Some Thoughts on “War: The Lethal Custom”
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Some Thoughts on “War: The Lethal Custom”

The holidays are a time for reacquainting oneself with old friends, both the living and the paper varieties. One of those was Gwynne Dyer’s book War: The Lethal Custom. Dyer’s writing has earned him a worldwide network and a middle-class living, but not the global celebrity of a John Keegan or Steven Pinker, and I think that is a shame. Dyer has something to teach anyone interested in human behaviour, and his book shows more respect for evidence than many popular works do.

War considers a question which ought to interest everyone: is war a human universal like marriage and language, or a custom which some cultures practice like eating wheat? If it is inevitable, sooner or later the nuclear bombs will come out and destroy civilization, if not the human race. Dyer begins with deep time and primatology and walks forward to the present day. Inspired by his studies of the diplomatic background to the First World War as a PhD student, Dyer suggests that the central problem is the international system, which makes each polity responsible for its own defense and uses wars to settle disputes about status and influence. Each reader will decide for themselves whether they accept his answer, (edit 2015-01-04: and more academic readers will find plenty of broad statements and details to quibble about). But along the way he delivers gems like this paragraph (p. 372):

The traditional soldier’s conviction that war is not a statistical operation and that it cannot be won with a managerial approach. Military officers have traditionally seen themselves as warriors, not administrators, even though they have always been a mixture of both. To accept that technology is more important than human will is to reduce their own efforts, and perhaps their own deaths, to insignificance, so combat officers in every army tend to reject the notion strongly. Today, however, armies also contain many officers whose bent is managerial rather than ‘heroic,’ and the temptation to believe that all the human imponderables of combat can be reduced to simple equations is very seductive. If it were true, ground combat would become a predictable science, not an arcane art in which the good commander’s chance of success is about the same as the good poker player’s odds of winning on a given evening (for the same sort of reasons.)

That paragraph says something profound about war, and it does so while equivocating between two opposed views of the nature of combat. That is a very difficult rhetorical act. Yet War is also scholarly and open-minded. Where many writers bluster on topics which they have not studied and hope that their readers will be equally ignorant, Dyer shows that he has read and understood works by scholars with different training and different interests. In this second edition he admits that he was wrong about war in “primitive” societies, because when he wrote the first edition most ethnographers and anthropologists minimized the violence which they saw and many archaeologists of early humans explained away the evidence in the ground. Since then several writers have gathered a good deal of evidence that small-scale societies without agriculture often fight one another. Writing persuasively, finding and listening to experts with different skills, and admitting one’s past mistakes are not easy, and few manage to do all three at once.

Further Reading: Gwynne Dyer, War: The Lethal Custom (Carroll & Graf Publishers: New York, 2004). Copies are available here. The original documentary which inspired Dyer’s book is now available on Youtube.

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