LUND, SWEDEN — Lund, Sweden. Last year was too good to be true. Not only did it bring the end of the Cold War but it was the first time in 31 years that no new hot war had started. But now, so soon into the New Year, we are on the familiar treadmill again.
There have been 127 wars in the 46 years since the end of the Second World War. At the peak, in 1987, 27 wars were under way, the most since 1700. On average, the annual war-inflicted death toll has been five times greater in this century than the last and eight times greater than the 18th.
Writing in the early 16th century Erasmus considered war ''unnatural. . . . Animals do not make war on one another. Who ever heard of 100,00 animals rushing together to butcher each other as men do everywhere?'' What on earth makes Saddam Hussein believe that power grows out of a barrel of a gun or George Bush refuse to give sanctions the chance they deserve?
Erasmus believed that wars occurred because they were a way of life among a militarized aristocratic ruling class. In the 18th century liberal thinkers resurrected this theme and argued that the birth of democracy would remove the need for war. Thomas Paine in his pamphlet, ''The Rights of Man,'' suggested that republican government and free trade ''would extirpate the system of war.''
We can now see with 200 years of hindsight that these learned gentlemen were right -- democracies don't go to war with each other. Despite the many setbacks since World War II, the likelihood is that with the recent rapid spread of democracy war will become less common in the years ahead.
It may seem contrary to the death statistics given above, but there are serious and important signs that mankind as a whole is moving away from the medieval notion that regards war as heroic, the appropriate male response to insult.
World War I was the last major war with leaders on all sides eager for combat. But industrialization increased the destructiveness of war and the terrible carnage drove home the real cost of war on civilian society. Moreover, the war hastened the disappearance of hereditary elites that still looked on the opportunity for war as idealistic and noble.
World War II, in marked contrast, began with the leadership of France, Britain and the United States trying to avoid military conflict. Germany and Japan dragged the unwilling democracies a war that ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, convincing the best part of a whole generation that all-out war could never again be a real option. The complex posturing of nuclear deterrence became a codified substitute for the real thing.
America still went to war over Korea and Vietnam but with one hand tied behind its back and with anti-war fever more virulent with each occasion. Against Saddam Hussein the Senate approved the right of the president to make war by only a slender majority.
War remains a popular cause only in parts of the Third World. Of the 127 wars since World War II, all but two have been fought in the Third World, mostly by the inhabitants of this region themselves, though with lots of help, interest and proxy support from the big powers. Even here the idea of war is in retreat. As long as rulers were omnipotent and industrialization meager, war could be presented as both virtuous and practical. But with the rapid spread of education, the rush to economic development and the growth of democracy -- more countries are democratic in the Third World than in the West -- the shibboleths of war are increasingly questioned.
Erasmus, if he were alive today, might take heart. In particular, he would be struck by the transformation of Scandinavian culture. In his day Viking armies still stormed around Europe. But today Sweden has not been to war for 176 years.
It is possible to outgrow the culture of war. In the modern Scandinavian mind, although the countries all boast modern armies and they are far from being pacifist, war is not part of conscious rationality. As with dueling, slavery and capital punishment it is regarded as part of the culture of a bygone, baser time.
The rest of the world is still some way from making the habit of peace a subrational, unexamined mental reflex, as it is here. Yet despite today's war there are signs that we are steadily moving in that direction. President Bush passed up the chance to give it another push but I, for one, don't despair.
Who'd have thought even 20 years ago that half the American people would have been against this war, even before a shot had been fired or a body brought home, and when the enemy was someone so obviously cruel, wicked and tyrannical as Saddam Hussein? I call this progress.