The 30% Solution

The Speed Metal band Metallica used to say, "Kill 'em all." But in a scholarly treatment of the world's worst wars, from ancient Athens to the Thirty Years war and from Napoleon to the Confederacy, Spengler says that's not necessary. Killing just 30% of the military-aged male population appears to do the trick.

Rather bloody mathematics, that, but his citations are chiefly to solid academic works. I wonder if he hasn't identified something universal in the inflection point. If so, I wonder why that universal would hold in such different times and cultures.

UPDATE: Thinking about this more overnight, I notice the omission of two examples of war of attrition that I'd have expected to see: the Vietnam War, and the Russian war in Afghanistan. Figures for Vietnam are controversial, but the high-end numbers don't support anything like a 30% loss of military aged males: the population of Vietnam actually grew rapidly during the war, from 28 to 45 million. I'll estimate military-aged as roughly 1/3rd of any population, with males being roughly 1/2, so 1/16th is the very rough estimate for military-aged males in a population. The highest number of estimated Vietnamese killed is 3.1 million; 1/6th of 28 million is 4.7 million. But in fact the population will have added nearly an additional 5 million military-aged males during the 20 years of the war, with those deaths being spread out over the whole course of the war and not all happening at once.

Thus I estimate deaths would have needed to be twice what they were and then some to attain the 30%, and that's if the highest estimates of dead are accurate. If the lower estimates are accurate instead, then more than six times as many deaths would have been necessary to attain the figure Spengler describes.

For Afghanistan, the total population is thought to have been around 16 million in 1981-2. 1/6th of that is 2.7 million. The 9 year Soviet war killed -- again, taking the highest estimate -- 1.6 million. So once again, in spite of Soviet brutality, they never approached the figure Spengler describes.

So these two possible counter-examples, in which industrial powers attempted to use attrition as a strategy, both fail to disprove his argument.


raven said...

Numbers I have heard, but have no reference for, is there is about a one to three ratio between KIA and WIA- his 30 percent KIA would indicate a near 100 level of casualties.

Anonymous said...

I am not quite convinced, after all not all wars are on the level of the Thirty Year war. Though it does suggest why we can not win wars via surgical strikes. You can kill master minds one at a time forever and not manage to inflict the levels this theory requires. Using more or less Grim's own guesses at population percentage you would need to kill 3.5 million people to end the Syria and Iraq's population as a rough estimate. Which means if you want to end it in a year you would essentially have to kill something just under ten thousand people a day to hit the 'proper' number in a year. Given that drone strikes have been well under this number for the entire way you can see the issue with this. Even as an abstract it is a rather staggering number. I mean the current drone use is controversial, ramping up military action to create a 'win' under this theory would have people screaming bloody murder.

MikeD said...

You couldn't achieve numbers like that with drones. They simply don't carry enough ordinance. This would require nuclear strikes, or at least bombings of civilian centers the likes of which we haven't seen since WWII. And I think you're right, no one would stand for that.

Anonymous said...

I would not say it is impossible with drones, it would just need more than we have. Since the number I looked up was about 300+, and they require maintenance, and down time. After all the the only number we are contemplating is military age men, why bomb cities filled with a cross section of the populace? Also this assumes just bombing them works, several of the wars mentioned were pre-firearm.

douglas said...

"or at least bombings of civilian centers the likes of which we haven't seen since WWII. And I think you're right, no one would stand for that."

Not yet. One terrorist attack of large magnitude with chemical or nuclear devices could create a groundswell of support for retaliatory strikes. Once things get stirred up, they can bloom into critical mass quite quickly.

I think too, that as regards Vietnam and Afghanistan, the very idea of 'war of attrition' was quite different than the concept of same further back in history. The modern version was an idea of slow bleed to make it undesirable, not untenable to continue. In the past, attrition meant not taking a position or geographical area, but simply killing enough of them to make them stop. There's a big difference in making someone stop by making it nearly impossible to continue, and making them maybe want to stop because it's painful to continue.

Ymar Sakar said...

Shutting off the food and water would do it, by bombing infrastructure and poisoning the water supplies.

It doesn't matter whether people die from riots, starvation, or US bombs.

It only matters that the power of Death is expressed in enough levels that it pervades the next generation. Only by changing the next generation, can people change the willpower of a culture or nation. Many people sabotaged Iraq and Afghanistan. But what they destroyed was the hope of peacefully winning wars. What they promoted and allowed, was the more effective choice in causing military casualties. People want to win, so sooner or later they will realize it, though they lack the power to apply it.