In “Safety in Numbers,” editor at large Rod Paschall asserts that over the last 20 years, the world has become a far safer place than it was during the 40-year cold war. He ascribes that to the “New World Order” promulgated by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, and carried through by the two presidents who followed. Fewer wars, fewer deaths, safer world. The figures he cites are persuasive: In the 1980s average annual battle deaths hovered around 150,000; in the last decade they have averaged 25,000 to 33,000 per year. Even accounting for victims of terrorism, deaths are substantially down, and the number of wars has decreased from 32 to 14 over the past 20 years, while the number of elected democracies has crept upward.
If these numbers do usher in an extended era of peace and, at some point, prosperity, then we should consider ourselves extremely lucky. The history of humankind, after all, is a history of war and conquest, death and terror. Just consider a few of the eras covered in our Spring 2009 issue: In “Bragadin’s Defense,” Roger Crowley describes in horrific detail the torture and slaughter that Famagusta’s embattled Christians endured at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1571. In “Quelling a Pirate Revolt,” Colin Woodard brings Blackbeard and his scabrous pals to terrifying life as they ravaged the Caribbean in the early 18th century. And in “Lashing Back,” Benny Morris chronicles the fierce, touch-and-go fight for survival of Palestine’s Jews in the months preceding Israel’s 1948 creation, a civil war that featured atrocities on both sides.
It’s heartening to think that this generation—and America as it seeks to refine the world order—may be on the brink of putting such tales behind us.
But 20 years is a mere blink. And numbers aside, does the world feel like a safer place? When India and Pakistan’s differences seem a warhead-launch away from a nuclear holocaust? When there is a growing body count—of civilians and combatants alike—in Iraq and Afghanistan? When Israel’s tanks have again rolled through civilian camps in a deadly bid for security, and when, yes, pirates again range the high seas?
We know that history tends to repeat itself, that lessons learned by one generation are often unlearned by the next. Nonetheless, I choose to be hopeful that there is growing safety in Paschall’s numbers, that they are a harbinger of a better world. For that to transpire, though, we must lengthen our memories and beware the siren song and awful price of conflict—perhaps, I humbly submit, through the continued and close study of the world’s military history.
William W. Horne