The odometer view of evil

We use body counts as a metric for how bad wars were. On this account, WWII is the worst war, at least of the last few millennia of Western history. On the other hand,  when measured by a moral criteria of war, it turns out to be one of the best wars, since it largely satisfies the first three of the four criterion for a just war (though it had significant failures in observing proportional response). As wars go, this is (sadly) about as just as it gets.*

While one can’t treat body counts in war as purely accidental to an evaluation of the evil of a war, the criterion tells us more about population sizes and technological wizardry than about evil as such. We can try to avoid the population-size problem by looking at deaths per size of population, but no one knows exactly how to evaluate the evil of such a ratio (is it worse to wipe out 2% of the American population in 1860 or 85% of a population of a mid-sized African tribe?) and so the temptation to just tally up body counts is hard to avoid. Still, this odometer view of the evil of war comes with significant limitations, which have already been mentioned but develop more fully as:

1.) Body counts as such don’t make wars good or evil. Though it is not an unrelated metric, it’s something like evaluating whether a steak is good by looking at how large it is. Sure, part of the value of a steak is that it’s not too large or too small, and there are some contexts in which it will be called good or bad on its size, but what one means when referring to whether it was good or bad is not a quantitative measure. Likewise, the proper criteria for a war is not bloodiness but justice, and while body count can be an element in this, it can only be so on the basis of a previous evaluation of justice.

2.) It’s more a statement about technology than war. Both the making and the recording of body counts are largely a statement about sophistication in mechanical technique. One has to ship the millions of men to some place, along with massive amounts of materiel, then equip them with tools that are capable of killing with great efficiency, etc. But all this technical wiz-bangery doesn’t change much in the fundamental fact of war. After two governments have specified some swath of ground on which young men are supposed to kill each other, an existential fact has been made to which technology adds very little. In this crucial sense technology and its effect seem peculiarly inept at capturing the reality of war.


*I speak only of the rather limited number of wars that I’m familiar with. Specialists or hobbyists might, for all I know, be more optimistic about the number of wars that meet all four of the criteria for just war.


  1. Paul said,

    June 8, 2015 at 6:42 am

    Is it so hard to understand that a completely unjust war may inflict relatively little damage on a large and complex society, being in that sense alone “not so bad?” Do we really think that disambiguating these aspects of a war is a widespread problem? I assert that our own society’s recent mistakes about justice in war have not been driven primarily by this kind of confusion.

    The content of the four criteria is another question. They require that the aggressor is definitely inflicting serious damage, that there are no means other than violence available to stop this, that violence may offer some realistic hope of preventing this damage, and that the damage inflicted by this instrument must not be worse than that which it proposes to prevent. Let us consider a situation that has been common throughout history: a larger, more sophisticated society claims the territory and resources possessed by a smaller, less sophisticated one. (Sophisticated here being defined multi-dimensionally, in technological, economic, political, and cultural terms.) By the four criteria, the smaller society should abandon its territory to the aggressor. But at times, this is not possible. In the process of conquest and dispersal or absorption, the men and male youths will typically be put to the sword (or to the spear or the flint knife, as the case may be). Is it unjust for the smaller society to resist this process? or should their just goal be to plead for, say, mutilation and enslavement for the males?

    The point that I am working around to with these questions is that the just war doctrine has been developed within a context of relative “civilization” and acknowledgement of common humanity — beginning with the context of a slowly eroding Roman empire and the various barbarian tribes that adopted its trappings even as they claimed pieces of its carcass, through the centuries of feudal Christendom, into the era of unquestioned Western dominance. But what if the enemy is stronger, and committed to your society’s annihilation (or more accurately, to actions which will bring about that annihilation as a consequence)? One might cite the Ottomans, but Islam is (or at least was) so civilized as to explicitly offer the status of protected, subjugated minority to those who would submit to its rule. I am thinking more of things like the Mongol conquest, and much primitive or “aboriginal” warfare, which tends much more readily toward total inter-societal war to the death, with the winner appropriating the wealth, women, and children.

    For a more contemporary example: what should the Yazidis have done, considering that they could not flee? renounced their ancient faith and subjected themselves to the Daish? Had they done so, would it have been more just than a doomed last stand defending their homes?

    • June 8, 2015 at 2:06 pm

      Is it so hard to understand that a completely unjust war may inflict relatively little damage on a large and complex society, being in that sense alone “not so bad?” Do we really think that disambiguating these aspects of a war is a widespread problem?

      If you mean disambiguating war as moral and war as bloody, then we apparently do have a hard time keeping them separate, since people routinely judge the moral deprivation of secularism, Communism, The Twentieth century, or the religious was of the 17th century on the basis of body counts, and even tend to judge these things as uniquely evil on the basis of the higher body counts. This is why Steven Pinker saw the main objection to his thesis that morality has been advancing since the Enlightenment as being the widespread belief that the bloodiness of modern war made the last century uniquely immoral. People will likewise use low body counts as exculpatory: I’ve personally heard such arguments for the persecutions of Mary Stuart, the Crusades, and the Roman persecution of Christians.

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