Damien Black

Old Nick's Letters

Welcome to Old Nick's Letters, a series of blogs and occasional videos compiled by the writer whenever he feels the constellations are propitious.

We live longer and kill more than ever before

We live in an age of unprecedented longevity. The average lifespan across the world was 71 in 2015 according to the WHO, and has steadily risen since the Industrial Revolution. In 1800 the average life expectancy in the UK was around 40, about half what it is today. Even taking child mortality into account, progress is striking: in 1845 a five-year old child could expect to live to 55; today it’s 82.

And thanks to improvements made to public health on a global scale in the past century, that no longer applies solely to first world countries. Having eradicated disease and hunger in many (but by no means all) parts of the world, we have been steadily closing the gap in lifespan between the first and third worlds since 1900. For instance in 1950, average life expectancy in Europe was around 65, but only 35 in Africa. Today the figures stand at about 75 and 50 respectively; even comparing the best with the worst, there are signs of slow but sure progress.

And yet on the field of human conflict, life seems to have become steadily cheaper during the same two-hundred year period that has seen such a remarkable increase in longevity.

In the 1700s, wars between European nations – which by then were being fought across the globe as countries such as France and England vied for colonial mastery in Asia and the Americas – usually numbered in the tens of thousands, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War being classic examples. It seemed as if, in Europe at least, wars were getting less deadly: the 30 Years War of the preceding century caused at least 100,000 deaths per year.

But around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that began to change and the trend of war deaths spiked. During the Napoleonic Wars, casualties were breaking into six figures for single campaigns, rivalling the European wars of the 1600s – total fatalities are estimated at between 3 million and twice that number between 1803 and 1815. I’m going to use the most conservative estimates of death toll for the purposes of this article, so in this case that works out at a quarter of a million per year.

Europe wasn’t the only region to see mass slaughter in the 19th century. The Taiping Rebellion was a civil war in China that lasted 14 years and killed at least 20 million. That’s a mean average of 1.4 million per year. Hard on the heels of that conflict came another homegrown Chinese bloodbath: the Dungan Revolt saw warring factions butcher each other to the tune of 8 million deaths across 15 years. An average of about half a million per year.

And up next we have the 20th century, which brought us totalitarianism, mechanised warfare and mass conscription. The First World War saw at least 17 million military and civilian deaths across a four-year period – that works out to about 4.5 million per year. And let’s not forget the overlapping Russian (anything but) Civil War, which saw the French, British and Americans join in the bloodletting, boosting casualties to 5 million between 1917 and 1921 – an average of a million per year.

Add another generation and we have good old WWII: total deaths for this conflict including the Holocaust range from 60 million to 80 million in a six-year period. That works out to 10 million per year – conservative estimate.

And while we haven’t had anything quite as bad as Churchill/Roosvelt/Stalin vs. Hitler/Mussolini/Hirohito in the postwar era, let’s not get too comfortable resting on our peacetime laurels folks: independent research suggests that during the past 60 years US foreign policy including the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea has caused at least 20 million deaths. That’s the equivalent of a third of a million people killed every year, which is a bit like having a Napoleonic War continuously running since 1945.

Looking at the data it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that during the past two centuries, just as we have steadily improved our methods of prolonging life for many, we have also improved our methods of cutting it short rather brutally for the unlucky ‘few’. Science a two-edged sword? Definitely.

And yet, as a net value, the global population has ballooned in that time from 1 billion c.1800 to seven times that number today. In fact, in the past 15 years the increase alone in worldwide population has been estimated at 1 billion – the same as the entire population of the planet 200 years ago!

Going on that, the verdict would seem to be that modernity is, on the whole, winning the cause of mankind. We have more life, not less, thanks to scientific and perhaps even political developments of the past 200 years.

But it would take a hardened cynic to offer this kind of mathematical morality as a justification for the above mentioned rapine that has seen at least 130 million people – twice the population of the UK today – die presumably quite gruesome and untimely deaths since c.1800.

And yet that does seem to be what neoliberal thinkers are advancing as an argument: look at all the economic progress made since the Englightenment and thank capitalism, whilst pointing to the horrendous casualties caused by Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia et al as examples of the barbarism of alternate ideologies (whilst conveniently eliding those inflicted by our side). On the basis of that, conclude that things are going just fine as they are – steady as she goes, HMS Neoliberal!

I do not see why all this slaughter is necessary to maintaining the developments that have done so much to increase the lifespan of those fortunate enough not to get themselves dismembered in a mechanised war: clean, running water, a healthy balanced diet, sanitation programmes and free (or at the very least affordable) healthcare for the entire human race cannot be beyond our ingenuity; much less dependent on aggressive foreign policies that see us move from diplomacy to war (both overt and covert) almost as a reflex.

When will the world wake up and realise that the only winners in a war are those who profit from them: big banks, multinational corporations, and those of the political class who are psychopathic enough to serve their interests? When will we realise that the developments that have done so much to enlarge human lifespan have little or nothing to do with fighting wars and everything to do with promoting the peaceful conditions that enabled these developments to occur in the first place?

The neoliberal argument that implies that war is always the fault of the non-democratic (read: capitalist) nations and an inevitable biproduct of the global system that has allowed many of us to prosper and flourish is a fallacy based on outright lies and erroneous conflation. In an era when most nation-states reside within land boundaries that have not changed much in decades, wars need not be fought at all: far more profit lies in trading with our neighbours and other more distant lands, not attacking them and slaughtering their populations.

And yet still we fight them. Why? At first glance it would appear to be because we simply don’t know any better. As societies we are all too used to hearing about them; they are seen as an inevitability; it’s in our blood, human nature. So goes the reasoning. And while we reason thus, shrugging our shoulders and shaking our heads in despair, the banking and corporate criminals who profit from war industries batten on our ignorance, taking advantage of our implicit compliance and wanton gullibility to fill their coffers. At least back in the day wars for territory made sense, ruthless as they were: land was the major commodity in the agrarian economies of the Middle Ages. Nowadays, it doesn’t even matter to the moneylenders who wins the war, nor does it concern those who supply munitions, goods and other support to invading and defending armies at a handsome price.

The true purpose of war in our modern globalised era is no longer territorial annexation, or even the victory or export of an ideology or way of life: take a look at most of the major wars fought by Western powers since WWII and you will quickly realise that they have not resulted in such things. The true purpose of war in this era is to create a funnel of money that leads straight to the coffers of the banks who lend to fund armed conflict, the hardware suppliers who enable such, and the reconstruction companies who step in to rebuild what has been destroyed in the event of a ‘victory’. Except the lives and limbs that have been lost of course: those can never be replaced.

To the best of my knowledge, the dead cannot speak. That is why now it is more important than ever that we who choose to pay attention, we who choose to have a conscience, speak for them.

To recap, well over 100 million people have died in the past two centuries as a result of a handful of wars I have mentioned in this article – and it is by no means exhaustive. Perhaps more crucially, a fifth of that number have died in the past 70 years as a result of foriegn conflicts involving the US alone.

How many more will die in the 21st century before we stop conniving at the wargames of the rich?



10 Deadliest Wars In Human History

How many died in the Chinese Taiping Rebellion?