The Shortest History of War by Gwynne Dyer

Reviewed by Clare Brook

Everything has changed except our way of thinking.  Albert Einstein

Thomas Hobbs wrote that human life without a central government would be ‘nasty, brutish and short!’ (Leviathan, 1651) Whereas, Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed Noble Savages lived free and equal having little to do with war.  It turns out that neither philosopher got it exactly right. Nations have been commanded to war, every fifty years or so, by governments seeking to keep an equitable balance of power. And, apparently, there is evidence that hunter-gatherers fought regularly over territory, food and women; just like our nearest DNA ancestors the chimpanzee.

In The Shortest History of War Gwynne Dyer details a history of war as: a custom and tradition, as a political and social institution and as a Problem.  This is a well-presented work useful for high school students and adult readers alike.  Dyer uses short chapters with diagrams highlighting the main points in each chapter.  Photographs break up the text.  The work is well referenced, although minus an index. Typographical errors are noted: ‘an particularly’ p.185; ‘as wel as’ p. 206.

Dyer describes the progression of war via developing technologies and social conditions and the outcomes of each phase. Spears through to nuclear bombs, nomadic life to agriculture, from small to mass societies with standing armies to conscription motivated by nationalism.  Attitudes have changed – war as a noble art, which prevailed for hundreds of years, is now seen as a problem; an activity that we can no longer afford, given that nuclear power could bring about the end of humanity.

Dyer makes some interesting points, particularly the wax and wane of egalitarian values.  Apparently, hunter-gatherers valued equality among men, but with the advent of agriculture and accumulation of land and wealth, society became hierarchical.   Small societies can better organize an even distribution of power, less so as the population increases.  Values changed again when the invention of the printing press allowed a wide dissemination of ideas, at least for those who could read.  As Dyer says, the population remembered they preferred egalitarian values and there were a few revolutions to back this up. He also makes the interesting point that nationalism has become a kind of pseudo egalitarianism, useful for motivating men to fight in wars that may, or may not, be in their best interest.

Dyer provides the concept of ‘a balance of power’ as a much-needed insight into the institution of war.  He explains this well.   Whatever spurious reason is given for declaring war, the most pertinent incentive is that one nation, or group of allies, has become too powerful, being perceived as a threat to the stability of the status quo.

The Shortest History of War ends somewhat optimistically: Our task over the next few generations is to transform the present world of independent states into some sort of genuine international community.  Whereas this is the only rational response, readers might wonder how exactly might we rid humanity of those chimpanzee genes.  According to Dyer this is possible, he gives the example of alpha males in a baboon pack dying out after eating poisonous meat.  When the less aggressive males took over leadership, the dynamic of the group changed, life became less stressful. Furthermore, these placid males passed on their genes this ensured the change was permanent.  Although, it is unclear how this could translate to our global situation.

This is a most useful book giving readers a concise insightful synopsis of a broad range of issues concerning our history with war.

The Shortest History of War

By Gwynne Dyer


Black Inc.

Paperback: ISBN: 9781760641696

$24.99; 256pp

ebook:  ISBN: 9781743821923

$11.99; 256pp


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