Trying to hype the importance of the Syrian peace talks ongoing in Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry made what is likely to be a wildly controversial claim, tapping the Syrian Civil War as the worst humanitarian catastrophe in generations, “unmatched since World War II.”
Five years in, the Syrian Civil War has certainly become a humanitarian calamity, with upwards of a quarter million people estimated killed and millions of civilians displaced in fighting. But the 70 year period since WW2 has no shortage of calamities, many of which by sheer numbers dwarf Syria.
Even looking at single-nation civil wars, Syria is just one of many, with Rwanda, Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia, China, and countless others seeing civil wars with death tolls as large or larger, and refugee crises every bit as calamitous.
And even there, the death toll of international conflicts have in many cases been far worse than this, from the Korean War to the Vietnam War and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the second half of the 20th century was quite familiar with death tolls in the millions, far beyond what Syria has yet seen.
There is always a tendency to present the most recent calamities as necessarily the worst, both because they are fresh in our minds and because they are unresolved. Yet presenting the Syrian Civil War as “unmatched” does a disservice to the countless millions of victims of other huge conflicts throughout the era.