The Great "War Figures" Hoax: an investigation in polemomythology

by B. Jongman & J.M.G. van der Dennen

Summary and Introduction
In the body of macroquantitative research on war it is not unusual to come across some "magical" figures which are repeated and reiterated over and over again. These figures concern the amount of war in history, the total number of casualties, the number of peace years versus war years, and the number of arms races which have resulted in war. The following quotations are prototypical:

"According to calculations made by Soviet and foreign experts, in the past 5.550 years there have been more than 14.500 small and big wars in which over 3.600 million people were killed. The amount of values destroyed in them would suffice to provide the present-day world's population with everyday necessities for several thousand years" (Tabunov, 1986).

"The Art of War: Computations made on an electronic computer by a former president of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences, aided by historians from England, Egypt, Germany, and India, have produced some astounding figures on the frequency and severity of wars. Included in these findings is the fact that since 3600 B.C. the world has known only 292 years of peace. During this period there have been 14,531 wars, large and small, in which 3,640,000,000 people were killed. The value of the destruction inflicted would pay for a golden belt around the earth 156 kilometers in width and ten meters thick. Since 650 B.C. there have been 1,656 arms races, only sixteen of which have not ended in war. The remainder have ended in economic collapse" (RAND Internal Publ., 1961).

"From the year 1496 B.C. to 1861 A.D., in 3,358 years, there were 227 years of peace and 3,130 years of war, or thirteen years of war to every year of peace" (Novicow, 1912).

In an earlier attempt to trace these figures to the sources, Singer & Small (1978) eventually found two American newspaper editorials which referred to imaginary "figures which could be expected if systematic reseach would be done" (Cousins, 1954) with the aid of an electronic calculating device.
But since that time these imaginary figures have been repeated by researchers as established facts.
Singer & Small failed to find out the basis of the figures used by Cousins and aborted their search. Had they been familiar with the polemological classics, however, they would have discovered similar figures appearing already in the 19th century.
Our hypothesis is that Cousins was familiar with one of these classics, most probably the works of Bloch (1899), in which similar figures appeared which Cousins probably extrapolated to his own time. Returning to the original work of Bloch, it appeared that he, too, referred to earlier authors, who, in their turn, referred to yet earlier sources. So far, we have traced the figures to a Russian military encyclopedia edited by Lieut. General G.A. Leer, which appeared in 1885. Again, Leer did not establish these figures himself, but refers to an, until now, totally obscure French work Philosophie de l'Histoire by Odysse Barot, which appeared in 1864.

The following story is a hilarious hommage to man's credulity, a report of a modest discovery - and a little bit of a warning.
In the course of their macroquantitative investigations on the frequency and magnitudes of wars in (recent) history, Singer & Small (1972) came across the fanciful figures cited above and decided to trace their origins. They report on their quest in retrograde rectification:

"In the course of our investigation we also turned up a series of reports whose appearance can only be explained by a complete disregard for the most elementary rules of traditional scholarship. Reference is to what another curious and skeptical investigator called `The Great Statistics of War Hoax'" (Haydon, 1962).
In a number of relatively authoritative sources, including the United States Naval Institute Proceedings ("The Art of War", 1960), the New York Times Magazine (1963), Military Review ("The Art of War", 1960; Greaves, 1962), and Time Magazine (1965), we discovered almost identical articles on the frequency and magnitude of war. They reported that there had been only 292 years of peace since 3600 B.C., and that 3,640,000,000 people had been killed in a total of 14,531 wars during that period. They also reported that since 650 B.C. there had been 1656 arms races, of which only 16 did not end in war. Each of these articles referred to research conducted, "with the aid of an electronic computer, by a team of international historians headed by a former president of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences". Having encountered these "data" shortly before his departure for a year's stay in Oslo, the senior author inquired of many Norwegian scholars and officials as to the nature of the research project, but without result. Finally, an operations analyst was encountered who knew that "someone" at the Rand Corporation had tried to trace the source, and letter of inquiry to Santa Monica quickly produced the memorandum mentioned above.
His reasons for so labeling the memorandum soon became clear. After considerable library work and correspondence, he discovered that Norman Cousins had written for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of 13 December 1953 an article entitled "Electronic Brain on War and Peace: A Report of an Imaginary Experiment". The next year, Cousins wrote an editorial in the Saturday Review (1954), beginning with the sentence: "The following editorial is of course fanciful". In both articles, there were casual speculations about the sorts of figures that could be expected to turn up in a systematic inquiry, but for reasons and by routes undiscoverable for the moment, these guesses soon began to appear as facts in the serious media of several nations, including those cited above" (emphasis in original).

So this is where we stand: Singer & Small traced the source of the fanciful figures, through Haydon, back to Norman Cousins. But how and where did Cousins stumble across the basic figures of what was admittedly a "fantasy". Cousins replied to Haydon's letter of inquiry:

"I first used the `fantasy' in something I wrote six years ago. Then, cribbing from myself, I used it again in a Saturday Review article that appeared about five years ago. Finally I cribbed from my own crib in writing `In Place of Folly'".

Cousins wrote the original article "Electronic Brain on War and Peace" for the 75th Anniversary Supplement of the St. Louis Post- Dispatch, Dec. 13, 1953. The subtitle of his article was "A Report of an Imaginary Experiment". The following year, on SR's editorial page, there appeared "The Electronic Case for Peace", Cousins first "crib" from the Post-Dispatch. This editorial began with the following:

"EDITOR'S NOTE: The following editorial is of course fanciful..."

The great mystery remains, as Haydon states, why the data lay unnoticed and unquoted during the next six years and what brought it suddenly to light again in 1960, in Brazil of all places (Jornal do Brasil sa Publicidade, Jan. 1960). In the Portuguese version the original band of gold "one hundred miles wide, thirty foot thick" had been transformed into "156 kilometers in width and ten meters thick". It was this feature, appearing in several later versions (Military Review, 1960; A Cosantoir, 1960; Canadian Army Journal, 1960; US Naval Institute Proceedings, 1960; Calgary Herald, 1961; The Mennonite, 1961; Brethren Service News, 1961; Peace News Wire, 1962; AFCS Reporter, 1962), that lent credibility to the study being of foreign origin, possibly even from the Norwegian Academy of Sciences.
In preparing his "crib" for publication in his book "In Place of Folly", Cousins carefully introduced the yarn with the remark: "Then musings led me to write a fantasy in the form of a letter from a hypothetical scientist...". The "letter" itself was modified to indicate that the research had been accomplished by "nine historians from Universities in Europe and Asia" omitting the clause "including Oxford University, the University of Berlin, the University of Cairo, and Delhi University".
In addition, perhaps feeling that the war casualties figure was improbably high, he changed "approximately 3,640,000,000 human beings have been killed by war or the diseases produced by war" to "approximately 1,240,000,000 human beings...&c.".
With so many appearances of this report on an alleged study by a "former president of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences", one would expect the Academy to have been deluged with requests for further details or copies of the report. Haydon's letter to the Academy asking whether anyone had made inquiries about the "study" was returned to him, however, with this cryptic note from the Secretary: "I am sorry that we know nothing about the source of this hoax".
Still wondering what basis Cousins used for the data in his fantasy, or how he determined even their gross proportions, Haydon suggested to Cousins that he might have consulted some of the standard sources in the field, and wrote to him:

"I can think of several places to look for such numbers, but if they are indeed real you can save me the search. In Quincy Wright's monumental Study of War, Vol. I, pages 104-105, there are charts of casualties and battles 550 B.C. - A.D. 1500, and another on page 228 carries the data from 1480 to 1940. These charts give as a source Thomas Harbottle, Dictionary of Battles from the Earliest Date to the Present Time (London, 1904), and Gaston Bodart, Militärhistorisches Kriegslexicon (1618-1905) (Wien, Leipzig, 1908)".

Cousins replied:

"Now for the figures: Some were general, some were the result of extrapolation, some were estimates, some were fanciful. No fully documented figures exist anywhere on the total casualties or total cost of all wars since the beginning of recorded history...Some figures were completely fanciful, i.e., the reference to the belt of gold around the world. (This was the image frequently quoted in later versions, demonstrating perhaps the effectiveness of the metaphor)".

So this is where we stand now: Cousins had casually come across many estimates from many sources, including the ones suggested by Haydon - and being a writer, not a scientific researcher, had toyed with some figures, the sources of which had eventually evaporated from his memory, to fit his gloomy fiction; little suspecting that his fantasy was to be gradually metamorphosing into a hoax. So far so good. But the query remains: what was or were the source or sources that Cousins had - subconsciously perhaps, for even fantasy has its limits in harsh reality - been consulting?
We discovered, partly by accident, the historical source underlying Cousins' extrapolations and estimates. In this way:

In the polemological classic The Future of War (1899) by Johann von Bloch (or Jean de Bloch as he is also known), reference is made to statistics which have shown that "from 1496 B.C. up to 1861 A.D., a period of 3357 years, there were only 227 years of peace on a total of 3,130 years of war, or thirteen years of war to every year of peace". (If this sounds familiar by now, or you have a "déja-vu" experience, you have been paying attention: it is exactly what Novicow wrote in the quotation at the beginning.)
We hypothesize that Cousins must have been familiar with this quote (or possibly the one by Novicow). The figures presented by Bloch were presumably used by Cousins as the basis for his extrapolations. He simply extended the period to 5560 years, from 3600 B.C. to A.D. 1960. The 8397 "wars" during a period of 3357 years yield an average of approximately 2.5 "wars" per year. If the period is extended by another 2203 years, another 5510 "wars" must be added to the 8397 to yield the total of 13907 "wars". This last figure approximates Cousins' total of 14531 "wars" fairly well (He may have incorporated some speculative trends in his calculations to produce the somewhat higher total).
If our hypothesis is correct, it would mean that Cousins' extrapolations are not entirely speculative or chimerical, but can, in fact, be traced to an original historical source. For it so happens that Bloch, in a tiny note, refers to his source: a Russian military encyclopedia Encyclopädie der Kriegs- und Marinewissenschaften (St. Petersburg, 1885). We were lucky enough to obtain a copy of the article in the encyclopedia Bloch refers to - after many months of writing to libraries all over the world, to no avail.
In the lemma on war Lieut. General G.A. Leer refers, in his turn, to his source of the war figures: the work of the French philosopher Odysse Barot Lettres sur la Philosophie de l'Histoire (Paris, 1864). We were afraid that this work, too, would refer to another, yet more ancient, source, and that that source would, in its turn, refer to a still more ancient one, in a kind of infinite regression. But again we were lucky enough (after many a month of writing to libraries in France, to no avail), to obtain a copy, and this time we hit the jackpot: Barot's book is indubitably the one and only primordial original Source of sources; totally obscure itself, but immortalized by the myth it helped to create.
This is what Barot writes about his "arithmétique brutale", that seems to coroborate the Hobbesian social cosmology, or even to give substance to the metaphysical apology of war by Joseph de Maistre:

"Depuis la convention qui, en 1496 avant J.C. établissait entre douze états de la Grèce la confédération amphictyonique, jusqu'au traité du 23 janvier 1861 entre la France et l'Angleterre, j'ai compté huit mille trois cent quatre-vingt-dix- sept traités.
Voilà le pôle positif. Examinons le pôle négatif.
En face de ces 8397 conventions solennelles de paix, d'alliance, d'amietié, on ne peut trouver dans cette longue période de 3357 années, - 1496 avant J.C., 1861, - que 227 années de paix, contre 3130 années de guerre.
Soit: une année de paix, pour treize années de guerre". (Barot, 1864; emphasis in original).

But what exactly do these figures mean, presuming of course that Barot did not dream them up but actually catalogued and counted all these treaties (which is uncertain as he nowhere presents such a list: we have to believe him on his word)? As may be gathered from the quotation above, what Barot actually counted were peace treaties along with alliance and amity treaties, and NOT WARS. Cousins, as well as all of his predecessors, have drawn the totally unsubstantiated conclusion that the number of peace treaties equals the number of wars, under the assumption that all wars are ended by means of peace treaties. But apart from the volatility of such an assumption, it is not only peace treaties Barot counted, but also treaties of alliance and amity, and these do not necessarily, or not at all, justify the assumption of warlike activities.
As Barot presents no other figures, nor any inventory which can be checked, nor any methodology, we cannot estimate what proportion of the treaties are peace treaties and what proportion are treaties of the other kind. Nor can we ascertain, or even approximate with any degree of certainty, what exactly is meant by war years and peace years. Is a war year a year in which a new war starts, or a year during which one or more wars are being waged, or a year in which some war has been waged for, say, a month or so? Similarly, is a peace year a year in which no war has been waged, or a year in which a peace treaty has been concluded? It remains totally unclear.
We may fairly certain conclude this brief excursion in polemomythology, however, by stating that there is no factual, empirical basis for the figure of 14531 small or big wars in human history. The figure is pure fantasy, not even "science-fiction". And the same is true for the number of casualties, and all the other figures. Authors, even serious and skeptical ones, have, in this respect, uncritically parroted each other. And, although the superlative of Lies is already entailed in the term "statistics", according to Oscar Wilde, who needs false statistics?

It is rather amusing to see that the War Figures Hoax is annexed by the Soviets as one of the many merits of Marxism-Leninism (Tabunov, 1986), while another Marxist-Leninist writer (Kiessling, 1977) denounces it as an infamous product of imperialist ideologists in order to propagate the idea that man is universally belligerent and war more or less a permanent, and, therefore, normal, state of affairs. The "bloody limit" is attained by another Soviet writer, Chazov (1982), Chairman of the Soviet Committee "Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War", who casually adds some 400 million lives claimed in wars, ostensibly for no other reason than to come up with the round figure of 4,000 million. How much the "golden belt" is worth in currency has been exactly calculated by the East German General Hoffmann (1962): "Diese Kriege verschlangen die astronomische Summe von 500 Trillionen Schweizer Franken". War-mongering capitalists, as is well known, always pay the Merchants of Death in Swiss franks.

The vexing question remains, why are people, even skeptical scientists, so apt, and indeed, eager to believe such myths? To answer that question would necessitate an exercise in psychology which is beyond the scope of this humble article. However, one of the authors has ventured to provide some answers in an article on another stubborn myth: man's allegedly universal belligerence (see van der Dennen, 1987).

Postscript to Postlude
Given the fictional character of the "data" cited above, do we have any serious and scientifically sound idea of the real number of wars of various magnitudes in human civilized history?
Unfortunately, a complete inventory is still lacking and may even be unfeasible because of the amazingly diverse and conflicting historical accounts of even a single event, and the widely diverging criteria of what constitutes war. Yet, there exist some valuable approximations. Richardson's (1960) famous Statistics of Deadly Quarrels covers only the period from 1820 to 1949, and Singer & Small's (1979) sample is limited to the 1816-1977 period.
More universal in scope are the works by Sorokin (1937) and Q.Wright (1942, 1965), which have some authoritative value for longer historical periods. For instance, Wright listed at least 284 wars and some 3000 battles from 1500 A.D. to about 1940 [For comparison: Perré (1962) counts 7.111 "actions de guerre" from 1200 to 1945, while Luard (1986) lists a grand total of 1005 wars in the period 1400-1984].
Probably the best documented and conscientious inventory is Dupuy & Dupuy's (1986) The Encyclopedia of Military History; from 3500 B.C. to the present. These authors list a grand total of 4345 battles and sieges (including campaigns and operations) in their index, but because many battles may be fought in one war (think especially of the World Wars), we may safely conclude that the number of wars was considerably less (Their index of wars is less reliable for counting because of the double and triple entries and cross-references). We may conclude this brief section by stating that these figures are at least more realistic and verisimilitudinous, and considerably less dramatic than the ones dreamt up by Cousins, and, one might add, disturbing only for the ardent and stubborn believers in Man's Universal Warlikeness (*).

(*) NOTE
The belief in man's belligerence may even date back to Classical times, when Greek and Roman historiographers considered war generally to belong to the natural order of things. One example is Livy's (born about 60 B.C.) famous account of the Janus temple, built by the Roman king Numa, around 710 B.C.:
"Rome had originally been founded by force of arms; the new king now prepared to give the community a second beginning; this time on the solid basis of law and religious observance. These lessons, however, could never be learned while his people were constantly fighting; war, he knew well, was no civilizing influence, and the proud spirit of his people could be tamed only if they learned to lay aside their swords. Accordingly, at the foot of the Argiletum he built the temple of Janus, to serve as a visible sign of the alternations of peace and war: open, it was to signify that the city was in arms; closed, that war against all neighbouring peoples had been brought to a succesful conclusion. Since Numa's reign the temple has twice been closed: once in the consulship of Manlius at the end of the first war with Carthage and again on the occasion (which we ourselves were allowed by heaven to witness) when after the battle of Actium Augustus Caesar brought peace to the world by land and sea" (Livy, Early History of Rome, 1.19).


Table I: History of the Hoax

Year Authors who cite the figures and give as their source

1864: Barot Origin
1894: Moscow Gazette Unknown
1894: Valbert Unknown
1894: Novicow Moscow Gazette
1895: Leer Barot (1864)
1899: Bloch Leer (1895)
1909: Homer Lea No Source
1912: Novicow Moscow Gazette, Valbert
1929: Steinmetz Lea (1909)
1942: Homer Lea (2nd ed.) No Source
1944: Bernard Novicow (1912)
1953: Cousins No Source
1954: Cousins No Source
1959: Bouthoul Novicow (1894)
1960: Jornal do Brasil sa Publicadade No Source
1960: Canadian Army Journal No Source
1960: An Cosantoir (Irish Defence J.) No Source
1960: Military Review No Source
1960: Montross Not to be found
1960: US Naval Institute Proc. No Source
196? Babel Unknown
1961: Brethren Service News No Source
1961: Calgary Herald Canad. Army J. (1960)
1961: Peace News Wire Brethren Serv. News (1961)
1961: The Mennonite Canad. Army J. (1960)
1961: Berliner Zeitung, Oct. 21 No Source
1961: Rand Internal Publ. US Naval Inst. Proc. (1960)
1962: AFSC Reporter No Source
1962: Perré Novicow (1894)
1962: Haydon Cousins (1953, 1954)
1962: Greaves No Source
1962: Hoffmann Berliner Zeitung
1963: New York Times Magazine No Source
1963: Brugmans Lea, Steinmetz
1965: Time Magazine No Source
1968: Shukow Babel (196?)
1969: Hoffmann Shukow (1968)
1972: Singer & Small Haydon (1962)
1973: Davidson Bloch ? (1898)
1973: Röling Homer Lea (1909)
1977: Kiessling Babel (196?)
1982: Beer Cousins (1953, 1954)
1982: Chazov Unknown
1982: Toner Time Magazine (1965)
1982: Woito Montross (1960)
1986: Paucke Chazov (1982)
1986: Tabunov No Source

Table 2: Pioneers of Quantitative War Research

Author Year Period Covered Number of Cases

de Lapouge 1896 5.000 years -- (*)
Berndt 1897 1800-1895 18 wars; 82 battles
Bodart 1908 1618-1905 87 wars; 1700 battles
Dumas 1923 1756-1913 24 series of wars
Sorokin 1937 600 B.C.-1933 967 wars
Richardson 1941 1820-1929 109 wars
Q.Wright 1942 1480-1940 278 wars; 2759 battles
Urlanis 1960 1600-1945 335 wars

(*) de Lapouge presents no figures on the number of wars, but estimates the total number of direct war casualties to be "deux millards et demi" during the 5.000 years of human civilization.

Table 3: Post World War II Studies

Author Period Covered Cases War Deaths

Taylor & Hudson 1945-1977 -- 5.210.000
Small & Singer 1945-1980 81 7.784.000
Chaliand 1945-1982 130 13.500.000
Rennhack 1945-1973 103 16.000.000
Eckhardt 1945-1983 107 16.559.000
Eckhardt 1945-1985 120 17.307.000
South 1945-1986 121 20.691.000
öst.Mil.Z. (1979) 1945-1978 130 25.000.000
Kende 1945-1982 148 26.000.000
öst.Mil.Z. (1984) 1945-1984 152 25-28.000.000
Gantzel & Meyer 1945-1984 159 20-30.000.000
Der Spiegel 1945-1982 69 35.000.000
Dunnigan & Bay 1945-1985 70 50.812.000
Jongman (*) 1945-1986 223 min. 9.5 million
max. 71.6 million

(*) The Jongman study integrates seven available warlists (Dingemann 1983; Dunnigan & Bay, 1985; Keegan, 1981; Kende, 1971 et seq.; Small & Singer, 1982; Eckardt, 1978 et seq.; and Laffin, 1986).
There are, furthermore, a number of quantitative studies covering miscellaneous periods: Bouthoul & Carrère, 1976 et seq.; Butterworth & Scranton, 1976; Flannery, 1979; Houweling & Siccama, 1986; Westing, 1982; and Wood, 1968. Because of the highly diverging definitions and criteria used in these studies, there is no unambiguous "mother list" to be generated from them.


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