Terrorism, writes Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer, is a hangnail. A distraction. The thing to worry about is war. "All the major states are still organized...

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“War: The Lethal Custom”

by Gwynne Dyer

Carroll & Graf, 484 pp., $30

Terrorism, writes Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer, is a hangnail. A distraction. The thing to worry about is war. “All the major states are still organized for war,” he writes. They have weapons we don’t want to think about.

“War: The Lethal Custom” is a rewrite of a book Dyer wrote 20 years ago, when President Reagan faced Soviet Premier Gorbachev across the negotiating table in Iceland. Today’s context is different: America is unchallenged — for the moment. But history and anthropology give us little comfort.

Dyer has ironclad credentials: a Ph.D. in military studies; service in the Canadian, British and American navies; experience as lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. His book is no simple narrative but a web of connections. The text ranges over the terrain of history, sparkling with insight and digressions. On Page 2, he gives a taste of this by parenthetically defining war as “killing foreigners for political reasons.”

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In its conclusions the book is antiwar and liberal, but most of its content is history and anthropology. It is broken into several essays. Most concrete and immediate is his blunt dissection of Marine basic training, with all the yes, sir, no, sir, marching and inspections. Civilians may dismiss this as militaristic folderol, but it is not. “Basic training is not really about teaching people skills,” he writes. “It’s about changing them so they can do things they wouldn’t have dreamt of otherwise.” It works, he says, pretty much on “anybody’s son.”

Another chapter discusses whether humans are warlike by nature. Here his answer has changed. In 1985 the anthropologists mostly said “no,” reporting that the world’s primitive peoples were mostly pastoral. Now they find a good deal of violence. Paleontology does, too. Dyer does not mention Kennewick Man, who has a spearhead imbedded in his pelvis, but he may be a fair representative of the species. Modern man did not invent war, Dyer says. “We inherited it.”

The middle of the book is a grand tour of war from the pharaohs to Hiroshima. Most of it is unnecessary for his conclusion, but it surely entertains. Here, for example, is the story of how the long gun was used for centuries as an adjunct to pikemen until a Swedish king discerned how to kill efficiently with it. He thereby, Dyer says, “created the first army that Alexander the Great would not have known how to command.”

Another chapter is “A Short History of Nuclear War.” Here Dyer focuses on Bernard Brodie, an analyst who declared in 1946 that war between two nuclear powers was unwinnable, changed his mind for 15 years, and then retreated to his original proposition. Dyer tracks the idea of winnable nuclear war through syllogisms and political crises, concluding that the world was lucky to have survived the Cold War era.

Near the end is a chapter on “Guerrillas and Terrorists.” Mao Tse-tung and Fidel Castro, he says, claimed to be part of an inexorable movement of history but actually were aberrations. Except against a foreign occupier, most guerrilla wars can’t be won. Generally they can irritate a government but not kill it. Terrorism may manipulate a government, but it rarely topples one. “The ‘war on terror’ is a deeply misleading phrase,” he argues. Terror is a thing to be managed, like the murder rate. That we worry so much about it only shows that we are really very lucky right now.

His political conclusion is well argued but more speculative than the other parts of this book. Here Dyer posits that what could bring on a major war is the itch by middling states for greatness, and their desire to even their odds with nuclear weapons.

Dyer’s solution is to give enforcement authority, and an army, to the United Nations — not authority to govern but to guarantee international frontiers. For big countries to accept this will be a hard sell, he says; there is no demand for it from their people, and much suspicion. Further, he admits, the suspicion is justified. “Nationalists of all countries are quite right to worry about what a powerful United Nations might mean.”

But in a world in which certain weapons simply cannot be used, he asks, what is the alternative? He doesn’t really consider any, which is a weakness as a political book. But as an interpretive history of war, “War: The Lethal Custom” is brilliant.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.