On September 21, 1961, a very young President John F. Kennedy addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Knowing all too much about the ravages of war---he lost a brother and was involved in his own war time nightmare---Kennedy was there to advance the cause of peace. The world, after all, was still nursing wounds from World War II just fifteen years earlier. “Mankind must put an end to war,” Kennedy pleaded. “Or war will put an end to mankind.” But nearly sixty years later, mankind has done nothing of the sort. War still wreaks havoc on our world and, as Kennedy warned, may well until “war will put an end to mankind.”
We were again reminded of this historic and deadly plague called war earlier this month when the world marked the 75th anniversary of Normandy, the allied landing in France that tilted the war in Europe against Germany. But the price was steep. Nearly 200,000 were killed or wounded at Normandy. That figure, when added to the total number of 20th Century deaths from war, is only a tiny fraction of war’s unceasing appetite.
According to the Worldwide Statistics of Casualties Massacres, Disasters and Atrocities, war’s death toll in the 20th Century was nearly 125 million men, women and children. Of that figure, 37 million were military deaths, the remainder was democidal (genocide and other mass murder), victims of genocide, mass murder and famine. Yet, despite the enormous toll of war and other lower-level conflicts, mankind still is yet to find an alternative to this senseless and futile act.
Today, there is war or deadly conflict on every continent on earth with the exception of Australia and Antarctica. These conflicts are categorized by casualty rates. The U.S. government identifies a war as one with at least 10,000 deaths in a year. Currently there are 10 official wars on going and 8 “active military conflicts.” But there are at least 64 countries and 576 militias and separatist groups involved in various degrees of battle.
These deadly engagements range from the Syria civil war where the death toll has reached as high as 500,000 to smaller but equally as heartbreaking and bloody conflicts with body counts of 100 deaths annually. Also included in this roll-call of pain and finality are wars in South Sudan, Afghanistan and the Mexican Drug War. On a smaller but still deadly scale are Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Darfur, Libya and the Boko Haram insurgency, South Sudan and the South Kordofan conflict, an out-of-sight, out-of-mind battle. Then there are the amorphous hot-spots where ISIL and Al Qaeda surface.
Metropolitan State University of Denver political scientist, Dr. Sheila Rucki, studies war and international conflicts. She attributes a number of contemporary hot-spots to “situations that emerged out of the collapse of the Soviet Union.” “In the past,” said Rucki, “there was an incentive to suppress these kinds of conflicts. The conflicts we see today come from a space that didn’t exist before.” There has also been “a rise in nationalism and sectarianism,” she said. Rucki said she does not see a cooling in these caldrons of conflicts. “There is a certain hopelessness that we have to accept. It’s very depressing.”
Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were thought the only real players with the clout to effect international policy. But over the last thirty years, said Rucki, China has emerged as a force, both stealth and military. “China is an interesting case,” she said. While it is literally island-building in the South China Sea, it is also stretching its influence “not based on control, but mutual benefits.” China now has a presence throughout Africa and is extending its reach into South America.
Miguel de la Torre looks at events through a different prism. de la Torre is a Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Denver’s Iliff School of Theology who has studied human conflict. “If you look at the New Testament and early Christian Church,” he said, “there was a strong pacifistic belief. Christians could not engage in war. That changed with Constantine,” a fourth century Roman Emperor.
That bend in the spiritual road has resulted in a centuries-long history of mankind’s injustice toward his fellow man and indifference to spiritual teachings. “If you want property and the only way I can get it is by invading your land, I need to find justification, that is, permission by God.” Conflict often boils down to a desire for what another possesses or sometimes simple dominion.
De la Torre explains the paradox of God, pacifism, perpetual conflict, mayhem and violence. “You have many individuals who see the depravity of humanity and say, ‘there can’t be a God. Others say that God is present in the suffering. A lot of students wrestle with it. Most don’t have the answers.” De la Torre added, he also doesn’t have the answers. “You can’t prove or disprove God. Sometimes you just die under horrible conditions…like war.”