The Shortest History of War Is Not Nearly Short Enough

I’ve previously reviewed a number of pro-war books including Christopher Coker’s Why War, Margaret MacMillan’s War: How Conflict Shaped Us, Ian Morris’s War: What Is It Good For?, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Accessory to War. This genre has grown goofier with each new publication. I honestly didn’t think I could stand any more of them. But then I heard about The Shortest History of War by Gwynne Dyer. Well, at least it’ll be short, I thought. (As the “progressive” Congress Member said to the “progressive” Congress Member’s conscience at the beginning of each new war.) Well, it wasn’t nearly short enough.

Dyer’s book doesn’t claim to be a pro-war book and it’s not especially goofy — or not any more than common accepted wisdom is goofy. For 237 pages of very slanted “history” it builds up toward saying something about ending war. In fact, the last chapter — “The End of War” — begins on page 215 and is mostly about baboons and ways that warmaking might actually increase through the actions of the universe on the unthinking marbles in a physics experiment that are human beings who prefer not to take responsibility for their actions. Finally, on page 238, with three sentences left in the book (not counting a “Coda” about Ukraine), Dyer gets down to work and writes:

“Our task over the next few generations is to transform the present world of independent states into some sort of genuine international community. If we succeed in creating that community, however quarrelsome, discontented, and full of injustice it will be, then we shall effectively have abolished the ancient institution of warfare. Good riddance.”

That’s it. You can skip everything else. Those last three sentences would have made an all right first three sentences of a book, rather than the incongruent ending to a none-too-short regurgitation of common myths that for over 200 pages has conditioned the reader to believe that war is simply inevitable. I’ll put at the end of this review a list of books about abolishing war that could have better included those three sentences.

Dyer’s book opens with Pinkerist claims that war is dramatically diminishing, that it now kills fewer people than die in traffic accidents, etc. He offers no evidence at all for such inciteful brilliance that’s simultaneously accepted wisdom. But we can guess that it comes from the familiar Pinkerist techniques of guesstimating ancient war deaths as percentages of local populations, and comparing them with corporate-approved lowball death counts of selected recent wars that exclude the worst ones and take the deaths as percentages of the Earth’s entire population, etc.

If people take this opening as a guard against all the claims that follow of wars’ pervasiveness through human history and prehistory, that could be a good thing. But even having such a thought depends on accepting the general framework offered by Dyer up until his last three sentences, namely that war is not a choice but something determined by technology or population or resources or the weather. And once we’ve accepted that, then does it really matter whether we imagine war is decreasing or increasing, since either way we’re just going to sit back and watch?

Dyer gives us a highly selective survey of all the most familiar archaeological and anthropological cases of warlike peoples. Then he fits this story into the familiar but completely baseless assumption that all human societies have followed one path with the same collections of features present in the same series of steps from primitive right up through capable-of-producing-books-just-this-clever. (Dyer’s book also simplifies things by pretending that the Western Hemisphere and most of Africa, and Australia, etc., simply don’t exist, or didn’t until “discovered.”) Humans are a warmaking primate species, he tells us, because they are predators and live in groups of varying size. He never gets around to mentioning that we are no longer predators and no longer live in such groups, nor explaining why so many millions must be spent on military advertising in a species that is simply warlike through genetics rather than decision making.

Dyer then moves into a long survey of war tactics from the perspective of someone in a war and “on the ground” even though this gives the perspective of total acceptance of war, and even though most war killing by the U.S. military is not done from the ground. To his credit, Dyer includes the prevalence of fear, suffering, trauma, and moral injury — yet without ever drawing the conclusion that humans tend not to want war or pointing out that nobody suffers from war deprivation. Nor do we ever encounter the many human societies that live without anything in any way resembling war.

Dyer thinks that interest in killer robots is driven by the difficulty of recruiting humans and the preference that robots “die” rather than humans. So, he knows of the difficulty of recruiting people for war. But never does he face up to the sadism or the love of technology for its own sake that advance this agenda.

The Washington Post this week called Russians “attractive prey” and celebrated “an intimate view of killing,” as well as the development of cheap and easy murder weapons that anyone in the world can use. This stuff can’t be understood as rational decision making.

Dyer of course mentions campaigns to abolish fully autonomous drones and of course does not mention campaigns to abolish all weaponized drones. He plods on predictably through claims that ancient wars were determined by population, resource scarcity, and so-forth — all factors that Western academics imagine determine wars today, even though debunked in John Horgan’s The End of War. But, to his credit, Dyer does repeatedly recount revolutions in the nature of warmaking, each of which calls into question (if the reader stops to think about it) the idea that war is a constant enterprise such that it makes sense to think of someone today and someone centuries ago being engaged in the same thing. Dyer even points out that only about 5,500 years ago was there first anything involving large groups with commanders standing and fighting for at least a few minutes — even though this sort of ruins the prehistory of ubiquitous war previously concocted by Dyer.

In The Princess Bride a character remarks along the lines of “You keep using that word ‘inconceivable’ — I do not think it means what you think it means.” I do not think “inevitable” means what Dyer thinks it means when he uses it to describe population growth as making inter-city conflict inevitable (page 54), mass societies causing unequal monarchies (page 65), or Germany’s possession of zeppelins causing it to bomb cities (page 136) — Dyer even quotes someone saying he agreed “morality aside” that such bombing could be done. The whole book could have a subtitle of “Morality Aside.” On page 192 it would have been “unthinkable” not to expand NATO in the 1990s. On page 152 the Manhattan Project, developing a nuclear bomb for war on Germany, when Germany surrendered, went on developing the bomb because “it was too late to change their minds.” Over and over again, choice is erased. Yet, occasionally it crops up, as on page 211 where it would have been — more honesty, yet still not very honestly — “very hard” for George W. Bush not to attack Afghanistan in 2001.

I think the damage of reading such a book is done long before getting to George W. Bush. Dyer writes on page 66 that large populations made and still make equality impossible, that only a top-down society with slavish obedience at the bottom could function. But where in such stories is the great variety of the actual world, in which some large societies are wildly more equal than others?

At one point, Dyer describes Sumerian rulers as opting for a less effective form of warfare because it would keep their own populations easier to control rather than giving them the tools to resist tyranny. Unarmed civilian defense is of course not mentioned in the book at all, for, I think, the very same reason. Governments do not train their own populations in unarmed defense, not because it does not work, but because it makes it harder to oppress their own populations — whereas war and war propaganda help abusive governments control their own people. This suggests that more democratic government might be a step toward replacing war with something else. But that thought doesn’t arise when the topic isn’t mentioned.

Nonviolent action is only mentioned by accident in this book. Napoleon wins all his battles and occupies Moscow, but the Russians destroyed their own crops, and the French departed. Armed uprisings rarely succeed. What can overthrow a government is a million people in the streets. These scattered observations get little more than a sentence each, before it’s back to baboons, and the need to create a major armed United Nations force to wage wars to end war, and the necessity to count on “good management and good luck” to save us from nukes — with zero mention of abolition as an option.

I suppose it’s important to find a balance between imaging the new and fantasizing about the highly improbable, but if you’re not going to imagine anything at all, then why write a book?

The War Abolition Collection:

War Is Hell: Studies in the Right of Legitimate Violence, by C. Douglas Lummis, 2023.
The Greatest Evil Is War, by Chris Hedges, 2022.
Abolishing State Violence: A World Beyond Bombs, Borders, and Cages by Ray Acheson, 2022.
Against War: Building a Culture of Peace by Pope Francis, 2022.
Ethics, Security, and The War-Machine: The True Cost of the Military by Ned Dobos, 2020.
Understanding the War Industry by Christian Sorensen, 2020.
No More War by Dan Kovalik, 2020.
Strength Through Peace: How Demilitarization Led to Peace and Happiness in Costa Rica, and What the Rest of the World Can Learn from a Tiny Tropical Nation, by Judith Eve Lipton and David P. Barash, 2019.
Social Defence by Jørgen Johansen and Brian Martin, 2019.
Murder Incorporated: Book Two: America’s Favorite Pastime by Mumia Abu Jamal and Stephen Vittoria, 2018.
Waymakers for Peace: Hiroshima and Nagasaki Survivors Speak by Melinda Clarke, 2018.
Preventing War and Promoting Peace: A Guide for Health Professionals edited by William Wiist and Shelley White, 2017.
The Business Plan For Peace: Building a World Without War by Scilla Elworthy, 2017.
War Is Never Just by David Swanson, 2016.
A Global Security System: An Alternative to War by World Beyond War, 2015, 2016, 2017.
A Mighty Case Against War: What America Missed in U.S. History Class and What We (All) Can Do Now by Kathy Beckwith, 2015.
War: A Crime Against Humanity by Roberto Vivo, 2014.
Catholic Realism and the Abolition of War by David Carroll Cochran, 2014.
War and Delusion: A Critical Examination by Laurie Calhoun, 2013.
Shift: The Beginning of War, the Ending of War by Judith Hand, 2013.
War No More: The Case for Abolition by David Swanson, 2013.
The End of War by John Horgan, 2012.
Transition to Peace by Russell Faure-Brac, 2012.
From War to Peace: A Guide To the Next Hundred Years by Kent Shifferd, 2011.
War Is A Lie by David Swanson, 2010, 2016.
Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace by Douglas Fry, 2009.
Living Beyond War by Winslow Myers, 2009.
The Collapse of the War System: Developments in the Philosophy of Peace in the Twentieth Century by John Jacob English, 2007.
Enough Blood Shed: 101 Solutions to Violence, Terror, and War by Mary-Wynne Ashford with Guy Dauncey, 2006.
Planet Earth: The Latest Weapon of War by Rosalie Bertell, 2001.
Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence by Myriam Miedzian, 1991.

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