I woke up early yesterday morning with the strangest question running through my head: how many people in the history of mankind have died in war?
I began researching and what I found had me asking even more questions. I’ve read before that out of the last 3400 years, give or take a couple decades, the world has only experienced complete peace for around 300 years.
We are, it appears, a bloodthirsty species.
I didn’t like the idea of that so I kept researching. I read various viewpoints, looked up numbers and statistics. I wanted to find an answer to the question I woke up with: how many people have died in war, does anyone really know?
I discovered that finding an exact answer is tricky because historians disagree on whether or not to count deaths caused by accident or illness which occur during the same time frame as a war but are not in direct relationship to a battle or military. It’s also difficult to get solid numbers from areas of the world where written records were not kept or where names and numbers have been lost because so much time has passed. The best numbers I could find are a rough estimate only, but they give a pretty good idea of the human tendency towards war. Here’s what I discovered:
Throughout the history of the world there have been approximately 107 billion people that have lived. That’s 107,000,000,000 just in case you’re like me and need to see the zeroes to get a better handle on the amount. There are about 8 billion people alive right now.
Of that 107 billion, 341 million people, in all of known history, have been killed because of war. That’s 341,000,000 people. If every single one of those individuals were given an acre of land in Alaska the land would cover 3/4 of the entire state. 258 million of those deaths were in the 20th century alone. World War II accounted for more deaths than all wars combined, from all of known history. And of those 20th century numbers, 169 million were a direct result of a government killing their own people, not caused by an enemy attack.
Several of the articles I read argued that people are actually less violent now than they used to be “individually”, but our modern technology has made it easier for one individual to kill larger numbers of people at once. If you watch any news at all, and I really try not to, this concept of a kinder, gentler people might surprise you. The news likes to show off the discontent and drama of our society and it would be easy to believe that we are actually more violent than ever before. Apparently telling people “today was a great day” doesn’t increase television ratings.
So what do all of these huge numbers actually mean? I believe numbers are supposed to mean something. 107 billion humans that have lived, 341 million of them killed by warfare. That’s 0.32% of the entire world population. In words, that’s 32 hundredths of one percent of the population killed by war. Less than 1%. HALF of that 1% were killed by the very small number of individuals who gain power in their governments and destroyed their own people for disagreeing with them. And often it comes down to just one man consumed with enough hate to lead others to commit atrocities.
99.68% of humanity has gone about peacefully living their lives; loving, arguing, discussing weather over fence posts, debating politics over tea, coffee, or cocoa, experiencing heartbreak, health problems, disappointment, and satisfaction.
0.32% of the entire world’s population ever, died at the hands of either their own government or at the hands of an enemy.
Statistically speaking, humanity doesn’t have a problem with out of control violence; humanity doesn’t have a problem with widespread atrocities. We don’t have a problem with always wanting to kill each other. We fear it as if it were always right around the corner and war looms large in our minds because of the scale of devastation war brings.
BUT…what these numbers REALLY say is that we have a serious deficiency of leadership.
Each of us can list, in less than 100 names, the INDIVIDUALS who have caused the greatest loss of life in history: Yakubu Gowan=1 million civilians in Nigeria starved to death; Mengistu Mariam=1.5 million Ethiopians killed; Kim Il Sung=1.6 million Koreans killed; Pol Pot=2 million Cambodians killed; Ismail Enver Pasha=2.5 million Armenians, Anatolian Greeks, and Assyrians killed (this is the first time the word Genocide was used); Hideki Tojo=5 million deaths; Leopold II of Belgium=2-15 million natives of Congo killed (there were no written records to determine the exact loss of life); Adolf Hitler=17 million civilians (6 million Jews, 1.5 million Romanis); Josef Stalin=23 million Ukrainian, Russian, and other ethnic deaths; Mao Zedong=49-78 million Chinese citizens killed, most caused by POLICY REFORM in China.
I look at these numbers and I have to conclude that it takes a genius marketer to sell murder to an entire country and have them feel good about it. These leaders didn’t accomplish such atrocities alone, but their leadership led others to pull the triggers, drop the bombs, and withhold the food that killed so many.
No, the problem with humanity is not our violence; it is our supreme gullibility, our tendency to be lead rather than stepping up to lead, our love of dogma over reason and criticism over compassion. Our problem is that as we live our lives as part of the 99.68% and we think OUR tiny little opinion doesn’t matter. OUR tiny little vote doesn’t count. OUR tiny little activism, involvement, and efforts are so minuscule that they do no good. The size, power, and overwhelmingly HUGE numbers of peaceful human beings has become both our strength and our downfall. We are the silent majority who move relentlessly forward on a path to a future we believe we have no control over.
We are wrong.
The truth is our voices do matter. Our choices do count. Our votes are precious, priceless, and important. The “powers that be” have no power that we do not allow them to have. The lack of reason, civility, and basic common sense that we see in our leadership today exists because we allow it to exist. We accept it. We tolerate it. We sit silently or lament quietly when evil persists. The only reason cruelty, hate, and violence have ever existed is because we ACCEPT it.
We must stop thinking we’re weak, that we have no power, that we’re victims. WE are the ones making history, the history that counts. The discoveries, inventions, and advancements that make our lives better. We are the humanity that raises the crop that feeds the hungry, saves a life, teaches the student, creates the art and composes the music that inspires the soul.
Keep living, loving, arguing, debating politics over cocoa, voting your conscience, and discussing what matters to you in public forums. Choose respectful dialogue, dogma-free discourse, and well-reasoned debate. Never believe the lie that your voice and vote don’t matter. And never give into the weakness that would let you believe someone else’s voice doesn’t matter. Listen, learn, and judge well between truth and error.
You matter. You count. And you owe it to your yourself, your children, and to the rest of us to be involved in your local, state, and national government. If just a handful of men can make such a negative difference in the world, think what the vast majority of people can do to make a positive difference.
Will Durant, my favorite philosopher historian, summed up my thoughts best:
“Perhaps the cause of our contemporary pessimism is our tendency to view history as a turbulent stream of conflicts-between individuals in economic life, between groups in politics, between creeds in religion, between states in war. This is the more dramatic side of history; it captures the eye of the historian and the interest of the reader. But if we turn from that Mississippi of strife, hot with hate and dark with blood, to look upon the banks of the stream, we find quieter but more inspiring scenes: women rearing children, men building homes, peasants drawing food from the soil, artisans making the conveniences of life, statesmen sometimes organizing peace instead of war, teachers forming savages into citizens, musicians taming our hearts with harmony and rhythm, scientists patiently accumulating knowledge, philosophers groping for truth, saints suggesting the wisdom of love. History has been too often a picture if the bloody stream. The history of civilization is a record of what happened on the banks.”