No, Pope Francis, this is not World War Three

In the homily to a mass given this morning in Italy, at a monument to 100,000 soldiers killed in World War I, Pope Francis said:

War is madness… Even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction.

There are a lot of awful things happening around the world, and I appreciate the pope’s advocacy for peace, but this comparison goes too far. Take a look at this chart of battle deaths from armed conflict around the world from 1900 to 2005, from a study by researchers at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (here):

PRIO battle death trends

The chart doesn’t include the past decade, but we don’t need all the numbers in one place to see what a stretch this comparison is. Take Syria’s civil war, which has probably killed more than 150,000 (source) and perhaps as many as 300,000 or more people over the past three years, for an annual death rate of 50,000–100,000. That is a horrifying toll, but it is vastly lower than the annual rates in the several millions that occurred during the World Wars. Put another way, World War II was like 40 to 80 Syrian civil wars at once.

The many other wars of the present do not substantially close this gap. The civil war in Ukraine has killed approximately 3,000 so far (source). More than 2,000 people have died in the fighting associated with Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza this year (source). The resurgent civil war in Iraq dwarfs them both but still remains well below the intensity of the (interconnected) war next door (source). There are more than 20 other armed conflicts ongoing around the world, but most of them are much less lethal than the ones in Syria and Iraq, and their cumulative toll does not even begin to approach the ones that occurred in the World Wars (source).

I sympathize with the Pope’s intentions, but I don’t think that hyperbole is the best way to realize them. Of course, Pope Francis is not alone; we’ve been hearing a lot of this lately. I wonder if violence on the scale of the World Wars now lies so far outside of our lived experience that we simply cannot fathom it. Beyond some level of disorder, things simply become terrible, and all terrible things are alike. I also worry that the fear this apparent availability cascade is producing will drive other governments to react in ways that only make things worse.

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6 Comments

  1. Grant

     /  September 13, 2014

    Perhaps he means a general more violent society, but even there I think he’s a bit too worried.

    Reply
  2. I wonder if violence on the scale of the World Wars now lies so far outside of our lived experience that we simply cannot fathom it.

    I think this is true. No one can imagine nuclear-armed nations going to war with each other on a whim. Totalitarian governments have learned Hitler’s lesson and are typically too economically backwards to even think of conquest. Probably the only nations that could even consider waging World War-scale conflicts without fear of total annihilation today are Brazil and India. Both of these are democracies, and democracies are much less likely to wage war than dictatorships.

    Reply
  3. The first battle of the Marne ended a hundred years ago last Friday. It lasted a week. It produced more than 500K casualties. That’s what a “World War” looks like.

    Reply
  4. Check out Steven Pinker’s Why Violence Has Declined
    Your graph supports his thesis that we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species existence.

    Reply
  1. Krig, kris och demokrati – globala trender 2014 | Johan Larnefeldt

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