The Deadliest Wars of the Modern Era

War seems to have been around pretty much since the dawn of humanity. Despite there not being as many people and weapons being far less efficient at killing people death tolls still managed to creep into the millions. But then in those days wars went on for decades, if not centuries.

Since the advent of mechanized and long-range weaponry wholesale slaughter has become much more streamlined and massive casualties can now be racked up in a matter of years. So, it seems that at the end of the day mankind has learnt very little except how to make wars more effective.

To add further insult to the millions have lost their lives to the various wars over the last century it seems in most cases very little was gained and despite all the bloodshed no one  really wins.

10. Korean War (1950-1953)

Korean War

Death toll: 1.2 millionThe Korean War is perhaps best known through the 70s TV series M*A*S*H which illustrated the senselessness of war in general but never really touched on the utter brutality of this particular war. Often referred to as the “Forgotten War” the war in Korea never really grabbed the World’s attention, probably because it occurred so close after the global devastation of World War II. Despite this well over a million people were killed during just 3 years of fighting during which time nuclear weapons were primed to go.

The war in Korea was possibly the first skirmish of the Cold War. Prior to World War II Korea had been occupied by Japan but at the end of the war Russia had liberated the north of the country and the Americans had pushed up from the south. As Soviet-US relations soured over the following years it was agreed that Korea be divided into two countries with separate governments, both of whom saw themselves as the legitimate leaders of a unified Korea. The North was a communist state, heavily supported by neighbouring Russia and China, while the South was run by an equally unpleasant dictatorship with the loose backing of the US.

On the 25th June 1950 tensions eventually spilled over and the North Koreans mounted a full scale invasion of the South. Two days later a United Nations backed force led by the US was sent to defend the South. To begin with the UN forces were overwhelmed and pushed back to the very south-eastern tip of the country. However further troops poured in and the situation was turned around with the combined forces of the UN pushing the North Koreans almost back to the Chinese border.

It was at this point that things took a particularly serious turn. Unwilling to have the Americans so close to their border the Chinese sent in a massive force to push back the UN coalition troops. This involved direct fighting between the Chinese and US along with some air cover by the Soviets. Overwhelmed, the UN forces dropped back. It was at this point that the spectre of using nuclear weapons was raised by the Americans. This was raised as a possibility if all out defeat on the Korean peninsula became a reality.

Fortunately this never happened and the was ground to a stalemate around the previous North / South border along the 38th parallel. Bitter fighting continued on the ground with neither side taking territory decisively. Meanwhile, in the air it was a different story. With virtually unrivalled air-superiority the US carried out an massive bombing campaign of the North. More ordnance was dropped than during the War in the Pacific and it is said virtually every building of any significance in the North was flattened. In the end they simply ran out of targets

During this bitter conflict atrocities were carried out by both sides. It is also documented that the US operated a “shoot-first-ask-questions-later” policy where unidentified civilians approaching US battlefield positions would regarded as enemy combatants.

At the end of 3 years of fighting nothing had really changed and the border remained exactly where it was. In the aftermath hundreds of thousands more would die from starvation and in concentration camps in the North. Nearly 70 years on and the conflict simmers on; in fact the war never officially ended.

9. Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005)

Sudanese Civil War

© Kalou Kaka

Death toll: 1 to 2 millionAs you can see by the name this is not the first civil war to have ravaged Sudan and just like the first it was long and bloody. Lasting almost 22 years this was one of the longest civil wars ever and as a result the death toll was particularly high. By the end of the war up to 2 million people had been killed, mostly civilians, due to starvation and drought which ripped through the country.

The reason for the civil war is complex and various. Some cite religious divides, others old tribal rivalries and others still put it down to a central government exploiting those in other regions. What seems to have reignited the conflict between Sudan and the semi-autonomous South Sudan was the fundamentalist Islamic Sudanese central government attempting to roll out Sharia law and relinquishing the South’s powers of self-governance.

During the war in Sudan many of the familiar patterns seen in conflict across Africa occurred. Civilians bore the brunt of the killing with atrocities carried out by both sides. Massacres were committed along both ethnic and religious divides with the most notorious of these being the Bor Massacre in which more than 2,000 civilians were killed by South Sudanese rebels. Child soldiers were also used by both sides with nearly 20,000 enlisted by the rebel army alone.

By the end of the Sudanese civil war it wasn’t the fighting that had left well over a million dead, it was the famine that accompanied it. Although the root cause of the famine was drought the effects were massively amplified by the war. Many felt that the Sudanese forces deliberately exacerbated the situation in an act of genocide.

8. War in Afghanistan (1978-)

War in Afghanistan
Death toll: Up to 2 millionOf all the wars in this article this is the only that has never officially ended. The fact that it has gone on for so long and seems largely unsolvable doesn’t raise any hope that it ever will either.

The problem with Afghanistan is not only does it contain many opposing factions, but that it is bordered by a large number of countries, including regional powers, all of which have been keen to interfere with the nation’s running. There is also a history of imperial meddling from Britain and Russia in particular, which to some extent destabilized the country.

The current conflict in Afghanistan has its roots in the communist military coup of 1978. The pro-Soviet leader was never popular with the masses and was eventually deposed himself. This led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 – a conflict that soon became known as “Russia’s Vietnam”. It was during the 8 years of this war that most of the casualties occured. Estimates of between 500,000 and 2 million civilian deaths have been made and at the end of the war in 1988 Afghanistan was ranked the 4th poorest country in the world.

Another low point in the Afghanistan conflict, at least for the Afghan people, was in the mid 1990s when the Taliban took control of the country. They took the country back to medieval times   imposing their version of strict Islamic laws banning most things, particularly having fun. Punishments ranged from summary beatings and flogging to amputations and public executions by stoning (among other methods).

7. Nigerian Civil War / Biafran War (1967-1970)

African war

Death toll: ~2 million*The Nigerian Civil War (or Biafran War) is the classic example of the legacy the European colonizers of the 18th and 19th centuries left for Africa. Back then Africa was divided up among the various European empires in a way that suited them. Lines were drawn on the map without consideration for the people living there.

Unfortunately these imposed borders often cut through long-established ethnic, tribal and religious communities, forcing together opposing tribes. While this might not have been a big problem during the iron rule of the Europeans as soon as they left old grievances quickly resurfaced.

Such was the case in Nigeria when it became independent from the British in 1960. The Hausa and the Igbo ethnic groups came from unrelated backgrounds and had different religions. Unable to decide how to share power over Nigeria the mainly christian Igbos in the southeast broke away and formed the country of Biafra. Coincidentally this new country controlled the oil-rich Niger Delta, a factor that probably encouraged both the Nigerian majority and outside interests to take back Biafra.

The fighting was fierce at times with both sides going on the offensive. Atrocities were committed on both sides with perhaps the biggest being towards the end of the war. In order to force the Biafrans to capitulate the Nigerian federals, with the support of the British managed to surround Biafra and impose a total blockade. This led to a humanitarian disaster with famine sweeping the besieged area.

Whether this was an act of genocide by the British and Nigerians is still debatable. By the end of the war in 1970 it is estimated that as many as 2 million people, half of them children, had died of starvation.

6. Vietnam War (1961-1973)

Vietnam War

Death toll: Up to 3.8 millionMany movies have been made of World War II and until relatively recently very few of them touched on the grim reality of war. Vietnam on the other hand has been covered by any number of movies and pretty much every one of them has focused on the horror of it all. In previous wars (except maybe Korea) things had been pretty clear cut; we were the good guys going in to save the world from whatever evil was on the march. This was not the case in Vietnam; in fact it wasn’t even obvious to many Americans why they were being forced to fight an unknown enemy thousands of miles from home.