The following joke is attributed to Hermann Göring who was at the time on trial in Nuremberg, charged with conspiracy to commit crimes against peace; planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression; war-crimes; and crimes against humanity:
One Englishman --an idiot; Two Englishmen --a club; Three Englishmen --an empire! One German --a scholar; Two Germans --an army; Three Germans --a war!A mere joke, in bad taste! But consider the source. It is also a simple, if simple-minded, analysis of data. It even hints at the science of emergent properties but I seriously doubt Herr Göring had that in mind.
Across the English Channel – before Herr Göring would have the opportunity to expose the world to his brilliant wit - Lewis Fry Richardson, a brilliant theoretician and mathematician whose work inspired the science of fractals and war gaming, dared to ask: is war inevitable? can it be predicted? can it be prevented? why do we go to war? do war and murder differ? These are hard questions which resist reduction to number. Richardson himself may have had William Butler Yeats in mind when he observed that wars merge and split, or have no clear beginning or end; he said of them: “Thinginess fails.”
Nevertheless, when Richardson reduced war to data he concluded:
- War and murder are equivalent – differing only in magnitude.
- Wars may be categorized logarithmically like hurricanes and earthquakes.
- Arms races leading to wars may be modeled with differential equations.
- The occurrences of war may be plotted in a Poisson distribution –like cancer clusters and tornado touchdowns.
Other writers claim that Richardson's decision to lump murder and war together was deliberately provocative. Richardson's retort must be considered in the historical context: “One can find cases of homicide which one large group of people condemned as murder, while another large group condoned or praised them as legitimate war. Such things went on in Ireland in 1921 and are going on now in Palestine.” His remarks are as true today as when first uttered over 50 years ago.
- Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864)
- North AmericanCivil War (1861–1865)
- Great War in La Plata (1865–1870)
- Sequel to the Bolshevik Revolution (1918–1920)
- First Chinese-Communist War (1927–1936)
- Spanish Civil War (1936–1939)
- Communal riots in the Indian Peninsula (1946–1948)
Richardson had hoped that by tracking armament expenditures, wars might one day be predicted like the weather. Other conclusions –no more optimistic –are based on statistical correlations:
- Richardson found evidence of “contagion”; an ongoing war increases the probability that a new war will start.
- Richardson drew upon Graph Theory and Topology to determine those nations most likely to go to war.
- He found that of 94 world conflicts, only 12 were between combatants which shared no border. The inevitable conclusion: war is a “neighborhood affair”.
- Religion is clearly a factor, perhaps a major one. Nations of differing religion are more likely to fight than nations sharing a single religion. In Richardson's study, Christian nations seemed more bellicose, engaging in a disproportionate number of wars.
It must be pointed out that statistics do not govern events; they describe them. A murderer is not likely to win acquittal by pleading that his behavior is within known statistical norms.
Are nations, then, to be absolved for merely playing out a terrible fate? Are religious wars to be tolerated because both sides are convinced that God is on their side? Will neighboring nations be given leave to attack across shared borders? Are we to make war lightly because we have been wronged? Are wars of pre-emption ever justified. Perhaps those questions are unanswerable!
Consider the alternative: by Richardson's scale, a war of magnitude 9.8 will leave no one behind to ask the questions. William Butler Yeats wrote the most appropriate conclusion in 1922 –a year of great disillusionment with World War I:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;Notes:
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
- International Military Tribunal, The Nudremberg War-Crimes Trial
- 1945/46 (Göring was found guilty on all four counts but cheated the hangman with cyanide.)
- Hayes, Brian, Statistics of Deadly Quarrels,
- American Scientist, 2001, pp. 10-15.
- Hayes, Brian Ibid. pp. 10-15. (Richardson's biggest problem was getting data.