Sunday, May 1, 2011

How Many Wars Have There Been, Dad?

I asked my son what question he thought I should answer next in this blog. His response: "How many wars have there been in human history?"

Hmph. So much for throwing me a softball! He might as well have asked me how many died on the Eastern Front in World War II. Or how many fought for the Persians at Thermopylae. Or how many bullets were fired in the Civil War. The numbers are unknowable--we can estimate them based on what we do know, but we'll never know for certain.

Still, the question deserves a little attention. The main problem, as I see it, is in the terms: if we could know the numbers, we would still have to define what we mean by war and human history.

Now, HN, that's just stupid, you say. Everybody knows what a war is, and everybody knows what human history is.

Well, maybe. But bear with me. Someone with unlimited time and patience, with access to all the world's existing records, might be able to pore through book after book in library after library and find every recorded instance of war. That would be a complete list, as far as the records go--after all, if it isn't written down, it isn't really part of history. But would it really answer the question? It seems to me an approach like this ignores a huge part of our past. More on that in a bit.

So how should we define a war? You'd think we could say for certain, but a quick glance at our headlines shows we still don't agree on what a war is. Most news outlets will tell you the U.S. is involved in two wars right now--but the military considers Iraq and Afghanistan to be two fronts in the same war, the Global War on Terrorism. Who is right?

And what about the conflicts in Libya and Syria right now? What about Egypt, or Yemen, or Bahrain, or Tunisia? Are those wars? Insurrections? Rebellions? Revolutions? If the rebels lose, will they have been wars, or something else? To the rebels, I think it's safe to say most of these "Arab Spring" movements are wars. To the dictators they seek to throw down, probably not so much--unless the rebels win.

The past gives us plenty of examples, too, as far back as we care to look. What about Israel's incursion into Gaza in 2008-09? What about our own wars against the American Indians--should we count each campaign, or the destruction of each tribe, or each uprising as a single war, or was the whole bloody mess one war from 1865 to 1891? Was France's war in Indochina distinct from ours in Vietnam, or were they parts of the same war?

We can ask the question as far back as Alexander. Should we consider his conquests--of Asia Minor, Persia, Afghanistan, and western India--separate wars? I suspect he would have regarded the whole long march a single glorious string of conquests. I also suspect his adversaries would have considered each of their parts distinct from the others.

But let's say we can reconcile all those. Let's say we can reckon the number of wars of one sort or another during an average year of human history at one. It's probably a low guess, to be honest, but it makes the math easier--and after all, I'm a Histry Nerd, not a math nerd.

So the average number of wars is one--for how many years? We have hard historical evidence of war as far back as the pharaohs of Egypt; the five-thousand-year-old Narmer Palette appears to depict the pharaoh in the act of killing a captive, and another part of the palette shows a row of decapitated corpses. The cultures of the Fertile Crescent--the Sumerians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Babylonians--left similar records.

But archeology places war's origins even farther back. Jericho had walls and a tower, all of stone, eight thousand years ago; even if we don't know who threatened the city, we can be sure it was a who rather than a what. If your enemies are wild beasts, walls of earth or timber or thorns will suffice, and you don't need a tower.

And just so we don't leave the question unasked: how many walls of timber or earth already existed before Jericho built its walls of stone? We can't know that answer, either--but we can bet they weren't all for keeping animals out.

So if we take the earlier date, we get eight thousand years with one war apiece. Eight thousand wars in human history. If that sounds like a high number, consider this: the wars I've mentioned in this post--in fact, all the wars I've mentioned in this blog--don't even scratch the surface. For every year in which we can't count a single war in Europe, we can surely find a year with more than one. And that's only in Europe. I haven't even mentioned Africa, or South America, or Australia, or most of North America, or any but the tiniest slice of Asia. If anything, eight thousand is probably a conservative number.

War is part of the human experience. Our need to protect ourselves, or to improve our family's lot, or to seek more than we have--even if it means someone else, or many someones, must die--is universal. Whatever progress we have made in the last decades or centuries does not yet amount to an eyeblink in the scope of our history--and let's not forget the last century was the most violent in history in spite of that progress. It is wishful thinking at its most dangerous to believe we are anywhere near the end of war.

All the more reason to understand our past; perhaps understanding what we have fought over, and why, and how, will help us find ways not to fight over those things in the future. I remain hopeful we can figure it out, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. I believe courage is the highest of human qualities, and I have to believe one day we will discover the highest form of courage in something other than killing each other.

So eight thousand, by my very rough estimate, and counting. Let's hope the count ends one day.

Now go get your nerd on!

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