Earlier this week, an attack that claimed 24 lives – including of two babies – at a maternity hospital in Afghanistan left many in shock. Although the three attackers were later killed by security forces, a bigger storm was brewing in the country’s political climate. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani ordered the armed forces to switch to “offensive mode” against the Taliban, and the Taliban responded by dubbing it “declaration of war”.
According to the Afghan National Security Council, the Taliban has conducted an average of 55 attacks per day since the US-Taliban peace deal in late February. The Taliban in turn has accused the US of carrying out 33 drone-strikes and airstrikes in March, violating the terms of the deal.
Afghanistan is seemingly moving towards peace but it seems to be only on paper. This seems ironical considering political pundits around the world have repeatedly argued that war is fast becoming redundant. So how then do we make sense of the recent attacks in Afghanistan and other conflict centres in the world?
History has some answers.
In 261 BC, Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty, which ruled the Indian subcontinent, attacked Kalinga in the east in one of the bloodiest battles in South Asian history, killing more than 1.5 lakh people per official records. But after he won, the scale of destruction dawned upon Ashoka. So he famously decided to renounce armed conquests and dedicated the rest of his life to non-violence and dharma-vijaya, victory through the right principles.
Our history books are filled with anecdotes like these that attempt to inculcate an ethical understanding of the greys between war and peace. If asked whether war is good or bad, the majority will side with the latter. But in reality, we enjoy consuming glorified versions of war. There is a reason why more than 130 films of World War I and at least 1,300 of World War II exist. We love watching war films and rooting for the ‘right’ side. The thrill of watching the acclaimed 1917 lies in the fact that it seems like a single-take film crafted to immerse audiences in the experience of war. As we make more and more war movies, we also expand our appetite for consuming the spectacle of war.
In modernity, as wars flood both our books and newspapers, the word’s perception has been normalised, especially in more privileged and developed societies. In the ancient age, the world fought 24 wars, and at least in the medieval era. However, in modern times – since the Great Wars of Italy in the 15th century – the world has fought more than 269 wars.
However, has the glorification of war in our films and its trivialisation in our newsfeed changed its meaning forever? In 2019, when a member of the Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed killed more than 40 Indian soldiers in Kashmir, many Indian television anchors issued provocative messages on nationalism, calling for war. “We want revenge, not condemnation. … It is time for blood, the enemy’s blood,” said Arnab Goswami, infamous for his aggressive, pro-establishment brand of journalism. In another episode, Goswami invited his viewers to send an SMS on whether India should go to war with Pakistan.
Similarly, tourists have been called out for clicking disrespectful selfies at the Auschwitz Museum and the Holocaust Memorial. “There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam than the site which symbolises deportation of hundreds of thousands to their deaths,” the museum’s managers tweeted.
When you come to @AuschwitzMuseum remember you are at the site where over 1 million people were killed. Respect their memory. There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam than the site which symbolizes deportation of hundreds of thousands to their deaths. pic.twitter.com/TxJk9FgxWl
— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) March 20, 2019
Both these instances indicate that our society has been overwhelmed with information and infotainment options around war, and has thus become hardened against the act of war; the meaning of the word today is far from what it used to be. So before advancing an argument on whether war is on the decline or not, it might be a good idea to start by defining what it really means.
According to the Cambridge dictionary, war is simply armed fighting between two or more countries or groups. This definition encompasses violent attacks between two groups instead of the more traditional idea of war as a means of conquest. During World War II, an estimated 70-85 million people died – around 3% of the world’s population at the time. We can safely argue that today’s conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia, India and Pakistan, etc., have claimed fewer lives. But this wouldn’t mean human suffering has decreased or that modern-day conflicts should not be a matter of concern for world leaders.
However, it also indicates that while the scale of war is declining, the number of violent conflicts is certainly not. In ancient agricultural societies, human violence caused about 15% of all deaths; in the early 21st century, it was responsible for about 1% of global mortality. That’s good news.
The linguist, philosopher and critic Steven Pinker is often credited with being one of the first people to claim that war is gone. He famously said that “today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence”. One reason for his this deduction is the rise of democratic societies restricted by laws on the use of force. Violence is no longer seen as the only way of solving problems. Another reason is the growing trade between neighbouring nation-states.
For example, in 2017, after a month-long standoff between India and China over the disputed territory of Doklam, both finally agreed to pull their troops back. What happened? One obvious reason is that China is India’s largest trading partner. As of 2018, India’s imports from China stood at $70.32 billion, while exports to the country were valued at $16.75 billion. That is a lot of business to lose for both countries, so it made perfect sense to deescalate.
Counties armed with nuclear power look at the tendency of war as a means to achieve peace. This makes them look at alternatives to resolve conflicts which lead us to believe that war is disappearing along with the “civilising process”. It is said that during the Cold War, both sides were building weapons that were considered “most useful if never used”.
But it’s not all rosy. Bear Braumoeller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, attributes Pinker-like beliefs to “random luck”, and adds that that luck can run out any time. In his book, Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age (2019), Braumoeller argued that the belief that war is disappearing has created a false sense of security and that the “escalatory propensity of war” still exists. The recent tiff between the US and North Korea comes to mind. There are many such examples of war-like escalations, including between Peru and Ecuador, over a disputed soccer match in 1995, and between Greece and Turkey over an uninhabited rock. It would be fair to say that although the probability is low, the world still sits on ticking time bomb when it comes to the next big war.
The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari returned this debate to the fore with his book Homo Deus (2015), in which he said the end of war is one of the “good news” of our times. He argues that throughout history, international relations were governed by the law of the jungle, where peace was in a precarious state and war always remained an option. “This law of the the jungle has finally been broken,” he wrote. It’s true. Today, the fabric of society is such that governments and corporations seldom consider war as a likely event while taking geopolitical decisions. Countries have realised that wars don’t even make economic sense anymore. Rather than resorting to violence, they tend towards mutual benefit by developing trade and skill-based economies. The rise of capitalism across the world has made countries look at even peace as a profitable investment.
The Korean War in 1950-1953 was the last one in which tensions grew between superpowers on both sides (notwithstanding escalations by proxy, like Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Iran in the 1980s; he had military and economic support from both the US and the Soviet Union). While it is true that in the last 75 years the likelihood of World War III has been close to zero, it is also true that war has been changing its shape and form. The US’s war on terror is one example. This ‘war’, launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, cost at least 480,000 lives and $5.9 trillion, and precipitated a host of problems in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
According to Harari, terrorism is a show. “Terrorists stage a terrifying spectacle of violence that captures our imagination and makes us feel as if we are sliding back into medieval chaos. In most cases, overreaction to terrorism poses a far greater threat to our security than the terrorists themselves,” he writes. It can, therefore, be extrapolated that America’s overreaction has cost peace in many parts of the globe – and has even led to a counter-reaction in most cases.
Even if we were to say today that violence around the world is on the decline, the trend doesn’t necessarily hold true for the future – especially with attacks like those in Afghanistan becoming more common. In fact, scientists have warned of a new kind of war called hybrid warfare. It combines chemical weaponry, random but targeted killings, terrorism, cyber warfare, and other indirect means like fake news, diplomacy and electoral interventions to achieve its goals. India and Pakistan, for example, have been fuelling violence in Baluchistan and Kashmir respectively to indirectly take on each other. Today, politicide and homicide kill more people than wars. ISIS’s genocidal attacks on the Yazidi, the Boko Haram’s attacks against Nigerian civilians, and the rise of neo-Nazis in Germany indicates that war is far from over.
Perhaps the solution lies in a sublime line from Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace (1869): “If everyone fought for their own convictions, there would be no war.” Simply, instead of believing in someone else’s ideas of nationalism and pride, if one stands up for one’s own ideals, ambitions and beliefs, war would end. This is probably what Emperor Ashoka also experienced when he renounced violence and followed his quest for inner peace, eventually leading to the spread of Buddhism across Asia.
Prerna Lidhoo is a journalist based in Delhi. She tweets @PLidhoo.