“Black lives matter” became the slogan of the anti-police protests that followed the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Do they? Does yours? Parts of black America appear determined to destroy themselves—black men, that is, rather than black women, who graduate from university at twice the male rate and hold more full-time jobs. Call it genosuicide, the self-willed extinction of a people, and it happens all the time, especially when young men decide that to matter, they must assert themselves violently. There is nothing uniquely “black” about the inner-city catastrophe now unfolding in America, as some historical examples will show.
In the reasonable fear of legal persecution, police in America’s inner cities have stepped back from aggressive enforcement of the law, and the result is a sudden surge in homicides that have killed hundreds of people, almost all of them black. As Heather MacDonald reported in the Wall Street Journal May 29, “Gun violence in particular is spiraling upward in cities across America. In Baltimore, the most pressing question every morning is how many people were shot the previous night. Gun violence is up more than 60% compared with this time last year, according to Baltimore police, with 32 shootings over Memorial Day weekend. May has been the most violent month the city has seen in 15 years. In Milwaukee, homicides were up 180% by May 17 over the same period the previous year. Through April, shootings in St. Louis were up 39%, robberies 43%, and homicides 25%. Murders in Atlanta were up 32% as of mid-May. Shootings in Chicago had increased 24% and homicides 17%. Shootings and other violent felonies in Los Angeles had spiked by 25%; in New York, murder was up nearly 13%, and gun violence 7%.”
To demonstrate that they matter, young black men kill other young black men in appalling numbers. The Economist notes that if black America were a country, it would have the highest murder rate in the world, adding, Black Americans are still eight times more likely to be murdered than whites and seven times more likely to commit murder, according to the FBI. An incredible one-third of black men in their 30s have been in prison.”
What it means to “matter” is a question of culture. To “matter” in the hip-hop culture that predominates among young black men is to be tougher and more rapacious than one’s fellows, to be indifferent to the prospect of prison or death, to get rich or die trying. No-one put it better than President Obama’s regular houseguest Jay-Z:
I’m from the streets where the
Hood could swallow ’em and, bullets’ll follow ’em and
There’s so much coke that you could run the slalom
And cops comb this shit top to bottom
They say that we are prone to violence, but it’s home sweet home
Where personalities clash and chrome meets chrome
The coke prices up and down like it’s Wall Street holmes
But this is worse than the Dow Jones, your brains are now blown
All over that brown Brougham, one slip you are now gone
Welcome to hell where you are welcome to sell
But when them shells come you better return ’em
All scars we earn ’em…
My contention is that there is nothing particularly “black” or even “ghetto” about this credo. The freebooters who followed Wallenstein or Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years War, Napoleon’s privates with field marshal’s batons in their rucksacks, the Confederate rebels of the American Civil War, the Germans of the Third Reich, or even the Athenians at the disastrous campaign against Syracuse—all of them sought lives that “mattered” in terms of wealth and social advancement, and all of them kept fighting until their armies bled themselves into inertia.
The lives of a third of young black Americans have been ruined. That is an important statistic: wars never are fought to the point of actual extinction, but rather to the point at which there are too few prospective fighters to continue the war. Violent self-assertion is the common theme in such wars. Before the dawn of civilization, in fact, that was the norm of the human condition: two-fifths of prehistoric males typically died in tribal warfare, according to the anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley.
Wars of near-extinction are not universal but are remarkably common in ancient as well as modern history. Europe has had four of them during the past several hundred years: the Thirty Years War of 1618=1648; the Napoleonic Wars of 1797-1814; World War I; and World War II. America had its Civil War, and the Middle East now has its own Thirty Years War.
To name a few historic examples:
- Athenian dead in the Peloponnesian War reached 25% of the city-state’s total manpower before Athens capitulated to the Spartan-Persian alliance;
- The Thirty Years War killed 30% to 40% of the population of Central Europe and left wide swaths of Spain and France empty of people
- The Napoleonic Wars resulted in 1.4 to 1.7 military French military deaths out of a total French population of 29 million. Men aged 17 to 49 were probably 20% of the total, or about one-fifth of the population, or 5.8 million. That puts the war dead at about 24% to 30% of total manpower pool.
- Confederate casualties in US civil war were at least 28% of military age men, and historians are revising the casualty numbers upward.
- German military casualties in World War II were 5,330,000, out of 17,718,714 men 15 to 44 years, or 30% of the manpower pool.
The 30% casualty rate is common to great conflicts across time and geography. Two other common factors are noteworthy.
The first is that really big wars typically last for two generations. You kill the fathers in the first phase of the war, and in the second phase you will their sons. Usually there aren’t enough grandsons to continue the war. The American Civil War is a big exception: with their characteristic energy and dedication, the Americans of the mid-nineteenth century managed to accomplish in four years what took other peoples thirty.
The second is that casualty rates typically rise in inverse proportion to the probability of victory. The young men who fight great wars are not game theorists, calculating the likelihood of dying in battle against the probability of victory. On the contrary, casualty rates typically rise sharply after hope of victory has faded. What matters is to “matter.”
During the First World War, casualty rates declined sharply after the initial stalement, but rose to their highest point in 1918 when Germany launched the Ludendorff offensive in the hope of delivering a knock-out blow to the French — after America’s entry had already given Germany a losing position.
The vast majority of German casualties during World War II occurred during the last year of the war, when the German armies were in full retreat from Russia and the Allied beachhead in Normandy had turned into a full-scale I have not been able to find month-by-month casualty for the Germany army, but American casualties by month are a reasonably good proxy.
A frequently-heard slogan in the anti-police protests declared, “From Ferguson to Palestine.” It seems odd to confuse the American civil rights movement with the tortuous history of the Palestinian Arabs; Dr. Martin Luther King was a fervent and outspoken supporter of the State of Israel. The young men of Gaza and the young men of Baltimore have nothing in common but a propensity towards genosuicide, something they share with the Pappenheimer Curassiers of 1631, Napoleon’s Old Guard in 1814, the Waffen-SS of 1944, the Athenian Hoplites of 414 B.C.E, and the Confederates at the Battle of Waynesboro.
We are only in the first phases of a great Sunni-Shi’ite war in the Middle East, but it seems likely to produce similar results. The bulge in military-age population occasioned by the high fertility rates of twenty years ago has produced an enormous number of young men with little hope of employment or marriage who learn daily that they do not matter. As ISIS terrorists they can claim to matter, and will continue to sacrifice their lives with abandon.
As Europe leared in 1618, 1812, 1914 and 1939, and as America learned in 1860, there are circumstances in which the usual path of war-avoidance through compromise is blocked, and two successive generations will exsanguinate in order to “matter.” What we have learned from the Arab Spring, the overthrow of Qadaffi, and the imposition of majority rule in Iraq is that the sad, oppressive, old regime is better than any possible improvement. The heavy hand of the police in inner cities, despite its frequent brutality and disregard for legal niceties, saves black lives. The old Sunni dictatorships, vicious and cruel and backward as they were, prevent the all-consuming disorder that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced nearly twenty million people in the Middle East.