Big Wars since World War II

A sharp reader responded to this recent post by asking for a list of wars since World War II that are bigger than the one in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

I gave a list in a comment but avoided providing numbers because I wanted to explain where the numbers come from before hurling them out into the blogosphere.

So here is the promised follow up to last week’s comment.

I stress, once again, the importance of comparing like with like.  We know that deaths of civilians should not be confused with deaths of civilians plus combatants (See here, here and here).  Similarly, it is never OK to argue that war A is bigger than war B because the number of deaths from violence plus diarrhea plus stroke plus heart disease in war A exceed the number of violent deaths in war B.

No one could disagree with the principle of comparing like with like.  Yet, in practice it is difficult to live up to this minimal standard when  comparing war sizes.  We don’t have a standard method for sizing up wars and, even if we did, we would still be stuck with the actually existing historical record  rather than the ideal record we would like to have.

Fortunately, we can avail ourselves of the PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset which is a landmark in the struggle to compare war sizes using a single measuring rod which is known as “battle deaths”:

The PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset dataset defines battle deaths as deaths resulting directly from violence inflicted through the use of armed force by a party to an armed conflict during contested combat. Contested combat is use of armed force by a party to an armed conflict against any person or target during which the perpetrator faces the immediate threat of lethal force being used by another party to the conflict against him/her and/or allied fighters. Contested combat excludes the sustained destruction of soldiers or civilians outside of the context of any reciprocal threat of lethal force (e.g. execution of prisoners of war).

In short, the main requirement for war deaths to qualify as battle deaths is that they occur during two-sided fights.  Notice, importantly, that this concept does not cover the slaughter of unarmed civilians.  Such deaths are abominable but they are not defined as battle deaths.

It is possible to do a tolerably good job of extracting battle deaths from the diverse historical records we have for the many conflicts going back to World War II.  Thus, the focus on battle deaths enables us to compare like with like as we range across conflicts.

The big disadvantage of the battle-deaths concept is that it doesn’t capture all the war violence of interest – such as the slaughter of unarmed civilians.

Fortunately, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) addresses the latter weakness directly with its “one-sided violence” dataset although, unfortunately, the UCDP database only goes back to 1989.

To summarize, we can do a decent job of comparing war sizes going back to World War II using the battle-deaths metric.  We can make still better comparisons across conflicts of battle plus one-sided deaths but we can only go back to 1989.

These possibilities represent a spectacular advance over what was possible less than a decade ago.  Yet we should remember that the measures we have do not cover important war casualties such as rapes, non-lethal injuries and non-violent deaths indirectly traceable back to war violence .

OK, enough with the preamble.  What do the numbers say?

PRIO lists the war in the DRC as extending, off and on, all the way back to 1964.  The International Rescue Committee (IRC) clearly has in mind the fighting since 1999 when it characterizes the DRC conflict as the most deadly since World War II.  Nevertheless, I’ll add up the PRIO Battle Death numbers going back to 1964 just to maximize the chance of vindicating the IRC.

DRC 1964-2008 – 159,566 battle deaths.

That is a lot of battle deaths but other wars have more.

The Korean War 1950-1953 – 995,000 

The Vietnam Wars 1946-1975  – 377,523 for the French phase and 1,625,973 for the American phase.

Cambodia  1967 -1998  – 366,426 (But note that there were a huge number of one-sided deaths in this war that are, of course, not included in the PRIO battle-death count.  These also occurred too early to be included in the UCDP one-sided violence database.  I could invoke other sources here but I’d rather not go off on this tangent right now.)

The Chinese Civil War (Just the part of it between 1946 and 1949 since we’re only looking at the post-WWII period) – 1,200,000

The Iran-Iraq War 1980 – 1988  – 645,500

Afghanistan 1978 – 2008  – 538,848

Rwandan Genocide 1994  – This is an interesting case in light of the above discussion.  In terms of battle deaths Rwanda is well below the DRC.  However, UCDP lists 500,000 one-sided deaths for the Rwandan genocide.  (The most common number you hear for the Rwandan genocide is 800,000 but UCDP is conservative about its numbers.)

The above are, to me, the obvious cases that are bigger than DRC.  I think there are probably more but it’s hard to say for sure based on what we know for most of them.

I happen to be reading about the Algerian war right now so I had a look at PRIO’s Algeria numbers.

Algeria 1954 – 1962  –  182,526  battle deaths

Greece is in my mind because of recent news so I thought I’d have a look.

Greece – 1946 – 1949  –  154,000  battle deaths

Conclusion – The war in the DRC is a big, horrible one but not the deadliest war since World War II.

7 thoughts on “Big Wars since World War II

  1. Hello Chris.

    There is no systematically collected estimates for war deaths, including civilian casualties, going all the way back to World War II. The UCDP data mentioned in the post fits your requirements pretty well – but only goes back to 1989.

    The strategy of the PRIO Battle Deaths database is to extract the information that can reasonably be taken from the historical record and assembled in a tolerably consistent manner. This fairly uniform and accessible information turns out to cover just battle deaths.

    This means that there isn’t going to be a really solid answer to your question because for some conflicts there is more comprehensive information available than there is for others.

    Still, I think it’s safe to say that if we include Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge as part of the Vietnam war then I’m sure it’s the biggest one. If we take a narrower view of the war then it’s at least possible that Korea or the post-WWII part of the the Chinese civil war could be bigger.

    Sorry to be so wishy washy but I don’t believe the evidence is strong enough to be really confident here.

    We will return to this subject on the blog.


  2. Well in an article I wrote recently I made the rather overly bold statement that: “Vietnam was the bloodiest guerrilla war in modern history”, which I believe is correct (depending on what you define as modern) but stated earlier in the article that “So started America’s commitment to a war that turned into the largest and bloodiest insurgency in history”, which may not be correct, depending on how you define the Congo, Chinese Civil War and Taiping rebellion.



  3. Hi again.

    That’s a great article that you link to.

    I would agree that you were overly bold, not because of the DRC. but probably because of China although no one can say for sure.

    Maybe an important take home message is that it’s just not worth pronouncing on what is the biggest war in a certain category. For any practical purpose it should always be sufficient to say “one of the biggest…”

    After all, this isn’t a sports context where you’re striving to be number one and second place is a disappointment.


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