Saturday, April 29, 2023

The Shortest History of War

 Gwynne Dyer is a much respected analyst and writer of military affairs.  The ideas and understanding offered need to be understood by a wider audience and yes it is a matter of life and death for global civilization.

The purpose of this book is to illustrate how human nature (and technology, but really human nature) has led us to our current perilous state and how we can hope to extricate ourselves.

 He does pack in a lot of information, but is well written.  One useful tool is flow charts.

Aggression against outsiders has always been with us.  Evolution has favored the winners. Survival has required force and when you add in fear war seems inevitable.  Our nearest primate relatives the chimpanzees do organize to fight other groups of chimpanzees.

The first humans who organized into tribes were hunter-gatherers who tended to avoid conflict, but it is inevitable.  They tended to be egalitarian which helps to reduce wars.

The agricultural era led to wars.  Some speculation that it might have been spurred by what might be termed "pastoralists" who were more mobile than farmers, but likely envied farmers in settlements who had goods that were envied and might be had with force.  This in turn led the farmer settlers to construct walls and later to develop soldiers.  The farmer settlers tended to be less equalitarian than hunter gatherers.

As settlements became larger and less equalitarian leaders developed who had interests that were opposed by leaders of other settlements.  Armies could be formed and/or mercenaries hired.  We follow the development of weapons and strategies.  A problem that probably was always there is that most soldiers are reluctant to kill. 

Dealing with that has been an ongoing problem that commanders have developed strategies to overcome.  One comes from training camps that isolate from regular social circle.  Psychology used to toughen up.   Patriots are better fighters as inspired by Napoleon.

Distancing your soldiers from the enemy lessened reluctance to kill.  Germans enacted aerial attacks on civilians and the English soon followed.  Air staff reported not even seeing the victims, just smoke and explosions.  Modern warfare has seen the increasing use of drones where those in control are often hundreds, even thousands of miles away.

Nuclear weapons change thinking.  Leaders realized whole cities could be wiped out, but doing so would invite retaliation which we learned could lead to a nuclear winter.  As the Soviet Union increased its arsenal and China jumped in the ingredients for civilization extinction were in place.  The big powers realized they could not attack one another without the risk of escalating.  Wars have continued, but never with the big powers against once another.  Perhaps the greatest danger is between Pakistan and India  as they are adjacent and hate each other.

The future is discouraging with nationalist sentiments very global, but Dyer feels we have made some progress and there is hope.  The League of Nations failed to stop World War II and leaders realized that stopping World War III was critical.  To get the cooperation of the main powers (in effect the winners of World War II) they offered a veto.  The United Nations has been able to provide troops to enforce ceasefires on a few occasions.  A World Court has managed to convict a few war criminals, but again the major powers have mostly refused to join, although frequently refer to them. 

Quoting the author:  "If the time has come to devise a different method of settling our disputes, it can done only with the cooperation of the world's governments, for it is the absolute independence of national governments that makes war possible.  Unfortunately mistrust reigns everywhere and nations seldom allow even the least of their interests to be decided by a collection of foreigners."

Many government and military leaders do support a greater platform for a world government, but elected politicians reading the will of voters are catering to the fears of people.  That is where the opportunity lies.  Rational self interest dictates we need a better way of mediating conflicts and restraining nationalist  sentiments.  It is a battle to get enough people to as Dyer suggests "accept a mutual recognition that we are all better off when we respect each other's rights and accept arbitration by a higher authority, instead of killing one another when our rights come into conflict."  A tough task but since hunter gatherer days we have gradually widened our acceptance of others from kin to tribe, to nation and so on.

Climate change (if not fear of nuclear disaster) may be the issue that encourages people to realize they really do have common interests.  We have always had common interests, but have let emotions stop us from working together.  There has been slow progress and we need to keep trying.

Before leaving I would like to defend Gwynne for some criticism he received for predicting Russia would not invade Ukraine.  He basically had pointed out how incredibly stupid an invasion would be.  He was right, it turned out to be incredibly stupid.  Putin was not stupid, but he let his egotism overcome his intelligence.  Dyer notes writing in March 2022 that he cannot predict how it will end, but suggests possible outcomes that may or may not advance his hopes.

An earlier book on war:

 Another intelligent and relevant book by Gwynne:

A personal appearance in Hamilton:

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