War: The Lethal Custom


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 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 ...
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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 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.
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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
An anthropological and psychological account of the human propensity for organized murderous mischief. War, writes U.K.-based syndicated columnist Dyer, is not a consequence of civilization, as some scholars have argued; "it's clear," he asserts, "that modern human beings did not invent warfare. We inherited it." The bequest comes courtesy of our Paleolithic and even protohominid ancestors, a la the opening scenes of 2001, yet supposedly civilized people have become ever so accomplished at developing new and improved ways to slaughter each other, and a hallmark of progress has been a steady advance in the effectiveness of our fighting forces. On the last point Dyer is particularly good; whereas primitives fought battles that were largely symbolic (if sometimes lethal), and whereas the vast majority of the weapons thrown down and abandoned at Gettysburg were loaded but not fired, as if to spare the enemy, modern martial societies such as the U.S. Marines instill the notion that their members are killers foremost. Killer or angel, field soldiers have short-term jobs: either they're wounded or killed themselves, or they collapse psychically. The U.S. Army calculated during WWII, writes Dyer, that this breakdown occurs within 240 days of combat, while the British, who rotated soldiers from the line more frequently, allowed 400 days. Everyone was a candidate, but the reason psychiatric disorders did not show up more frequently in the casualty rolls, Dyer suggests, "was that most combat troops did not survive long enough to go to pieces." Combat has changed since WWII, and individual soldiers have a somewhat better chance of survival, though the game keeps shifting: here, war is a matter ofterrorism, there of conventional forces turned to genocide, and always the shadow of the Bomb hangs over us. War as an extension of politics "may seem either absurd or obscene to outsiders," Dyer observes, adding that as long as people insist that war has its adherents, we need a genuinely strong United Nations to keep the planet from going up in flames. Provocative, agile and very well argued, with an a-ha! moment on nearly every page.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786717712
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 5/28/2006
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Gwynne Dyer
GWYNNE DYER served in the Canadian, British, and American navies. He earned a Ph.D. in military history from the University of London, and was a senior lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. The original version of this book, published in 1985, won a Columbia University School of Journalism Award. A seven-part television series based upon War was broadcast in forty-five countries in the mid-1980s; one of the episodes was nominated for an Academy Award. Dyer writes a twice-weekly newspaper column on international affairs and security policy that is published by 175 newspapers worldwide, many in the U. S. He lives in London with his wife and children.
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Read an Excerpt


By Gwynne Dyer

Carroll & Graf Publishers

Copyright © 2005 Gwynne Dyer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0786715383

Chapter One

The Nature of the Beast

If the bombardment [of London by V-bombs] really becomes a serious nuisance and great rockets with far-reaching and devastating effect fall on many centres . . . I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention.
--Winston Churchill to the Chiefs of Staff Committee, July 1944

The rain of large sparks, blowing down the street, were each as large as a five-mark piece. I struggled to run against the wind but could only reach a house on the corner of the Sorbenstrasse. . . . [We] couldn't go on across the Eiffestrasse because the asphalt road had melted. There were people on the roadway, some already dead, some still lying alive but stuck in the asphalt. They must have rushed onto the roadway without thinking. Their feet had got stuck and then they had put out their hands to try to get out again. They were on their hands and knees screaming.
--Kate Hoffmeister, then nineteen, on the firestorm in Hamburg in 19431

The conclusion was getting hard to avoid even before the advent of nuclear weapons: the game of war is up, and we are going to have tochange the rules if we are to survive. The brief, one-sided campaigns of well-armed Western countries against dysfunctional Third World autocracies kill in the tens of thousands, and the genocidal ethnic conflicts of fragile post-colonial states are local tragedies, but during the last two years of World War II, over one million people were being killed each month. If the great powers were to go to war with one another just once more, using all the weapons they now have, a million people could die each minute. They have no current intention of doing that, but so long as the old structures survive, Big War is not dead. It is just on holiday.

It is technology that has invalidated all our assumptions about the way we run our world, but the easiest and worst mistake we could make would be to blame our current dilemma on the mere technology of war. Napalm, nerve gas, and nuclear weapons were not dropped into our laps by some malevolent god; we put a great deal of effort into inventing and producing them because we intended to fight wars with them.

A lot of people know that seventy thousand died at Hiroshima, but few people know that two hundred and twenty-five thousand died in Tokyo, as a result of only two raids with conventional bombs. I was a bomber pilot a long time ago. I bombed Hamburg. Seventy thousand people died there when the air caught fire. Eighty thousand or so died at Dresden. And if you want to talk about numbers, one hundred and twenty-three thousand died at Iwo Jima . . . and so the problem is war, not nuclear war.
--Man in the street in Washington, D.C.

The essential soldier remains the same. Whether he was handling a sling-shot weapon on Hadrian's Wall or whether he's in a main battle tank today, he is essentially the same.
--Gen. Sir John Hackett

The soldier was one of the first inventions of civilization, and he has changed remarkably little over the five thousand years or so that real armies have existed. The teenage Iranian volunteers stumbling across minefields east of Basra in 1984 or the doomed British battalions going over the top in the July Drive on the Somme in 1916 were taking part in the same act of sacrifice and slaughter that destroyed the young men of Rome at Cannae in 216 bc. The emotions, the odds, and the outcome were fundamentally the same. Battle, the central act of civilized warfare, is a unique event in which ordinary men willingly kill and die as though those extraordinary actions were normal and acceptable. Changes in weapons and tactics have not altered those essential elements of its character.

However, the consequences of war can and do change. Force is the ultimate argument, and once it has been invoked, the only effective reply is superior force. The internal logic of war has frequently caused it to grow far bigger in scale than the importance of the issue originally at dispute would justify. In our time, the likely consequences of major war have grown drastically and irreversibly, so that they potentially include the destruction of the entire human habitat. Yet modern soldiers do not behave any more ruthlessly than their ancestors.

The residents of Dresden and Hiroshima in 1945 suffered no worse fate than the citizens of Babylon in 680 bc, when the city fell to Sennacherib of Assyria, who boasted: "I levelled the city and its houses from the foundations to the top, I destroyed them, and I consumed them with fire. I tore down and removed the outer and inner walls, the temples and ziggurats built of brick, and dumped the rubble in the Arahtu canal. And after I destroyed Babylon, smashed its gods and massacred its population, I tore up its soil and threw it into the Euphrates so that it was carried by the river down to the sea."2 It was a more labour-intensive method of destruction than nuclear weapons, but the effect (at least for an individual city) was about the same.

Most of the major cities of antiquity sooner or later met a fate similar to Babylon's--some of them many times--when the fortunes of war eventually left them exposed to their enemies. The difference between ancient military commanders and those who control the ultimate weapons of today (apart from a strikingly different approach to public relations) is more in the technologies and resources at their disposal than in their basic approach to the job. Soldiers often prefer to cloak the harsh realities of their trade in idealism or sentimentality, as much to protect themselves from the truth as to hide it from the rest of us, but at the professional level they have never lost sight of the fact that the key to military success is cost-effective killing. The relentless search for efficiency in killing that ultimately led to the development of nuclear weapons was just as methodical when the only means of introducing lethal bits of metal into an enemy's body was by muscle power. Consider the following instructions on the use of a sword in a Roman army training manual:

A slash cut rarely kills, however powerfully delivered, because the vitals are protected by the enemy's weapons, and also by his bones. A thrust going in two inches, however, can be mortal. You must penetrate the vitals to kill a man. Moreover, when a man is slashing, the right arm and side are left exposed. When thrusting, however, the body is covered, and the enemy is wounded before he realises what has happened. So this method of fighting is especially favoured by the Romans.


Excerpted from War by Gwynne Dyer Copyright © 2005 by Gwynne Dyer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix
Introduction xii
1 The Nature of the Beast 3
2 Anybody's Son Will Do 29
3 The Roots of War: Rousseau, Darwin and Hobbes 63
4 The Rise of Battle 99
5 The Middle Passage 147
6 The Road to Mass Warfare 203
7 Reductio ad Absurdum: Total War 241
8 A Short History of Nuclear War, 1945-90 287
9 Keeping the Old Game Alive 347
10 Guerrillas and Terrorists 389
11 The End of War 417
Notes 448
Image Credits 465
Index 467
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