While modern science ponders whether human beings are programmed toward belligerence and warfare, there is no doubt that war has been humanity's constant companion since the dawn of civilization, and that we have become all too proficient in its conduct. In War, noted military historian Gwynne Dyer ranges from the tumbling walls of Jericho to the modern advent of total warWhile modern science ponders whether human beings are programmed toward belligerence and warfare, there is no doubt that war has been humanity's constant companion since the dawn of civilization, and that we have become all too proficient in its conduct. In War, noted military historian Gwynne Dyer ranges from the tumbling walls of Jericho to the modern advent of total war in which no one is exempt from the horrors of armed conflict. He shows how the martial instinct has evolved over the human generations and among our close primate relations, such as the chimpanzee. Dyer squarely confronts the reality of war, and the threat of nuclear weapons, but does not despair that war is our eternal legacy. He likes and respects soldiers, even while he knows their job is to kill; he understands the physics and the psychology of battles, but he is no war junkie. Dyer surveys the fiery battlefields of human history, never losing sight of the people caught up in war. He actually believes there is hope that war can be abolished, that human beings are more than just our genes. War is an award-winning book that explores the human past to imagine a different future....more
Paperback, 496 pages
June 22nd 2006
by Basic Books
(first published April 10th 2005)
Pass up the first two meandering chapters, whose sole purpose would seem to be to impart that bad things happen in war ergo war is a bad thing, and this becomes a fascinating book. What follows is a fascinating chronological and sociological look at the evolution of institutionalized human aggression, from the stone age to the modern day. Fans of Jared Diamond take note, Dyer takes the long historical view (even recapitulating much of Diamond's thesis at pp. 108-9) to consider not just why we fiPass up the first two meandering chapters, whose sole purpose would seem to be to impart that bad things happen in war ergo war is a bad thing, and this becomes a fascinating book. What follows is a fascinating chronological and sociological look at the evolution of institutionalized human aggression, from the stone age to the modern day. Fans of Jared Diamond take note, Dyer takes the long historical view (even recapitulating much of Diamond's thesis at pp. 108-9) to consider not just why we fight, but why we fight the way we do. He then chases this with a sober look at the dire implications of where anything other than multilateral foreign relations will inevitably lead us. (Spoiler alert: world go boom.)
No matter how individually bellicose, people inherently don't want to fight, at least not in any organized way that is likely to assure their deaths. Even through World War II, 25% is the maximum loss-rate of any society's male population from war. Left to his own devices, your average rampaging barbarian will be hit-and-run (mostly run), a tactic not terribly effective in effecting regime change. Deadliness must be ingrained, trained, and schemed for, and even then it is not assured. In fact, so averse to bloodshed is the average human that the killing fields of the Civil War were littered with rifles that had been ramrodded with two or more unshot wads. Absent precision, long-range firearms, concentrated lethality is the way to go. Hence the phalanx (300 fans note), a close-knit grind of infantry with overlapping shields and protruding spears that harkens all the way back to the Akkadian empire of 2250 BCE and was sporadically employed thereafter by various empires and local powers. A phalanx is impervious to your average lone marauder (even horse-riding nomads, as horses are too smart to ride full-speed into a thicket of blades), and the claustrophobic proximity of soldiery helps to keep everyone on task.
Why did phalanxes ever go out of fashion?
The answer is that it requires an extraordinarily high level of commitment from the men who take their places in the phalanx, especially if they are coming from an older and less disciplined fighting tradition. What made it possible for the citizen-soldiers of the early Sumerian cities to fight in phalanxes was precisely their sense of commitment and belonging to the cities they fought for. All their kin were in the city and many were right around them in the phalanx, which undoubtedly helped, but they also felt a deep involvement in the city's fate because their decisions in the assembly shaped (or seemed to shape) its policies. So they turned up unpaid for the weekly drills, they adapted to a style of fighting that was utterly alien to the old tradition [of melee or ritualized engagement], and when necessary they risked their lives, unpaid, in war in the ranks of the phalanx (p. 136).
The tug-of-war push of phalanx-style infantry fighting remained so successful a tactic, that it ultimately returned in the eighteenth century in the guise of French, Swiss, and Spanish pikemen during the Seven Years War. The bayonet (which lets a rifle be used as a spear) is one of the last links of a martial chain spanning over three thousand years of effective deployment. Yet while a disciplined mass of men with pointed poles will even thwart mounted cavalry, they'd be overrun (literally) by tanks and dropped like tenpins by a single well-placed modern shell. All of which helps explain why contemporary warfare is so futile, and why your average doughboy burrows for the cover of trenches.
All this appears so conventional in the shadow of the H-Bomb, but did you ever stop to think how it was that the term "conventional war" came to be coined? I mean, who really believes that two otherwise equivalently-industrialized states would choose to duke out their dispute while observing a tacit agreement to use slightly less-lethal weaponry than that which they could otherwise bring to bear? Still, there is little question that this is the currently-prevailing concept. According to Dyer, "Professional officers won the argument… because nuclear war reduced all other forms of warfare to irrelevance, and thereby made the efforts and even the existence of the large majority of professional officers who served in non-nuclear branches of the armed forces irrelevant as well. People do not like being irrelevant, and there are few trade unions more powerful than the professional officer corps." (p. 356) Combine these guys with military contractors who stand to make a decent buck producing expensive, tailor-made missiles and fighter jets and oo-rah Congressionals whose districts stand to gain short-term employment, and you have the self-perpetuating military-industrial cancerplex Eisenhower warned us about.
While conflicts among minor powers are constantly flaring up, threatening to ignite terminal global conflict among major (nuclear) powers, the press has promoted terrorists as the bogeyman since 9/11. Dyer disdains nonstate actors, dismissing what he views as the ultimate futility of urban guerilla warfare, "la politique du pire (the policy of making things worse, in the hope of provoking a crisis and a decisive break with the status quo)" as an existential threat. Any success is likely to be pyrrhic, the author says, la resistance laughing all the way to their mass graves. Witness General Iberico Saint Jean, governor of Buenos Aires during the Terror of 1976, who said, "First we kill all the subversives; then, their collaborators; later, those who sympathize with them; afterward, those who remain indifferent; and finally, the undecided." (p. 403) Sadly, El General was not kidding, promoting a policy of indiscriminate raids, torture, and killings that purged 15-30,000 Argentine lives.
Dyer isn't wholly contemptuous of guerilla tactics, he just thinks minimal, anticrime measures sufficient to contain any existential risk to the status quo and thereby promote the survival of our present civilization. Thus, at pp. 415-6, he writes:
These attacks can have significant political effect when they are well-timed, like the bombs on Madrid commuter trains three days before the Spanish election of March 2004, which may well have swung the election outcome against the incumbent conservative government that had supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq…. The Japanese sect Aum Shinrikyo actually released sarin-type nerve gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995; only twelve people were killed. The practical problem with both chemical and biological agents is dispersal; the attackers listed above would all have got better results for less effort out of nail bombs…. But a single nuclear weapon is a local disaster, comparable in scale to the Krakatoa volcanic explosion of 1883 or the Tokyo earthquake of 1923. We should obviously strive very hard to prevent it, but even a nuclear detonation in some unhappy city some time in the future… should not stampede the world into doing what the terrorists want -- and what they almost always want is an over-reaction of some sort…. The point is not to panic, and not to lose patience.
Quoting Stella Rimington, a former director-general of MI5, armed conflict will be with us for as long as "there are people with grievances." The trick is not to eliminate confrontation, but contain the collateral damage. We are in dire straits now that our civilization has succeeded in refining the deadliness of our killing technology; we must not make war on our brothers (and sisters) in arms. Fortunately, as indicated by his surveys of a variety of fighting techniques and technologies, Dyer's grand argument is that war is as much a byproduct of systemic forces as it is ingrained in our primate reflexes. Assuming this to be true (and the author's case is highly compelling), we can take solace in the good news that the cultural forces that undermine trust and impart (false) perceptions of looming existential threat are not only controllable, but reversible. Understanding how the whole mess is wired makes it possible to defuse Doomsday. Therein lies hope for the future of humanity. Serious multilateral efforts to stifle Mars can't come too soon. As of this review, it's now only three minutes to midnight....more
Honestly I didn't finish it, I gave it up as a bad job. It probably would have been a fine history book if he weren't trying to prove that war hasn't changed in thousands of years. It hasn't changed the same way that government hasn't, marriage hasn't, and education hasn't. It hasn't transformed into something else is what he means. All of the institutions of society change and evolve over time, as has war, but they continue to hold their original form, preform their original purpose. If war evoHonestly I didn't finish it, I gave it up as a bad job. It probably would have been a fine history book if he weren't trying to prove that war hasn't changed in thousands of years. It hasn't changed the same way that government hasn't, marriage hasn't, and education hasn't. It hasn't transformed into something else is what he means. All of the institutions of society change and evolve over time, as has war, but they continue to hold their original form, preform their original purpose. If war evolves into something wholly different then it is no longer war. I'm not saying this may not happen someday and I do believe that nuclear disarmament is desirable but I found his argument weak. He never wanted war to change he wants it to cease to be war....more
The first chapter made me leery, but as soon as it got into the history of war (mostly history in general) and the chapter about indoctrination into the Marines, I couldn't put it down. A very interesting and engaging book on a subject I thought I would have no interest in whatsoever. The World War I and World War II chapters bogged me down some, probably because I know more about those and find it less interesting, but even those had some neat insights.
This the most thorough, shocking and horrifying argument for the need to abandon war I have read - or imagine. This is a book you read without realizing where the narrative is going - the history of war is clearly outlined with masterful writing. The comes suddenly when the fog of war parts and the only option for society is either war and total destruction or peace by whatever means possible.
There are moments where his writing style becomes a bit too dry for my taste. That said, nine times out of ten, Gwynne Dyer's analysis of man's history of armed conflict...the seemingly insatiable thirst for death and destruction...is terrifying in its truthfulness.
AWESOME. Are humans inherently warlike? How have our reasons for fighting changed through the ages? How have they not changed? How has warfare altered, and soldiering become more efficient. How dependent are our economies on the concept of war? Read on.
War is only important because war is said to be important. That isn't Dyer's thesis, but my own I have written off-the-hip to painfully summarize this book. It's a work that needs to be read by any history buff. One of a kind, really.