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 argues 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.