the End of the 1990s produced a tremendous revival of the liberal optimism. Some important theorists such as Azar Gat, John Mueller, Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker talked about a really long term decline of violence in the  history of human civilization. In their conception there weren’t anymore  these dichotomous structural shifts from one social form which had dominated the whole history before to another form dominating the future, as in the 18th- and 19th-century theories, but rather a steady or at least a continuous decline in war throughout human history.
To begin with, Professor Mann pointed out that he would concentrate on Steven Pickers extensive data on war, to discuss whether war had declined or not. In the first part, he talked about the long-term trends through to 1945 and in the second part about the world since 1945.
To start, he focused on the war of ancient people. Overall there is a tendency of exaggerating the accounts of the killing ratio of ancient people. In fact, the overall view on groups like the Assyrians was, that they invaded another’s territory, came across the city that resisted them, after they seized it, and destroyed the city and killed most of the people that live there. Prof. Mann explained that this is recalled of being typical, but it was not typical - it was, what he calls, exemplary repression that means being most murderous as an deterrent example to other cities.
Second, examining the absolute number of deaths (obviously estimated), one can see that World War II was the most murderous. Observing that list, one could argue that it wouldn’t particularly support what Pinker is arguing that there is a long term trend towards the declining of war. But Pinker argues that this statistics, the absolute number of deaths, is nearly meaningless; what is needed is a relational rate. So what he does is to calculate a relative number according to the population of that time and then he gets a statistics more approximated to his argument.
Besides, Professor Man defended that this relative number wasn’t still the accurate calculation. To have a better comparison, it was important to put into account the duration of war. By calculating the duration giving an annual death rate one could see, that all the top wars were modern ones with World War II at the first place and World War I at the second place. Then one could see, that the first half of the 20th century was the most murderous period in the history of the world.  
Moreover, Michael Mann continued his presentation talking about the period after 1945. In this period it could be said that there was an enormous decline in inter-state wars, and there were some numbers of reasons that could explain this phenomenon: First, it had to do with the end of the empires. Most of the wars in the period of empires were colonial wars. Second, there were nuclear weapons for mutual deterrence and the great powers, the US and the Soviet Union, did show a great deal of restraint. Third, there was more international regulation.
Nevertheless, he explained that this decline in interstate wars, was balanced by a rise of civil wars. The rise started in 1930 and continued to 1990 and then there was a small decline, when the cold war was ended without much violence. It was exactly in that small period, when the liberals presented their optimistic theories about the declining of wars. So there was a hope that civil wars continue to decline, but they didn’t: they grew again from about 2010 and 2017 is the worst year so far for the number of killings and the number of refugees. However, he mentioned that the label “civil” could be misleading because these wars were almost all internationalized: Other parties but also the great powers get involved in.
Furthermore, Michael Mann argued that when dealing with contemporary war, Randall Collins specific typology of violence and killing in war was helpful. In his typology he distinguished two main types of killing: on the one hand, war in most of history was “ferocious”, mainly very short-distance body hacking. On the other hand in modern inter-state war had become much more long-distance without emotion. In the wars in the advanced northern countries, the killers are sitting at screens somewhere in Kansas or in England and they are playing a computer game, which results in inflicting substantial casualties a thousand miles away or even further. Simultaneously, there was a complete turn towards professional armies, away from mass conscription. So war was conducted by relative small professional armies. There are a 1.4 million American troops out of a population of 300 million and 0.7 percent of the population have fought abroad in 21st century war, without any real impact on American culture. War for the North was now less “ferocious” than “callous”.
In conclusion, these are the reasons why liberals thought that war was declining, but it wasn’t. If looking to the statistics, the soldiers dying in battles might decline very slow, but the number of civilians dying from the consequences of war was increasing steadily. So these were really serious wars, but a long way from us.
In addition, this shift from “ferocious” to “callous” violence, which rendered war less visible and less central to Northern culture, has the deceptive appearance of pacifism. Likewise, wars became barely visible and that is also why many people believe that wars were declining. But globally war is not declining, but it is being transformed.
To conclude, Michael Mann presented his perspectives for the future of war: First, there was the new possibility of a nuclear war. He claimed that so far human beings had managed to live with nuclear weapons apart from the first time they were used. But the problem would arise if the states would go beyond the two superpowers constellation with its MAD structure and more states would start having nuclear weapons. Another problematic point was second, the US-China confrontation, with the trade war and the expansion of the chinese military to the Pacific. Third, there was the possibility of an environmental war, which was, in his view, becoming more and more likely. Furthermore, there is a problem with the massive immigration flows and the tendency of states to build more and more walls – “who knows what wars could develop from that”.
Ultimately, it can be argued that the liberals were wrong and war is certainly not abolished but it is currently getting worse.

 


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