The Next War of the World
Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His latest book is "The War of the World." Copyright 2006 by Niall Ferguson.See more by this author
ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF BUTCHERY
In 1898, H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, a novel that imagined the destruction of a great city and the extermination of its inhabitants by ruthless invaders. The invaders in Wells' story were, of course, Martians. But no aliens were needed to make such devastation a reality. In the decades that followed the book's publication, human beings repeatedly played the part of the inhuman marauders, devastating city after city in what may justly be regarded as a single hundred-year "war of the world."
The twentieth century was the bloodiest era in history. World War I killed between 9 million and 10 million people, more if the influenza pandemic of 191819 is seen as a consequence of the war. Another 59 million died in World War II. And those conflicts were only two of the more deadly ones in the last hundred years. By one estimate, there were 16 conflicts throughout the last century that cost more than a million lives, a further six that claimed between 500,000 and a million, and 14 that killed between 250,000 and 500,000. In all, between 167 million and 188 million people died because of organized violence in the twentieth century -- as many as one in every 22 deaths in that period.
Other periods matched the twentieth century's rate of killing, if not its magnitude: consider the reigns of tyrants such as Genghis Khan and Tamerlane; some crises in imperial China, such as the An Lushan Rebellion in the eighth century and the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century; and some cases of Western imperial conquest, such as Belgian rule in the Congo and the German war against the Herero in German Southwest Africa. Yet the twentieth century differs from those earlier ages in one key way: it was supposed to be -- and in a great many ways was -- a time of unparalleled material progress.