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Using Incorrect Facts: The Worst Arguments AGAINST the World is Getting Safer

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

This next rebuttal to “anti-pollyannas” (as I call them) isn’t a logical fallacy, but more a plea: fact check your assertions. More importantly, double check that the person you're arguing against hasn’t already debunked said fact.

John Arquilla, in his Foreign Policy article “The Big Kill”, cites a disturbing piece of evidence: civilians are dying in war at greater rates than the past!

“In World War I, perhaps only 10 percent of the 10 million-plus who died were civilians. The number of noncombatant deaths jumped to as much as 50 percent of the 50 million-plus lives lost in World War II, and the sad toll has kept on rising ever since. Perhaps the worst, but hardly the only, terrible example of this trend can be seen in the Congo war — flaring up again right now — in which over 90 percent of the several million dead were noncombatants.”

John Gray’s article in The Guardian paraphrases (and links to) Arquilla’s argument:

“Around a million of the 10 million deaths due to the first world war were of non‑combatants, whereas around half of the more than 50 million casualties of the second world war and over 90% of the millions who have perished in the violence that has wracked the Congo for decades belong in that category.”

There are a number of problems with both these quotes and this argument...

First, this factoid has been debunked. Turns out that academics, like William Eckhardt, studying fatalities and war throughout history, have estimated that “The civilian percentage share of war-related deaths remained at about 50% from century to century." This incorrect factoid about civilian deaths in war was invented in the early nineties and has been erroneously repeated, even by academics, ever since. Thanks Wikipedia!

Second, fact-check your assertions. Gray cites Arquilla, but didn’t bother googling this fact himself.

Third, this is an example of moving the goalposts. The above critics argue civilian deaths matter more than regular deaths. But Pinker, Goldstein, Tertais, and others are arguing that overall violence related to war is decreasing. It’s a different argument. But say you wanted to go with that argument...

Fourth, what constitutes a civilian? Neither Arquilla nor Gray make a solid definition. If they had, they’d run into the tricky problem of explaining why soldiers conscripted to fight in World War I had lives that were less valuable than civilians at the time. (Also, the Sedition Act made it a crime to criticize the draft, so if you wanted to speak out against the draft, you’d go to jail. Ask Eugene V. Debs.)

Is a soldier who was drafted, coerced or conscripted into military service really worth less than a civilian? (Not to mention social ostracization depending on the popularity of a war at the time.) Does this distinction matter? Does this affect John Arquilla’s belief that we need to reinstate the draft?

Fifth, this example is a firmly 20th century example. One of the reasons why deaths in war have plummeted from olden times (think the Thirty Years War as the peak of “total war”) is that civilians are targeted much less frequently. In the 16th century, 18th and 20th centuries, besides conscripting entire armies, those same armies roamed the countryside eating all the food, raping all the women, and stealing all the plunder. If you weren’t murdered, you were enslaved. Listen to Dan Carlin’s series on Genghis Khan and tell me civilians made out great in the middle ages.

Sixth, and most importantly, Pinker himself already debunked this fact. Gray and Arquilla could have read Pinker’s debunking on pages 317 to 320 of The Better Angels of Our Nature.

So anyone writing a review who cites this debunked factoid, is, well, being very disingenuous. And writing a very poor review.