Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age


The idea that war is going out of style has become the conventional wisdom in recent years. But in Only the Dead, award-winning author Bear Braumoeller demonstrates that it shouldn't have. With a rare combination of historical expertise, statistical acumen, and accessible prose, Braumoeller shows that the evidence simply doesn't support the decline-of-war thesis propounded by scholars like Steven Pinker. He argues that the key to understanding trends in warfare lies, not in the spread of humanitarian values, but rather in the formation of international orders—sets of expectations about behavior that allow countries to work in concert, as they did in the Concert of Europe and have done in the postwar Western liberal order. With a nod toward the American sociologist Charles Tilly, who argued that "war made the state and the state made war," Braumoeller shows that the same is true of international orders: while they reduce conflict within their borders, they can also clash violently with one another, as the Western and communist orders did throughout the Cold War.

Both highly readable and rigorous, Only the Dead offers a realistic assessment of humanity's quest to abolish warfare. While pessimists have been too quick to discount the successes of our attempts to reduce international conflict, optimists are prone to put too much faith in human nature. Reality lies somewhere in between: While the aspirations of humankind to govern its behavior with reason and justice have had shocking success in moderating the harsh dictates of realpolitik, the institutions that we have created to prevent war are unlikely to achieve anything like total success—as evidenced by the multitude of conflicts in recent decades. As the old adage advises us, only the dead have seen the end of war.

Praise for Only the Dead

"A work of outstanding social science by an eminent scholar of international security and war." —Jordan Becker, Defence Studies

"Braumoeller delivers a crushing critique by taking on Pinker's central methodological claim—that his analysis is based on hard data and sound reasoning. ... The statistical trends that emerge from Braumoeller's alternative analysis refute the case for optimism. When things do seem to get better, it's not because humankind is becoming more intrinsically civilized but because the major powers have ordered their affairs in ways that make war less likely." —Lawrence D. Freedman, Foreign Affairs

"With the conditions for a regional war in the Middle East riper than they have been for years, the liberal international order under strain, and the deterioration of U.S.-Chinese relations, Only the Dead makes for sobering reading. Braumoeller's is the most serious response to Pinker's claims so far." —Nikita Lalwani and Sam Winter-Levy, Foreign Policy

"Overall, the arguments in this book are strong, and the discussion of data issues is subtle throughout. Its arguments seem fundamentally correct to me." —Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution.

"I'm *really* enjoying ⁦@Prof_BearB⁩'s new book, "Only the Dead". A persuasive refutal of the idea that violence is in decline -- an argument made by Steven Pinker and others. Civil, thoughtful, well-researched, and readable." —Prof. Chris Blattman (@cblatts), Twitter

From the Back Cover

"Professor Braumoeller has done political scientists and the public at large a favor. He has applied Enlightenment values of dispassionate reason and careful analysis to the increasingly popular claim that war is declining.The result is a book that even the most optimistic among us must read and answer." —ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER, CEO, New America, and Former Director of Policy Planning, U.S. State Department

"This is truly excellent work! Bear Braumoeller is one of the very rare people who realize that statistics is about rigor and clarity of mind, not drowning in confirmatory data. Political science needs such scientific lucidity." —NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB, Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering, New York University, Tandon School of Engineering, and author of The Black Swan

"Whether it convinces you or not, Only the Dead will make you much, much smarter on the highest stakes learned debate of our time: whether war is in terminal decline. The topic is grim. The statistics are complex. But, amazingly, Bear Braumoeller makes it all accessible and even entertaining." —WILLIAM C. WOHLFORTH, Daniel Webster Professor of Government, Dartmouth College

"Only the Dead demolishes the myth that war is in decline, and constructs a compelling explanation for the true drivers of war in the past, and likely in the future." —AARON CLAUSET, University of Colorado Boulder and the Santa Fe Institute