Sunday, October 09, 2005

War:The Lethal Custom, by Gwynne Dyer

This book is pretty much a short history of warfare, the type of thing that sounds dullsville to those not obsessed with all things military. Mixed in with the history of warfare are fascinating chapters on psychology, evolution and the reductio ad absurdum of nuclear war.

Is war in our genes? Dyer says all the evidence points towards a yes. Even hunter gatherer societies indulged in low lever forms of warfare – raids on other groups for example – that ended killing decent percentages of those communities. However, with the rise of civilisation and mass, centralised populations, the ante was upped, technology improved, until things got all out of control.

Civilisation’s progress came to a hideous head in the First World War, with its industrialised carnage. From then on the battle was more to create the best and most fearful technology. During the Second World War, because the Americans and British feared the Germans were working on a nuclear bomb, they made a dash to invent one first. This of course led onto the cold war. There are still massive challenges to be met, despite the end of the cold war, with nuclear weapons still proliferating in other parts of the world. (We all know about the stand off between India and Pakistan.)

One interesting thing I learned from this book is that before the First World War, it was pretty much taboo to target civilians in war. With the advent of so-called total war, that taboo was broken. Air power helped this development. It was the Germans who first started, in the First World War, actually bombing and killing British civilians as a terror tactic. This was supposed to cow the enemy by showing how far they were willing to go in such an all out war environment. During the Second World War, the Americans bombed many Japanese cities, killing many, many thousands of Japanese civilians. Many burned to death. Anyone who has seen the excellent documentary The Fog of War will have seen former secretary of defence during the Vietnam war Robert McNamara discuss these bombings, which he had a hand in planning. (He said he should have been tried as a war criminal for these actions.)

The author has some interesting comments to make about the frequency with which powerful nations make war:

‘There is a steep and consistent gradient of suffering, in which the most powerful nations fight most often and lose most heavily in lives and wealth. The solace that small inoffensive nations can take from this, however, is somewhat limited by the fact that the great-power wars of the twentieth century swept almost all the smaller countries into the conflagration too.’

Dyer also discusses terrorism in his book, giving a refreshingly different view of the current phenomenon that Western countries are dealing with. In the scheme of things, he says it is basically small fry warfare, the tool of the weak. It is not a major global threat. Most chillingly, he says that it is possible that nuclear weapons could get into the hands of a terrorist group and be used against civilian populations. This, however, is nothing when compared to the looming nuclear stand-offs that are sure to come in the future between emerging great powers like China and India.

I really enjoyed Gwynne Dyer’s book on War. It appeared to me an even handed, dispassionate study of war. His discussion of our current, highly emotive terrorist woes, done with a reserved historian’s view, should be essential reading for anyone who wants to gain some distance and perspective to what the world is going through at the moment.

Dyer joined the navy at 17 and served with the American and British navies. He holds a Ph.D in military history from the University of London. War: The Lethal Custom was originally published in 1985. It was revised in 2004.

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