When I review the blessings of my extraordinarily blessed life, this one always appears near the top of my list: I am an adult male who has never been to war. I have always assumed — without thinking about it too hard — that in the historical scheme of things, this is a great privilege, and a great rarity.

Am I right about that? Over the course of human history, what is your estimate of the fraction of males who have reached adulthood without participating in a military conflict?

(Obviously, there’s some fuzziness about what counts as military conflict. I’m thinking here not about the occasional street fighter, but about the guy living in mud and getting shot at for weeks at a time — or things equally dangerous/traumatic/uncomfortable.)


12 Responses to “Thanksgiving”

  1. 1 1 Sam

    Steven Pinker wondered a similar thing…

    From memory, the global percentage on males not dying through violence is at an all time high.

  2. 2 2 Fenn

    Realize that less than 20 percent of men in the Army during Vietnam would have ever spent weeks at a time living in mud and getting shot at.

    At least that was what I was told during my stint in the Army, while I protected the beer in Germany during the first Gulf War.

  3. 3 3 janm

    Peter Turchin looked at this in “War and Peace and War” and his other work, and the notion that population pressure has caused war in the past. It has the concept of “elite overproduction”, where the higher levels of a society get too crowded and historically this was resolved by war causing the death of a many elites. This then leads to a period of some social mobility, and then over a few generations, elite overproduction, and then more war.

    It is a few years since I read the book, but I recall it being a cycle over about three generations.

    An interesting concept to think about, especially in conjunction with “A Farewell to Alms” and “The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History”.

  4. 4 4 lukas

    Unless I’m very mistaken, most pre-modern agricultural societies had warrior classes to do the fighting for them. That doesn’t mean that common people were not affected by wars, obviously, but they were not active participants in the wars that devastated them.

  5. 5 5 Harold

    Steven Pinker starts from the point that there is a belief that violence has increased – I am not sure that is true. He may be right that we think of pre-historical times as a period where wars were limited in scale. He uses data from hunter gatherer tribes today to extrapolate death by violence in pre-history. The tribes today are undergoing an unprecedented change in way of life and reduction of territories – I doubt that any evidence gathered today has much relevence to pre-history.

    Last century and the one before, war between European states was common, and destructive. Today it is almost inconceivable. France and Britain may not always get on, but today they are talking of flying French aircraft on British aircraft carriers, rather than declaring war on eachother.

    During the days of Empire, war was almost continuous for colonial powers. However, this would touch the civilian back home only remotely. It touched the civilians in the colonised countries rather more directly.

    Further back, the peasantry formed the army, and any man may have been called away from his fields to carry a pike or bow for his lord or king.

    I think there was considerable periods under the Romans where war was rather scarce. The first century was mainly warring at the expanding edges of the empire. After taking Britain, the second century had very few major wars. A man living in the Roman empire at this time might have felt similar to how we do now about the chance of being killed in war.

    Interestingly, in China there seems to be few wars during this period also.

  6. 6 6 Ken B

    Pretty much my thought too. Or lived in a tribal society where war was constant. It is a function of being born recently (in the grand scale of things).

  7. 7 7 Seth

    The side who would have had me on it any war should count itself lucky.

  8. 8 8 Super-Fly

    I think it’s hard to say. Way back when, it took a huge amount of people to support a war. Before industry, bows, arrows, shields, swords, armor, etc. all had to be made by hand. You had to feed a huge army and have a network to transport stuff back and forth. I think in ancient/medieval times, the number of civilians needed for a war would have been huge.

    Also, are we including getting conquered in the ‘military conflict’ category? When the Aztecs were wiped out, the percent involved was about 100. So, pretty much anyone who has been conquered should be included in the list.

  9. 9 9 Nick

    Given that you’ve qualified your statement with being an adult male, perhaps you should feel no more grateful that you’ve never been to war as you should spiteful towards your gender (or humanity itself) for having to endure warfare to begin with.

  10. 10 10 dave

    and how do you define participation? does paying taxes to a state that engages in war count?
    i think the percentage of people (men and women) that participate in actual battle is low, even historically.

    civil war, on the other hand…tends to be a bloody mess. if you were around during a civil war, i would think the odds are better than half that you were participating.

    contrast the casualties at the battle of gettysburg with those from normandy (wikipedia)
    u.s. pop ~ 31.4m (1860 census)
    casualties: ~46000
    u.s. pop ~ 132.2m (1940 census)
    casualties ~6000

    @nick welcome to the jungle. what do you expect from a bunch of monkeys? tea and civil discourse?

  11. 11 11 Concord Mike

    I believe war is the exception rather than the rule in human history. You won’t get that from your history textbooks, but you must realize the the history textbooks are skewed toward those most tumultuous regional and world events in human history.

    Written and oral history tells us little about the generations of people across the world who lead uneventful, peaceful lives. It tells us much about those exceptional moments where people raised arms and attacked other people.

  12. 12 12 Robert S. Porter

    “Steven Pinker starts from the point that there is a belief that violence has increased – I am not sure that is true.”

    Within the literature on violence it is commonly stated that most people believe the world to be more violent than before. One example:

    “It is widely believed that we are living today in one of history’s most violent periods. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that, in Western societies at least, the fear that we may be currently undergoing a process of ‘de-civilization’, above all of mounting violence, is deeply imprinted in the contemporary Zeitgeist, one of the dominant beliefs of our times. In the opening chapter of their recently published International Handbook of Violence Research (2003:5), for example, the editors Heitmeyer and Hagan wrote that: ‘In Western societies, the dream of a non-violent modern age clashes with a reality that is massively overshadowed, if not totally plunged into darkness by overt acts of violence and the potential for destruction…’” [Eric Dunning, Violence and Violence-Control in Long-Term Perspective: ‘Testing’ Elias in Relation to War,
    Genocide, Crime, Punishment and Sport]

    Julius Ruff in his book, Violence in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800, also comments on the idea that people perceive an increase in violence despite comtemporary decreases. However, there was an increase in the post-war period. “These dada have shown dramatic increases since about 1960 in all forms for reported offenses constituting a post-World War II cirme wave extending in to the early 1990s in many western countries. These statistics also suggest that vioelnce human conflict has become not only more requent in the second half of the twentieth century but also more lethal as well”. [p. 2]

    For evidence of the extent of violence in the early twentieth century, one needs only read Niall Ferguson, The War of the World, where he clearly states: “The hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era.” [xxxiv]

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