WAR by Gwynne Dyer


The Lethal Custom
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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, à 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 of terrorism, 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.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-7867-1538-3
Page count: 496pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2005


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