Looking back on a cruel century

SUN JOURNAL

Warfare: More people, more weapons and a greater tendency toward mass violence have spawned hundreds of wars, big and little, in the 1900s.

January 10, 1999|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

" I wonder about the future. I fancy no peace will be of a very lasting value. Europe an armed camp for years isn't a cheerful picture. But love seems for the moment to have fled the world." -- Charles Lister, a young English soldier on the eve of World War I.

Call the 20th century advanced if you like, but it also has been bloody. The bloodiest. Ever. A century of organized death.

The human toll of wars, armed conflicts and genocides far surpasses previous centuries in its methodical, often government-sponsored killing. In the past 90 years, according to London's Peace Pledge Union, "three times more people have been killed in wars than in all the previous 500."

This cruel century, with more people, more weapons and more people eager to pull triggers, spawned hundreds of big and little wars. Methods of counting differ, but estimates of those killed in battle and the other dead run into the scores of millions, approaching 100 million. As the century wore on, civilians suffered far more than soldiers.

In the two world wars, various sources put overall military and civilian dead at 14 million (World War I) and between 41 million and 49 million (World War II). Millions more were wounded, sick, famished, missing or homeless.

They were, of course, not statistics but people. Charles Lister, the British soldier, became a company commander, celebrated at Gallipoli as "a tower of strength." He was wounded three times and died at 28, one of Britain's Lost Generation. A fellow soldier wrote of him: "All the men one had so hoped would make this world a little better to live in seem to be taken away. Charles was a spirit no country could afford to lose."

Then there were the genocides: During World War I, as many as 1 million Armenians were exterminated in Turkey. (Turkey denies this). In World War II, almost 6 million Jews -- two-thirds of all the Jews in Europe -- were killed by Adolf Hitler's Nazis. The Nazis killed others by group, too: Gypsies, the retarded, homosexuals, Slavs, political opponents.

Whole countries were depleted. In World War II, the Soviet Union lost 20 million or more soldiers and civilians -- one of eight in the country. Poland lost as many as 6 million -- or one of six.

In the 19th century, casualties were counted in thousands, not millions. The American Civil War, bloody as it was, cost 364,512 Union fatalities (140,415 battle and 224,097 other deaths, according to the U.S. Department of Defense) and at least 260,000 Confederate deaths.

The 19th century was, among the big powers at least, "without question the most peaceful century" of the past five, according to "War in the Modern Great Power System," by Jack S. Levy. It was, he wrote, "an anomaly in an otherwise continuous pattern of warfare over the last five centuries."

"People are not more warlike in this century," says Christopher Chase-Dunn, associate professor of sociology at the Johns Hopkins University. "But there were two differences in the 20th century. First, there are a lot more people. Second, the Industrial Revolution produced more wealth. States spent much of the wealth on the warfare technology that could kill more people."

World War I's innovations included poison gas, machine guns, tanks, submarines and airplanes. World War II introduced nuclear weapons, massed aerial bombardment and guided missiles.

Some observers believe the era of Big War is over, noting that there hasn't been a world war between big powers since 1945; that there is only one world power now, the United States; that countries have become economic rather than military rivals; and that war has become too destructive and too expensive.

Chase-Dunn says he is "a bit skeptical." What happens in the next 30 to 40 years to the distribution of military power in Germany and Japan will be a key, he says.

Still, times change, even in war-making.

"The 20th century is particularly warlike only in the fatality-based indices," Levy writes. It is below average in other indices. In the 16th and 17th centuries, wars were more frequent (a new one every three years, on average) and more constant (in 95 percent of the years in those centuries, someone was warring somewhere). Wars often lasted longer, too -- think of the Thirty Years' War.

But in this century, too, some conflicts -- such as the Arab-Israeli struggle and the troubles in Ireland -- have continued off and on for decades.

Regional killing has replaced wars between the big powers in the latter part of this century. Since the end of World War II in 1945, more than 250 "major" wars have killed more than 23 million people, while tens of millions of others were living casualties in one way or another, the Peace Pledge Union says. Another study, using different definitions, found that from 1990 to 1995, 70 states, most of them too poor to afford warfare, were involved in 93 wars that killed 5.5 million people.

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