Death at Random

Twentieth Century Book of the Dead

by Gil Elliot
Ballantine Books, 235 pp., $1.65 (paper)

I must begin by saying that I found this book maddeningly repetitious, and its style far too fancy for my liking. Nevertheless, I think it a book everybody should read. It does not tell us anything new, but it rubs our noses in facts which we would prefer to forget.

Mr. Elliot’s general thesis may be summed up thus. Until quite recently, the majority of human deaths were caused by what he calls the “microviolence” of nature, famines, floods, diseases, etc. This is no longer the case. Modern medicine has greatly increased the average natural life expectancy. (It has been reckoned that in the Bronze Age this was only seventeen years.) But in this century, thanks to the development of war machinery, far more deaths have been caused by the “macro-violence” of man.

Mr. Elliot devotes separate chapters to violence in Russia, China, the other countries involved in World War I and World War II. In passing, he refers to other conflicts, such as the Mexican Civil War and the Armenian massacres. Not being a professional statistician, I am in no position to check his figures, but they seem to me credible. His conclusion:

Of the 110 million man-made deaths in this century, sixty-two million died in conditions of privation, forty-six million from guns and bombs, or hardware, and two million from chemicals.

Under deaths from privation, Mr. Elliot included deaths in labor and concentration camps, even if their inmates were shoved into gas chambers.

The First World War caused a profound change in the conventional attitude toward warfare. Hitherto, the ruling classes in all countries had subscribed to a warrior ethos, derived from Homer and the Knights of the Round Table. However at variance with the actual facts this may have been, they sincerely thought of those they were fighting as persons, like Achilles and Hector, whom they could name and respect, so that the military professions were considered noble. When I was a small boy, when we had cherry or plum pie, we used to count the stones in order to predict our future careers. Our list ran as follows: Army, Navy, Law, Church.

Before 1914, the politicians in all states would have agreed with Kant:

No state at war with another state should engage in hostilities of such a kind as to render mutual confidence impossible when peace will have been made.

The replacement of the horse by mechanical means of transport, and the invention of heavy artillery and bombs, destroyed this ethos. Hitherto, at the end of a war, monuments had been erected to the memory of famous generals and admirals. In 1918, in all countries, monuments were raised to the Unknown Soldier, about whom nothing is known except that he lost his life. For all anybody knows, he may, personally, have been a coward. Honor, that is to say, is paid to the warrior not as a hero but as a martyr.

One would have thought that the obvious conclusion to draw would have …

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