Death, destruction, and demography

“War is hell,” said General William Tecumseh Sherman. From a demographic perspective, it is indeed. Of all behaviors generating those facts and figures fascinating to demographers, warfare is the most catastrophic.

War destroys life – communities, nations, generations. It causes environmental degradation and life-ravaging stress leading to multiple maladies, including menstrual dysfunction and decreased fertility.

From the US National Institutes of Health:

The physical and psychological trauma of war can increase the risk of infertility in men and women. 

Presence of reproductive system toxins in weapons, stressful periods of war and direct damage to the reproductive system can impair the fertility of men and women.

Of 2.7 million Vietnam War veterans, roughly 800,000 will have PTSD.

General Sherman found fame in the American Civil War. That conflict comes to mind because my folks were in the thick of it. The Grim Reaper took a terrible toll, especially in the South. According to demographic historian J. David Hacker, 23 percent of Southern men from ages 20 to 24 in 1860 died in the war – young males at prime reproductive age. So many more were maimed and disabled. There followed a generation of spinsters. Historian James McPherson observed: “The overall mortality rate for the South exceeded that of any country in World War I and all but the region between the Rhine and the Volga in World War II.”

The formerly most prosperous region of America was laid waste. The war claimed 750,000 lives, 2.5 percent of Americans then alive. That percentage today would be 8,250,000 dead.

While the American Civil War raged, the War of the Triple Alliance flared in South America. It was Paraguay against Argentina, the Empire of Brazil, and Uruguay. That did not end well, especially for Paraguay. While estimates vary, most scholars agree the country lost roughly two-thirds of its adult male population. As with the post-bellum American South, the cultural and economic character of Paraguay was profoundly and permanently transformed.

At the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), of the elite Spartan volunteers that gave their lives, each was the father of at least one son. That was Spartan custom, to assure the continuity of family lines – and future warriors.

Five decades later Greeks were at each other’s throats. The 27-year internecine bloodbath known as the Peloponnesian Wars devastated Greece. While civilizational decline is a complex and drawn-out process with multiple causes, after those wars the glory of ancient Greece began to fade. Men who would have been husbands, fathers, builders, inventors, and teachers – and their unborn future generations – were lost.  

British polymath Dr Caleb Williams Saleeby wrote of the Roman Empire’s wars: “The recruiting officer rejected the halt and blind, feeble-kneed, the easily fatigued, saying, though he did not know it: ‘You are not good enough to be a Roman soldier; stay at home and be a Roman father.’”

A similar theme echoed in Dr David Starr Jordan’s War and the Breed (1915) where he lamented the decline of civilization from war. Dr Jordan, Chancellor of Stanford University, posited that war is dysgenic, meaning harmful to the next generation, because in war the culling falls disproportionately on the most fit.

War wreaks havoc on every demographic save war profiteers and warmongering politicians. Whenever some armchair pundit-general urges boots on the ground in faraway lands, he should lead by example and send his family to the front lines

The 20th century was arguably the most violent ever. Almost 20 million perished in World War I. Upwards of 50 million died in World War II. According to Josef Stalin, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” Stalin was referring to the Holodomor, his war-by-famine on Ukrainians. Millions perished.

War works the same everywhere. Germany’s IZA Institute of Labor Economics (2019) studied fertility and the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, a hundred-day African apocalypse that claimed 500,000 lives. They cited a “replacement effect” where losing a child meant a higher likelihood of having another within five years. But family losses and a lopsided sex-ratio from male war deaths decreased overall fertility. 

A Population Reference Bureau survey confirms the replacement effect:

Research across countries that experienced civil conflict over the past 40 years finds that fertility rates typically fall during the period of instability by up to one-third and rebound quickly after conflict ends.

However, today’s world has experienced something without precedent: a long term fertility decline: 50 percent over 50 years. Prospects for any postwar replacement effect are dim. 

Were the 20th century world wars the modern West’s Peloponnesian Wars? Was the postwar baby boom merely a societal replacement effect? It didn’t last long. Europe (and East Asia) bore the brunt of World War II. They subsequently became affluent and below-replacement fertility took hold with a vengeance.

General Carl von Clausewitz, in On War said: “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.” 

Commerce in killing is evil politics, but often the sociopathic politician’s path to power.

New Zealand historian Ernest McIvor in The Futility of War (2014) poses the question: “Is there something about the nature of war that makes it an ongoing necessity for mankind, or is human nature such that we are fundamentally incapable of learning from the mistakes of past generations?”

American psychologist William James observed war’s allure: it promotes social cohesion by engendering unity in the face of a common threat, and is also a morale-booster, revving up patriotism and providing purpose through participation in something bigger than ourselves.

So far, war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community, and until an equivalent discipline is organized, I believe that war must have its way.

War is about economics. Riches for ruling oligarchies and a remedy for depression.  And a depression is looming in Europe.

Why talk about war? Because we’re teetering on the edge of a world war. But in the Information Age many don’t buy the pro-war narrative. Is the homeland actually threatened? Are folks halfway around the world really coming for us? Are vital national interests at stake? Shouldn’t we address challenges at home first? Far fewer would die that way.

If bloodshed, wall-to-wall mayhem, and economic upheaval are not enough to dissuade us from war, what is? Is humanity even capable of refraining from mass violence? 

The right-to-lifers and the anti-war folks supposedly share a common purpose: saving lives. Maybe they should join forces to try and stop this madness. Stranger things have happened.


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