A million people die every year as a result of war and terrorism. According to these statistics, armed conflict will cost another 20 million lives in the coming two decades. Is there anything we can do to stop that from happening? The origin of war is one of the oldest questions of humanity. Every major religion sets rules that limit armed conflicts. Yet war seems to be a destructive power that is present throughout history. Is it within our power to prevent war and terrorism? British meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson was one of the first to apply statistical analysis to warfare. Richardson was a Quaker whose beliefs prevented him from serving in combat, so he drove an ambulance during World War I instead. It was then that he first began to collect data on the death toll attributable to armed conflict. Richardson went on to study military confrontations from 1820 to 1945, ranging from minor local skirmishes to all-out world wars. As we might expect, he found that the deadlier the conflict, the less frequent its occurrence. What was not expected, however, was his observation that the frequency of wars follows a similar kind of scaling law as earthquakes and avalanches. There are roughly fifteen conflicts each century costing more than a million lives. Those with a death toll above 100,000 occur 100 times, those with 10,000 or more deaths 800 times, and so on. A tenfold increase in lethality thus corresponds with an eightfold decline in frequency. This came as a great surprise because it suggests that wars don’t occur randomly. The fixed proportion of smaller and bigger conflicts shows that they are interrelated and that there is a common set of forces driving a dispute toward war. This is a profoundly worrying conclusion for historians, who customarily ascribe each new outbreak of violence to a set of unique contingencies. Yet this is only part of the story. Scaling law statistics suggest that there is something universal shared by all wars—something that may be inherent to human society.
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