Effects of war

There are no real victors in wars as all parties involved have to suffer the consequences with often high numbers of casualties on both sides. Rather than dealing with the consequences resulting from a war and its end, this text will look into its direct effects on people, politics, the economy and the environment.

Victims of war

World War I (1914–1918) resulted in 17 to 20 million deaths. The number of victims of World War II (1939–1945) is estimated at between 50 and 56 million (some sources even mention 80 million). Even if the end of World War II marks an end to the killing of such a scale, and no other war since then has led to so much destruction, around 800,000 people have still died in violent conflicts between 1989 and 2010 since the end of the Cold War (UCDP Battle-Related Deaths Dataset v.5-2010).

The real number of victims of a war can only be estimated. It depends, for instance, on whether ‘victims’ are only defined as those who died as a direct result of armed violence. This would mean disregarding those who, during a war, died from exposure, epidemics or as a result of (sexual) violence and hunger. It also disregards those who have died years later from wounds or illnesses sustained in the war—such as the radiation victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One look at the consequences of the US intervention in Vietnam and Cambodia (1965–1975) provides a clearer picture of this problem. The number of deaths in the Vietnam War is estimated at three million. Since its end, the Vietnamese government claims that more than 42,000 people have died from deadly accidents caused by old ammunition. In the war against the North Vietnamese troops, US armed forces used 15 million tons of bombs and explosives of which 800,000 tons still pollute 20 per cent of the country. A similar scenario exists in Cambodia. According to UNICEF, between four and six million landmines still lurk near paths, on fields and near schools or wells in the villages. It is mostly the civilian population that suffers—every third landmine victim is a child. According to the Landmine Monitor 2009, at least 19,505 people were killed and 44,024 wounded between 1979 and the end of 2009.

“The war will never be over, never, as long as somewhere a wound it had inflicted is still bleeding,” Heinrich Böll, German Nobel Prize winner for literature, characterised the long-term effects of wars. War-wounded—be they soldiers or civilians—often suffer from the physical injuries for decades. Often, they have to learn to live with mutilations, having been blinded or deafened.

The psychological effects, too, have an impact on the everyday lives of the survivors. Fear and insecurity resulting from daily experiences of war—whether as perpetrators or victims—leave traces. Late symptoms can be post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. These consequences affect civilians and soldiers alike.

Another consequence of war is the transformation of national citizens into refugees. According to the United Nations, at the time of writing there are 15 million refugees worldwide who have had to leave their home due to conflicts or persecution. Three-quarters live in developing countries. The war has taken away their home and their livelihoods, often long-term. Hunger, malnutrition, illnesses and diseases directly threaten the refugees and their children. The situation of refugees becomes all the more difficult when international attention and support dwindles while there is still no end to their legal, economic and social state of limbo and no durable solution in sight. Notably, when refugees have to live in larger “camps”, various different security risks arise both for the refugees and their environment that can lead to new violent conflicts.

Politics and the economy

The most far-reaching political effect of a war is the fact that it can annihilate state and community. During a war, citizens’ freedoms are curtailed. Under a state of emergency or martial law, freedom of speech and freedom of choice as well as activities by political and other societal groups are often considerably restricted. Both internally and externally, images of the enemy are created. Distrust grows between citizens with different opinions , while relations with opposing or ‘enemy’ states are destroyed and poisoned for years.

“This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children,” lamented Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during World War II. According to the internationally renowned NGOs Oxfam International, Saferworld, and International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), the following are also amongst the costs of war:

  • Increased military expenditures that other sectors of the economy are lacking;
  • Destruction of livelihoods and infrastructure (e.g. water supply and transportation system);
  • Limitations regarding economic activities through insecurities, limited mobility and the allocation of civil labour to the military as well as flight of capital.
  • Macroeconomic effects such as inflation, limitations regarding savings, investments and exports as well as increased debt.
  • Loss of development aid;
  • Transfer of assets to the illegal economy.

The conquest of foreign territories and the forced re-distribution of land, means of production and labour that go along with it also have economic consequences.


In 2001 the United Nations declared 6 November of each year as the “International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflicts.” Then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wanted to raise awareness of the devastating ecological and long-term environmental side effects of wars that is just as damaging to humankind as direct violence. Damage caused by oil, chemicals, landmines or unexploded ordnance often takes a long time before it is repaired; the pollution of water, air and soil threatens the livelihoods of many people and causes entire populations to flee.

New technologies, too, such as depleted uranium munitions, threaten the environment. The smallest amounts of radioactive uranium can cause cancer or damage kidneys and other organs. This brings us to a second aspect of the effects of war on the environment. Besides “immediate” side effects, natural resources are sometimes destroyed for tactical reasons. Known examples are the bombardment of oil production facilities in the Gulf wars to damage the economy, the deliberate mining of pastures to rob the enemy of its basic food supply or the use of chemical warfare agents such as Agent Orange that was used by the United States in the Vietnam War as a defoliant and to destroy crop plants. “At times, natural resources are deliberately destroyed as a tactic. But more often than not, the environment is simply another innocent victim caught in the crossfire. The poor, as usual, suffer disproportionately, as they rely most heavily on the environment not only for food but also for medicine, livelihoods, and materials for shelters and homes“, warned Kofi Annan of the environmental effects of war.

Sources and further information:

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