Overlooked Atrocities

Today I was thumbing through Matthew White’s crazy historical retrospective Atrocities: The 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History and thought the introduction had some little-discussed but interesting points about history and warfare:

If we study history to avoid making the mistakes of the past, it helps to know what those mistakes were, and that includes all of the mistakes, not just the ones that support certain pet ideas. It’s easy to solve the problem of human violence if we focus only on the seven atrocities that prove our point, but a list of the hundred worst presents more of a challenge. A person’s grand unified theory of human violence should explain most of the multicides on this list or else he might need to reconsider. In fact, the next time someone declares that he knows the cause of or solution to human violence, you can probably open this book at random and immediately find an event that is not explained by his theory.

Despite my skepticism about any common thread running through all one hundred atrocities, I still found some interesting tendencies. Let me share with you the three biggest lesson I learned while working on this list:

1.) Chaos is deadlier than tyranny. More of these milticides result from the breakdown of authority rather than the exercise of authority. In comparison to a handful of dictators such as Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein who exercised their absolute power to kill hundreds of thousands, I found more and deadlier upheavals like the Time of Troubles, the Chinese Civil War, and the Mexican Revolution where no one exercised enough control to stop the death of millions.

2.) The world is very disorganized. Power structures tend to be informal and temporary, and many of the big names in this book (for example, Stalin, Cromwell, Tamerlane, Caesar) exercised supreme authority without holding a regular job in the government. Most wars don’t start neatly with declarations and mobilizations and end with surrenders and treaties. They tend to build up from escalating incidents of violence, fizzle out when everyone is too exhausted to continue, and are followed by unpredictable aftershocks. Soldiers and nations happily change sides in the middle of wars, sometimes in the middle of battles. Most nations are not as neatly delineated as you might expect. In fact, some nations at war (I call them quantum states) don’t quite exist and don’t quite not exist; instead they hover in limbo until somebody wins the war and decides their fate, which is then retroactively applied to earlier versions of the nation.

3.) War kills more civilians than soldiers. In fact, the army is usually the safest place to be during a war. Soldiers are protected by thousands of armed men, and they get the first choice of food and medical care. Meanwhile, even if civilians are not systematically massacred, they are usually robbed, evicted, or left to starve; however, their stories are usually left untold. Most military histories skim lightly over the suffering of the ordinary, unarmed civilians caught in the middle, even though theirs is the most common experience of war.

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