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Essay II
Last Updated: 03/29/2012
The Human Propensity for War
James Rodney Ledwich

This historic panorama of nearly a century of war explains how and why war has become more murderous over time despite efforts toward peace, concluding that the reasons for going to war do not appear to have changed.

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

--Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918).

The horrors of war have long been acknowledged, but it was not until Jean Henry Dunant witnessed the carnage and unimaginable human suffering at the battle of Solferino that he felt something should be done about the plight of the wounded. As a result, Dunant founded the International Red Cross in 1864 and recounted his experiences in his book, A Memory of Solferino, at the end of which he wrote, “It appears likely, on the other hand, that future battles will only become more and more murderous.” This prophecy proved all too tragically true in the First World War of 1914-1918.

First World War 1914 – 1918

The new and powerful German state unified by Chancellor Bismark defeated France in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. The subsequent hysterical attempts by European countries to secure their safety by forming political alliances seem, in retrospect, to have diminished rather than to have heightened their security. These various alliances produced an unstable bubble, which burst on June 28, 1914 when Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by a young Serbian revolutionary.

Austria-Hungary decided to teach Serbia a lesson and invaded the country. Russia, bent on helping her fellow Slavs, counter-invaded Austria-Hungary. Germany, who was allied with Austria-Hungary, invaded Russia. France, who was allied with Russia, declared war on Germany. Finally, when Germany invaded France through Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany. The elaborate system of treaties designed to prevent war had collapsed like a house of cards.

The First World War of 1914-18 was different from anything that had happened before. “The new and frightful weapons of destruction” prophesied by J. Henry Dunant had arrived in the form of artillery with highexplosive shells and machine guns. In addition, there was the mobilization of large conscript armies. The conditions under which the soldiers fought were appalling, particularly in the trenches where they lived and died, in mud sometimes up to their waists.

The generals failed to grasp the new realities of this war. One of the British generals, Douglas Haig, expressed doubts as to the utility of artillery and machine guns. The infantry were mown down in their thousands by withering machine gun fire. More British soldiers died in the first two hours of the battle of Loos (1915) than the total number of casualties in all three services on both sides on D-Day 1944.

The total number of soldiers killed at the end of the war was 9.5 million - 5.4 on the Allied side and 4.1 on the Central Powers side. Many more were maimed. In the 1920s and 1930s, this human detritus could be seen in many European cities eking out a precarious existence on the streets by selling shoe laces, matches, or other of the minor utilities of life.

The carnage and social disruption resulting from the First World War prompted its being named “the War to end all war.”

Between the Wars

The victors held a peace conference in Paris in 1919. Germany was obliged to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which emasculated and humiliated her. What the Germans saw as the unfairness and humiliation of the treaty of Versailles rankled greatly, paving the way for the rise of Nazism and World War II. Out of the peace conference of Paris 1919 emerged the League of Nations and American President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, both designed to negotiate disputes as an alternative to war. The subsequent American administration refused to join the League of Nations, returning to the Western Hemisphere to interfere with the internal affairs of Latin American countries. European countries returned to their imperial activities. They meddled militarily and indecisively in the civil war in Russia. Italy attempted to colonize Libya and Ethiopia. France and Britain carved up the old Ottoman Empire, laying the groundwork for the conflict in the Middle East, which persists to this day. A military dictatorship came to power in Japan, which pursued dreams of an empire in the Far East.

Just before the Second World War, a brutal civil war erupted in Spain (1937). Over one million Spaniards were killed on the battle fields or in Franco’s torture chambers. A new level of brutality was reached when a German air squadron fighting on the side of the Spanish fascist rebels bombed and strafed the unprotected town of Guernica in an attempt to destroy civilian morale. This action caused widespread and vociferous condemnation from countries throughout the international community, many of whom would behave in a similar fashion in the shortly-to-commence Second World War.

The Second World War

The Second World War was the most costly in history. It has been estimated that the total number of deaths was 54.8 million. A significant proportion of these were civilian, partly due to deaths in German concentration camps, but also due to the bombing of British cities and European cities (including Rotterdam, Warsaw, Belgrade, and Leningrad) by the Germans; of German cities by the Allies; and the bombing of Japanese cities by the Allies. The final horror of the Second World War was the destruction by the Americans of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a single atom bomb in each instance. The defence for these two terrorist acts was that they shortened the war and saved (Allied) lives. Innocent civilians, including women and children, are not legitimate targets during war. These two deliberate acts must therefore be considered war crimes.

The Post-Second World War World

The defeated nations of the Second World War were rehabilitated, in contrast with the punitive actions taken by the victors against Germany and Austria-Hungary after The First World War. Also, in contradistinction to the First World War, the USA did not disengage from Europe; and finally, the United Nations was a much stronger organization than the League of Nations. Nevertheless, the world remained divided into the Western block, the Eastern (or communist) block, and the non-aligned block. The presence of the United States and the Soviet Union, both of which possessed nuclear weapons, ensured that they would not go to war directly with each other.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the United Nations Charter, as well as the previous Hague Conventions, stipulated the legal basis on which a nation could go to war. Not to be inhibited by these definitions of a just war, the concept of “pre-emptive strike” was promulgated, in which a country (A) would attack another country (B) on the grounds that the other country (B) was about to attack it (A). This was the basis on which Israel invaded Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in 1967. Having chosen option one (pre-emptive strike), Israel was precluded logically from knowing option two for certain (that she was about to be attacked.) Similarly, the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain in 2003 was based on the most flimsy, incorrect, and disingenuous evidence.

Post-Second World War conflicts

In the 65 years following the end of the Second World War, there have been eight conventional wars. They include: the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949 with an estimated 1.2 million deaths, mostly civilians; the Korean War in 1950 with 2.5 million deaths, 60% of whom were civilians; the Vietnam War in 1955 with 4.2 million deaths, 2.5 million of whom were civilians; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 with an estimated 1.5 million deaths; the Iraq-Iran War in 1980 with 0.7 million deaths and an indeterminate but likely large number of civilian deaths; the First Gulf War (1990) between Iraq and the US-led coalition, with 140,000 deaths; the War in Afghanistan (2001) between NATO and the Taliban Afghan government with approximately 45,600 deaths; the Iraq War between Iraq and the USA-UK coalition with approximately 171,000 deaths. The total number of deaths in these eight conflicts was 8.956 million, of which approximately 50% were civilians. During this same period (1945-2010) there have been approximately 27 civil wars with approximately 19.132 million deaths. [1]

Many of the post Second World War conventional and civil wars were extremely and deliberately brutal in spite of the fact that the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions have laid down, as never before in history, legal versus illegal war and weapons, as well as the distinction between combatants and non-combatants and how they should be treated. Unfortunately, almost all of the wars since 1945, both conventional as well as civil, have been characterized by illegal targeting of civilians, mistreatment of captured prisoners, use of illegal weapons such as napalm, cluster bombs, land mines and poison gas, and widespread atrocities including torture and rape.

The approximate number of people killed in both conventional and civil wars since 1945 is approximately 28.089 million (19.132 million in civil wars and 8.956 million in conventional wars). This number does not include the approximately 30 million deaths in the Chinese Cultural Revolution because the numbers, although undoubtedly large, are too unreliable.

Conclusion: Why Are Things Worse?

The perception that the 65 years since 1945 have been as bloody in terms of people killed in conflicts and the level of atrocities as any comparable period in history gives rise to the question - why?. Although a definitive answer is not forthcoming, it seems clear that although lip service is paid to the search for peaceful solutions, the reasons for going to war do not appear to have changed. There is the struggle for regional dominance, which fueled the Iran-Iraq war; ethnic hatred exemplified by the Rwandan Genocide; ideological differences as in the Vietnam War; struggles for dominance of one group over another as in the civil war in Sri Lanka; the wish for territorial expansion as in the Chinese invasion of Tibet; and occasionally, as in the Iraq War, for no obvious reason. Thus, the reasons for going to war in the 65 years since 1945 appear depressingly similar to the reasons prior to this time, and just as inadequate.

The Crusades, beginning with the First Crusade in 1095 and ending with the battle of Nicopolis in 1396, may be viewed as a microcosm of war in general. In this regard, the concluding section at the end of the three-volume history of the Crusades written by Steven Runciman appears highly germane: “The West showed again and again that it had learnt nothing from The Crusades. The same mistakes were made by every expedition, from the First Crusade in 1095 to the battle of Nicopolis in 1396”.

The breathtaking advances in technology exploited both for good as well as for evil in the 20th Century can only be contrasted with the inimical and complete lack of change in human behaviour going back to well before the Crusades. This sad commentary will only change when a fundamental paradigm shift in thinking permeates our political and military leaders, and the populations which they purport to lead cease cheering them from the sidelines.


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James Rodney Ledwich is a retired cardiologist who obtained a BA. in history from the University of Manitoba in 2000. He has been an active member of Amnesty International for over twenty years and a member of Project Peacemakers (a local chapter of Project Ploughshares). Dr. Ledwich has also written and published several articles on peace and human rights issues.