War, Demographic Consequences of

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War ranks last on the political economist T. R. Malthus's list of the chief checks to population growth, following "vicious customs with respect to women, great cities, unwholesome manufactures, luxury" and "pestilence" (Malthus 1970, p. 103). Two centuries later, war appears as problematic as the other items on the list. Its demographic effects are hardly susceptible to scientific analysis.

Definition of War

There are obvious problems with definitions. What is war? When military historians and some archaeologists hypothesize that warfare is as old as the human race, they lump together all forms of conflict involving more than a single pair of combatants. Most scholars have abandoned the search for a definition based on social or technological organization, preferring instead to define wars in terms of casualties suffered. Thus political scientist David Wilkinson's 1980 reworking of Lewis Richardson's register of wars since 1820 lists 315 conflicts in which the overall death toll exceeded 300. The mortality cutoff line is 1,000 in successive editions of Peace Studies specialist Ruth Sivard's World Military and Social Expenditures that deal with wars since 1900. Using an alternative methodology the historical anthropologist Lawrence Keeley searched cross cultural indices for evidence of conflict between bands and tribes.

A related problem is that ideas about war and records of war before the nineteenth century derive almost entirely from Europe and the Near East. Gilbert and Sullivan's "Modern Major General" was very much the model in his ability to "quote the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical" (Pirates of Penzance, Act I). Wars elsewhere barely figured in scholarly studies. Evidence about warfare and its effects on population in the pre-Columbian Americas, Asia, and Africa is scant and unreliable. A typical example is the claim that a million people perished as the result of wars unleashed by the Zulu king Shaka in the 1820s–a figure cited in the political theorist Hannah Arendt's influential Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). The origin of that statistic was a casual remark made by an English hunter-trader in the late 1830s who was hardly in a position to judge. His unsubstantiated estimate probably exceeded the total population of Southeast Africa at that time. Widespread warfare was undoubtedly associated with the growth of the Atlantic slave trade from Africa, but as no statistically-inclined observers were present to document them, the conduct, extent, and effects of the wars waged in the African interior can only be guessed.

It is difficult to generalize even about wars in Europe because their nature changed so much from era to era. The migrations of the Huns, Wends, and Vikings led to wars that were very different from the campaigns of the Roman legions. Apart from the Crusades, medieval warfare involved small numbers of irregular cavalry and ragtag assemblages of archers. The wars of religion that raged for long periods on the European continent during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were destructive largely because the armies lived off the land, commanding food from and imposing other levies on hapless civilian populations. Eighteenth and nineteenth century European wars weighed much less heavily on noncombatants. Twentieth-century strategists rediscovered the merits of deliberately targeting large populations with conventional and nuclear bombs.

The demographic effects of war naturally vary with the organization, conduct, and objectives of the conflict. In feudal Europe the objective of most wars was the acquisition of fertile land that was populated by a settled workforce. Any campaign that killed agricultural laborers or frightened them into fleeing the district was counterproductive. Precolonial wars in southern Africa, before the advent of the slave trade, mainly aimed at the capture of cattle, resulting in relatively low levels of human mortality. Naval warfare rarely killed anyone apart from sailors and officers. In wars waged by well-equipped professional armies, deaths in battle are concentrated among young single men. The effects of their removal from the population on the birth rate seem not to have been very significant before the twentieth century. Prior to the nineteenth century in Europe rises in general prosperity were associated with increased fertility. Thus Malthus was not surprised that "the fertile province of Flanders, which has been so often the seat of the most destructive wars, after a respite of a few years, has appeared always as fruitful and as populous as ever. Even the Palatinate lifted up its head again after the execrable ravages of Louis the Fourteenth" (Malthus 1970, p. 107). The huge losses suffered in the major battles of World War I led European élites to speak of a "lost generation" of young men whose sweethearts remained unmarried, but it is difficult to document the assertion. At a time when fertility was declining due to increased use of birth control, the spread of education, and shifts from country to city-living, the effect of the loss of World War I soldiers on overall population is a matter for surmise.

The demographic effects of war are better documented for the twentieth century than for any previous era. Body counts before the nineteenth century cannot be relied on. In the twentieth century deaths among serving military and naval personnel in Europe and North America were painstakingly recorded in archives. So many of the dead were remembered by name on monuments that the unknown soldier for the first time became an object of public solicitude. Unquestionably, the high water mark of state-sponsored killing was reached in the first half of the twentieth century. While estimates range widely, plausible sizes of the military and civilian death toll would be around 8.5 million in World War I and 40 million in World War II.

Collateral Effects of War on Demographics

A difficulty facing the analyst seeking to quantify the demographic effects of war is calculating mortality associated with war but not directly caused by losses on the field of battle. War has often created conditions conducive to famine and epidemic disease. Sivard follows the common practice of including all war-related deaths associated with twentieth-century conflicts in the mortality rate. Since war itself is defined as a conflict generating more than a thousand deaths, this statistical practice increases the number of wars. Famines and epidemics associated with the failed Biafran secession from Nigeria, the Sudanese civil war, and India's intervention in Bangladesh are estimated to have cost in total 4.5 million lives. Some scholars class the 1919 influenza pandemic as a consequence of World War I. World War II made it possible for the Nazi regime to target Jews, gypsies, and other populations beyond German borders in a wholesale fashion that would have been impossible in peacetime. Another problem in calculating mortality statistics for the twentieth century is raised by factors such as the holocaust deaths in Germany during World War II. Should losses in campaigns conducted against internal forces be counted as death in war? Civil wars involving organized armies (for example, the United States, Russian, and Spanish civil wars) figure on all lists.

But more problematic are deaths arising from state-sponsored violence against internal enemies, such Stalin's campaigns against the kulaks and Crimean Tartars, Mao's Cultural Revolution, and the killings in Cambodia under Pol Pot. R. J. Rummel (2000) calls such campaigns democide. By excluding interstate wars, and adding up the deaths caused principally by totalitarian regimes, he concludes that "nearly 170 million people probably have been murdered by governments in this [twentieth] century; over four-times those killed in combat in all international and domestic wars during the same years." A related issue concerns conflicts that pit unorganized ethnic groups against each other as was the case during the communal violence at the time of British India's partition in 1947 and what is usually called Rwandan genocide of 1994 in which as many as 1 million people are estimated to have died. Typically, statistics for such conflicts are given in suspiciously round numbers.

Peace groups that lament the increasing numbers of civilians who have died in the wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries arrive at that conclusion by including deaths associated with any conflict even when the numbers of formal combatants were relatively small. The net effect is to annex statistics of mortality which, in previous centuries, would have been counted as losses from famine and pestilence. This practice obscures the most striking aspect of wars since 1945: the sharp decline in military personnel dying in battle. Sivard's estimates of numbers of military persons killed in wars in the twentieth century show a total of some 35 million deaths in the period 1900–1945, but less than one-quarter as many in the period 1946–1995.

War from the Mid-Twentieth Century

Battlefield deaths declined sharply after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Since there have been no important naval battles since World War II, deaths at sea have declined to a demographically insignificant figure.

Apart from losses of combatants, the most important impact of war on population in the twentieth century arose from advances in military technology and the practice of deliberately targeting civilians. Whereas previous wars had mainly killed young single men, twentieth century warfare was indiscriminately directed at men, women, and children. This was particularly true after the advent of airborne bombing and deliberate campaigns of extermination (for example, the firebombing of Dresden, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the Holocaust, the Pol Pot regime, and the Rwandan genocide). The removal of large numbers of women of childbearing age undoubtedly reduced fertility in certain regions. While the civilian populations of the Americas and Africa escaped such devastating attacks in World War II, some countries were very hard hit. Deaths from all war-related causes in the Soviet Union have been estimated to be as high as 29 million, a figure many times greater than the number of military personnel involved.

If all things were equal, fertility might have been expected to decline drastically. But, as Malthus noted when marveling at the rapid recovery of population in late-eighteenth-century Flanders, all things are never equal. Postwar prosperity was associated with a baby boom not just in the United States. Many parts of the world, including war-ravaged East and Central Europe, experienced a relative jump in prosperity compared with the Depression of the 1930s. The rise in optimism about the future and high levels of employment generated by postwar reconstruction led to increased fertility. Where war coincides with large movements of refugees, famine, and disease–as it did in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia in the 1980s and 1990s–it becomes very hard to specify the effects of war on population. Those African countries have also felt the impact of relatively late demographic transitions in fertility and the AIDS pandemic. Despite all its problems Rwanda's population appears to have grown from 7,165,000 in 1991 to nearly 9 million in 2002.

The impact of improved killing technology on population losses due to war is debatable. During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union acquired the capability to obliterate each other's cities with nuclear weapons. The number of nations possessing such weapons has grown steadily. But by the end of the twentieth century not one of the nuclear states had dared to employ them against an enemy, or even to openly threaten their use. The standoff between the United States and the USSR was often attributed to a "balance of terror" generated by the knowledge of the probability of "mutually assured destruction." The same could not be said of other nuclear powers. Whether this restraint is due to respect for the opinions of humankind or is attributable to some other reason is not clear.

Paradoxically, the highest rate of killing in late-twentieth-century wars occurred in the worst equipped states. About half the war deaths between 1945 and 2000 occurred in three countries–Sudan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh–which rate near the bottom of any list of military powers. Armies and modern weapons played very minor roles in these contests. In Rwanda, as in Pol Pot's Cambodia, people used agricultural implements to slaughter their neighbors.

In the early twenty-first century it is no easier to generalize about the effects of war on population than it was in Malthus's time. Battlefield losses in the wars of the only remaining superpower, the United States, have been minuscule. On the other hand, both military campaigns and threats to use force have frequently generated tides of refugees. The permeability of borders in an age of globalization has spread those refugees across the globe, with demographic consequences that are as yet impossible to calculate.

See also: Ethnic Cleansing; Forced Migration; Genocide; Holocaust; National Security and Population; States System, Demographic History of.


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——. 1972. The Wages of War, 1816–1965. New York: John Wiley.

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internet resource.

Rummel, R. J. 2000. 20th Century Democide. <http://www2.hawaii.edu/~rummel/20TH.HTM>

Norman Etherington