War is hell, it’s long been said, but just how hellish it can be is a more difficult question, judging from disputes among researchers at several highly respected international peace institutes. They cannot agree on whether war is becoming more or less deadly — or even on how to count the dead.
These experts snipe at each other in academic journals and papers and are engaged in a statistical arms race of their own, sampling, adding and modifying databases to try to shed light on questions that have implications beyond the academic world. The disagreements begin with how fatalities are counted and then diverge more widely.
Authors from the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO), in collaboration with Sweden’s Uppsala University, say that since the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of East-West rivalry in 1989, civil wars, “though often intractable and devastating, have produced fewer battle deaths than their Cold War counterparts.”
They relied on estimates by demographers, historians and epidemiologists, supplemented by figures from the media, governments and non-governmental groups. Omitting “one-sided violence increases,” such as the Rwanda genocide, along with deaths from disease, hunger and “criminal and unorganized violence,” PRIO arrived at a total of some 10 million battlefield deaths from 1946 to 2002 in conflicts where at least one warring party was a government.
Way too low, countered Harvard Medical School researcher Ziad Obermeyer, working with colleagues at the University of Washington and at the Gates Foundation-funded Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
His group reconsidered the PRIO numbers in the light of World Health Survey sample interviews in 13 conflict-ridden countries, where the UN asked families how many relatives they lost to war from 1955 to 2002. It found the true body count over a half-century was at least three times higher than PRIO’s tally and concluded: “There is no evidence to support a recent decline in war deaths.”
Their method, relying on memories of family members, allows for retrospective study of countries where census and death records have been disrupted by war and researchers cannot safely go into the countryside, Obermeyer said.
“Rather than uncritically taking data as they are reported from the field, we are actually using random samples of populations to look backward at how many relatives of respondents were killed, and then using standard statistical methods to extrapolate and get a number for the whole population,” Obermeyer said.
However, the death toll can also be counted in other ways that drive it astronomically higher.
Going beyond direct battlefield casualties and counting the victims of genocide, deliberate famines, death camps and other warlike actions raises the tally to 41 million people slain since the end of World War II, said Milton Leitenberg, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland’s School for International and Security Studies.
Leitenberg extends his count of victims of war and conflict back to the dawn of the 20th century, producing an appalling total of 231 million.
He said his figures for mass casualties are the most widely accepted totals based on statistics by UN agencies and humanitarian and human rights groups, but he concedes such figures can be colored by politics and said the true tally might be 20 percent higher or lower than his total.