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A Demographic Theory of War

Population, power, and the 'slightly weird' ideas of Gunnar Heinsohn.

12:00 AM, Oct 5, 2007 • By CLARK WHELTON
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"LOOK AT IT THIS WAY," Gunnar Heinsohn said. "Your family is in a shooting war with a family across the street. Your forces consist of a father, mother and one child, perhaps two. The other family has a father, mother and seven children, perhaps eight or nine. For your family, the loss of one person would be devastating. The larger family can take casualties and continue fighting."

We were in London, having coffee before a Jane's Cityforum conference on "Defense to 2020 and Beyond." As we talked, generals, staffers, and defense contractors maneuvered among the pastry tables. Heinsohn is director of the Raphael-Lemkin Institute at the University of Bremen and author of Sons and World Power: Terror in the Rise and Fall of Nations, an academic best-seller in Germany. Later in the day he would be lecturing professional soldiers on the "demographic dimension" of future warfare.

"My point," Heinsohn continued, "is that the strength of a nation's military is affected by the size of a nation's families. Falling birth rates in Western countries mean that even light casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan bring cries of pain in Europe and America. But Iraq and Afghanistan are growing rapidly. Their populations are swollen by youth bulges. Their average family has five or six children. They are in what I call 'extreme demographic armament.'"

"What about America and Europe?"

"Except for its white population, which is falling, America is in demographic neutrality. Europe, however, is in demographic capitulation. Several European countries have birth rates so low they are committing demographic suicide. Supposedly, the EU was formed because Europeans were tired of fighting. 'Five hundred years of war is enough,' they said. But there is a great lie here. Why wasn't four hundred years of war enough? Or three hundred? The real reason Europeans decided to stop killing each other is that they were no longer having big families. They had no more superfluous sons to burn on the battlefield. I talk about these things in my book. I will talk about them today, as well."

"Your book hasn't been published in English," I said. "A demographic theory of war and terror could be a tough sell to a military audience in London."

Heinsohn smiled. "Generals understand. If you don't have children today, you won't have soldiers tomorrow. Jane's partner, Cityforum, asked me to speak at a similar conference last year. After my presentation, General Brims, a British commander in Iraq, told me that when he arrived in Basra he would go into houses and find large numbers of young people. Everywhere, young people. He wondered if they were refugees, or if maybe it was a trap. Finally he realized the young people belonged to the families that lived in those houses. They were the children of the Iraqi youth bulge."

"And a youth bulge is?"

"A result of rapid population growth. A youth bulge happens when thirty to forty percent of a nation's males are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine. Even if these young men are well nourished and have good housing and education, their numbers grow much faster than the economy can provide them with career opportunities. Many don't have jobs, and don't have places in society. When so many young men compete for the few places available, they become frustrated, angry, and violent. They are enlisted quite easily into radical groups and terror organizations."

"Is that what you talked about last year?"

"Last year I said that if the U.S. population since 1950 had grown at the same rate as Pakistan, America would now have almost a billion people. If Germany had grown at the same rate as Gaza, Germany would now have six hundred million people and a youth bulge to go with it. Which means today we would not be seeing young men throwing rocks and bombs just in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank, we would also be seeing violence in the streets of Hamburg and Berlin. That got the generals' attention."

"How will you get their attention this year?"

"I will tell them the real cause of the quagmire in Iraq. And in Afghanistan, too."