Home / Charli Carpenter / New Study: Mortality Rates Decline During Wars

New Study: Mortality Rates Decline During Wars


Given that Rob has been ruminating lately about the US government’s defense strategy for twenty-first century wars, consider this set of interesting data on war casualties. A new report, out about a week ago from the Human Security Report Project argues that contrary to popular belief, we are living through perhaps the most bloodless period in human history. Not only are wars on the decline, and fewer people are dying in them than before, but national mortality rates appear to actually fall in areas experiencing armed conflict.

How in the world can this be? Actually, it’s not quite as counterintuitive as the executive summary of The Shrinking Costs of War makes it sound – that’s just to attract press. (And how.) Here’s how the argument is explained.

First, the mortality rates in question are national mortality rates. The authors of the report look at national death rates and see whether they rise, fall, or fail to change on average when the country is at war. They find a general decline. But this doesn’t mean people aren’t dying where war is happening. They are. The question is why this isn’t resulting in a spike in mortality at the national level. Here’s why:

a) Peacetime mortality rates are declining steadily around the globe. This is largely due to the revolution in child survival caused by immunization campaigns. So death rates are already falling, and the question is whether enough people get killed in today’s conflicts to reverse that decline. They don’t, because…

b) Wars are generally much smaller and more localized than previously, so a conflict breaking out in one province of a country, for example, doesn’t necessarily reverse the already steady decline in peacetime mortality rates. At most, it may slow it a bit. (There are exceptions in the data – Rwanda in 1994, for instance.)

c) Today, when wars break out, an influx of humanitarian assistance arrives on the scene to increase life-saving interventions such as vaccinations against the kinds of diseases – malaria, diarrhea, and respiratory infections – that account for the massive death tolls in conflict zones, as well as significant numbers of preventable deaths in peacetime. These additional interventions offset the numbers being killed due to violence in buttressing the overall national survival rate, particularly for children under five. In some cases, they actually cause more people within the country to survive than might have been the case in the absence of the war.

These three factors – the localization of conflict and absence of great power conventional war, the global decline in peacetime mortality, and the increasingly effective humanitarian regime – account for this remarkable finding, the report argues.

I have not studied these numbers closely enough to comment further, though I may post follow-ups in the next few days. But in the meantime, check it out yourself. It’s a pretty interesting finding that, if true, challenges a whole lot of the way the media trains us to think about conflicts today.

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