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the world at war?

in my semi-smug but genuinely curious way, i posted a question on my facebook page earlier: how much of the world has to be at war before it counts as world war iii?

siberia looks nice and peaceful...

the first response i got raised the very legitimate point that this is the sort of question that gets answered by historians, once the haze of the present has faded. the other important factor is that people don't just declare war on each other the way that they used to. major powers entered both the of the world wars with the blessings of their own parliaments, whereas conflicts since world war ii have happened in coded language, sometimes circumventing the political process in the interests of expediency. president reagan never declared war on the nicaraguan government in the eighties, for example, but the united states was clearly in a state of armed conflict, even if most of the arms were being carried by their proxies, the contras.

whether or not we are living in a world at war is a tricky question. despite what you might think from watching the news, there are fewer people dying in wars* than during any period in recent history. but at least some of that has to with the relative sophistication of weaponry and with the distribution of that weaponry. the tools we use to kill each other are capable of reaching specific targets to a level that would have been unimaginable just a century ago. [does that seem like a lot? because the advances in technology over time have been so slow that technology in wars hundreds of years apart was not significantly different.] there are, indeed, very few wars that see more than 10,000 casualties a year: syria, afghanistan, mexico and iraq. and among those, one [mexico] is not a "war" in the traditional sense, since the belligerents are not politically motivated in the traditional sense. drug cartels in mexico do not seek to replace the government, only to keep it in check.

nonetheless, there are many, many places where there are wars. and many of them have international implications, although the death toll isn't so high as to register with most westerners. we've only recently seen mainstream coverage [and very little of it] on the plight of the rohingya in myanmar. stories of "boat people" desperately fleeing the country are gradually morphing into stories of a genocide in action. but that conflict has an official death toll of less than 500 people in 2017. "official". others have noted that the conflict has already created more than half a million refugees, and the scope of the conflict may be far greater than we've realised.

arguably, the biggest effect of the cold war between the united states and the soviet union was the "offshoring" of violent conflict to the developing world. the united states and canada have remained as war-free as they have ever been, and western europe, while always cautious of what could happen, have not had to contend with any major conflicts. every other area of the world, however, has some pretty deep scarring.

the india-pakistan conflict over kashmir has been teetering on the brink of all-out war for more than a half-century, which is especially disconcerting because both belligerents are nuclear powers, and the region is low-hanging fruit for terrorist cells, should things descend into chaos for any period. and even though the number of deaths may seem low, that may in part be because the sides have opted for non-lethal, but terrifying combat weapons.

if things have been calmer in the kashmir region between india and pakistan, it's likely because kashmir isn't pakistan's most pressing problem. also teetering on the brink is the province of balochistan, which, as a territory, also covers a significant portion of war-ravaged afghanistan and part of southeastern iran. the province is one of the poorest areas of pakistan, and has seen an increasing level of political repression, even though we hear very little about it in the western world. the terrifying spectacle of a major break that threatens to implode afghanistan, galvanise iran and possibly push pakistan into the position of the world's first nuclear failed state is terrifying. or it would be, if we ever heard about it.

the middle east has always had political tensions to make even the most optimistic among us throw up their hands in frustration, and that is by no means going to end. the conflict in syria has seen a declining number of casualties, but the number of refugees created by its civil war [and the further displacement of those already flooding into syria to escape the iraq war] is something that the world will be dealing with for years. and that's aside from the ongoing israeli-palestinian conflict, or the tensions between israel and lebanon, or the tensions between israel and egypt, or the tensions between israel and... well, as long as benjamin netanyahu is in power, there is going to be a lot of conflict that is israel + someone else in the region.

and if that isn't unstable enough for you, the kurds of iraq, those in the oil-rich, comparatively stable north, recently voted to secede from the rest of the country. aside from the fact that this threatens to implode the artificial nation of iraq again, it also has some pretty serious implications for the surrounding countries of syria, turkey and iran. governments in the west have walked a weird tightrope of vocally [but not materially] supporting the kurds in iran and iraq, ignoring the kurds in syria until they proved a powerful force for stability, and opposing the kurds in turkey. [the turkish government felt confident enough in american support that president erdogan unleashed his security detail onto protesters, during his meet n greet with donald trump. that didn't go well.]

also in the middle east, there's also a major conflict happening in yemen, accompanied by a cholera epidemic, and a secessionist movement in the emirates-backed south, against the saudi-backed north.

and let's not forget that, on the other side of the narrow straits that divide the arabian peninsula from africa, things are just as chaotic: south sudan, the world's youngest country, is already embroiled in a civil war. nor has the remainder of sudan fared any better. somalia has moved from a state of civil war to a state of war against al-qaeda aligned terrorists, with no respite in sight. [and that conflict is itself bleeding over into kenya.]

moving south, the long-simmering tensions between the government and rebels in mozambique has been reignited and is now becoming international in scope. people have fled violence in zimbabwe and malawi in recent months, leaving south africa, the economic engine of the region, worrying that they'll be facing their own refugee crisis soon enough. [those refugees could just as easily come from angola to the west, though, as conflict there has recently flared up again, in the face of a separatist movement from cabinda province.]

there are fears that conflicts in the democratic republic of congo could usher in the sort of horror seen in rwanda in the 1990s.

and, since we've all just become aware of the existence of niger in the last couple of weeks, let's pause to consider that several countries have been fighting against the terrorist group boko haram for years. [and, while we're at it, let's consider that the trump administration potentially made things a whole lot worse by putting chad, whose army has been a shining star in the anti-terrorist fight, on it's stupid "travel ban" list. even worse, it's been suggested that america alienated a valuable ally over simple bureaucratic idiocy.]

dear god, are we done yet? no, we're not. we're really not.

now, something that we should consider is that information on what's happening in the world has never been as readily available as it is now. so, before we assume that there there are more conflicts in the world, we should remember that there have always been conflicts that we haven't heard about. turkey waged genocidal campaigns against insurgent armenians, kurds and greeks in the early twentieth century, and got away with it in part because the global public was not aware of what was going on. much of the world waded into conflict in the former yugoslavia because reporting on the conflict there created a public demand for intervention.

to return to an earlier point, wars are killing fewer people than they ever did, in part because they're easier to expose and mitigate against, when the public and political will is there. there were 1.25 million people killed in car accidents in 2016, a number that dwarfs the number killed in any war currently happening. more people were killed by a lone gunman in las vegas a few weeks ago than have died in terror attacks in the united kingdom or the united states in twelve years.

however "peace" is a strange term to describe the pervasive sense of global anxiety in which we all live. there are dangerous zones around the world, and, as ethnicity is used more and more as a defining characteristic for nationhood, there are only going to be more conflicts. so, not as many people are dying. but the number of safe havens, the number of countries not militarily and politically engaged in armed warfare is dwindling.

*thanks very much to guy for providing this link. 


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