​Braumoeller, Bear F (2019) Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age. New York: Oxford University Press. 314 pp.

​ISBN: 978-0-19-084953-5

Michael Spagat

Royal Holloway, University of London

Read more about this book: global.oup.com

​Braumoeller poses the biggest challenge yet to the decline-of-war thesis of Steven Pinker and others. Unfortunately, he aims much of his fire at a straw-man mono-causal claim that war is disappearing after centuries of steady, monotonic decline because humans are becoming progressively more peaceful. Pinker depicts more of a jagged, reversible and mostly post-1945 decline explained mainly by the interaction of a largely fixed human nature, encompassing a dark side, with a changing environment that includes the growth of gentle commerce and the Leviathan state. This perspective can accommodate Braumoeller’s preferred explanation for peaceful historical periods: international orders such as the Concert of Europe. Braumoeller argues, rather convincingly, that conflict initiation rates have not declined steadily since 1816. But his case for an unchanging distribution of war sizes, extending all the way back to 1816, is weak and confused. He fails to reject a hypothesis of equal power-law slope coefficients (on log-log axes) for his fits to the pre- and post-World War II war-size distributions. He then assumes away all other possible differences between these distributions and declares them to be identical without engaging with several recent papers identifying a break in the war-size distribution at 1950. He next assumes, confidently, that his power laws apply through two, even three, orders of magnitude beyond the data’s reach, continuing on to bravely project that ‘We’re all going to die.’ His doom-mongering fatalism follows earlier chiding of Pinker for, he claims, encouraging counterproductively complacent attitudes towards war. With appropriate modesty and caution we can and should extrapolate beyond our data. But Braumoeller’s bold predictions of annihilation are far from convincing.