War: The Lethal Custom

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War: The Lethal Custom

Carroll & Graf Publishers (484 pages)
Reviewed By:


by Gwynne Dyer  [New York:  Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005]

(Book review by Ronald J. Glossop--July 9, 2011)

  War: The Lethal Custom is a revised version of Dyer’s 1985 classic War which was written in conjunction with the similarly named popular public television series shown at the height of the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States.

  From beginning to end Dyer’s basic thesis is that to get rid of war we need a change in the international political system.  On the first page he says:  “Now, for the moment, we are safe. The only kind of international violence that worries most people in the developed countries is terrorism . . . .  We are very lucky people—but we need to use the time we have been granted wisely, because total war is only sleeping.  All the major states are still organized for war, and all that is needed for the world to slide back into a nuclear confrontation is a twist of the kaleidoscope that shifts international relations into a new pattern of rival alliances.  That time may not come for another decade or so, but unless we can build institutions that move us decisively away from the old great-power game, sooner or later it surely will.”   The book ends in the same vein: “Our task over the next few generations is to transform the world of independent states in which we live into some sort of genuine international community. If we succeed in creating that community, however quarrelsome, discontented, and full of injustice it probably will be, then we shall effectively have abolished the ancient institution of warfare.  Good riddance” (p. 446).

  A substantial portion of Dyer’s book is his very engaging and detailed history of warfare and of the development of new weapons and military strategies. Much of it is similar to the 1985 Cold War edition.  But recent developments in armed conflict prodded Dyer to write the new tenth chapter titled “Guerrillas and Terrorists” in which he argues that this type of warfare is not new and, even with nukes, is much less dangerous than the “forty years with the daily threat of a global nuclear holocaust” (p. 416) through which we lived.

  Another very important change is Dyer’s view about when in human history war begins and to what extent it is based in our genetic human nature  The first chapter of the 1985 edition was titled simply “Roots of War.”  The new third chapter adds “Rousseau, Darwin and Hobbes” to that title. Dyer’s view in 1985 was that war didn’t become an important part of human society until the after humans became civilized.  He now notes “When I wrote the first edition of this book twenty years ago, I used only the first quote [about the lack of militarism in a primitive group] that opens this chapter . . . and I used it as evidence that ‘real’ warfare did not exist before the rise of civilization. . . . This was how anthropologists invariably talked about warfare among hunter-gatherers at the time” (pp. 65-66).  But that view has now become debatable.  Dyer sees the dispute as a battle between those who tend to favor Hobbes’s view that precivilized humans are naturally vicious and those who favor Rouseau’s notion of the “Noble Savage” who gets spoiled by civilization. Dyer believes that Rouseau’s popular view misled anthropologists for decades.  Now, says Dyer, “the available evidence argues strongly that our ancestors have been fighting wars since long before the rise of civilization” (p.79).

  As interesting as this issue about basic human nature and when war began is, Dyer’s view about what needs to be done to end war remains unchanged.  The problem facing humanity is not basic human nature or the existence of ever more horrible weapons but the failure to organize society in such a way that conflicts between groups with opposing interests can be resolved politically or judicially rather than by resort to violence.  Dyer’s opinion is that “only profound institutional change can provide long-term safety” (p.285). “At bottom, the problem of war is political . . . .” (p. 441).

  Dyer’s last chapter titled “The End of War” is a masterful analysis of the contemporary situation and the challenges facing humanity.  A 1945 quotation from Dwight MacDonald provides the theme, “We must get the modern national state before it gets us” (p. 429).  Dyer traces the efforts to deal with international anarchy from the creation of the League of Nations after World War I to the development of the U.N. after World War II to current efforts to put at least some limits on national sovereigny, but it is a difficult struggle. As Dyer notes, “Most people are reluctant to accept that war and national sovereignty are indissolubly linked, and that to be rid of one they must also relinquish much of the other” (p. 438).  Dyer never uses the expression “world federation,” but that is what he seems to be advocating throughout this book as the solution to ending war.