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Statistics of Deadly Quarrels

Brian Hayes

Look upon the phenomenon of war with dispassion and detachment, as if observing the follies of another species on a distant planet: From such an elevated view, war seems a puny enough pastime. Demographically, it hardly matters. War deaths amount to something like 1 percent of all deaths; in many places, more die by suicide, and still more in accidents. If saving human lives is the great desideratum, then there is more to be gained by prevention of drowning and auto wrecks than by the abolition of war.

But no one on this planet sees war from such a height of austere equanimity. Even the gods on Olympus could not keep from meddling in earthly conflicts. Something about the clash of arms has a special power to rouse the stronger emotions—pity and love as well as fear and hatred—and so our response to battlefield killing and dying is out of all proportion to its rank in tables of vital statistics. When war comes, it muscles aside the calmer aspects of life; no one is unmoved. Most of us choose one side or the other, but even among those who merely want to stop the fighting, feelings run high. ("Antiwar militant" is no oxymoron.)

Figure 1. The Great War in La Plata (1865-1870) . . .Click to Enlarge Image

The same inflamed passions that give war its urgent human interest also stand in the way of scholarly or scientific understanding. Reaching impartial judgment about rights and wrongs seems all but impossible. Stepping outside the bounds of one's own culture and ideology is also a challenge—not to mention the bounds of one's time and place. We tend to see all wars through the lens of the current conflict, and we mine history for lessons convenient to the present purpose.

One defense against such distortions is the statistical method of gathering data about many wars from many sources, in the hope that at least some of the biases will balance out and true patterns will emerge. It's a dumb, brute-force approach and not foolproof, but nothing else looks more promising. A pioneer of this quantitative study of war was Lewis Fry Richardson, the British meteorologist whose ambitious but premature foray into numerical weather forecasting I described in this space a year ago. Now seems a good time to consider the other half of Richardson's lifework, on the mathematics of armed conflict.

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