On War with Gwynne Dyer is a seven episode television series done in 1983 under the auspices of the Canadian Broadcast Network.  Sadly, it has lost little relevance in the 35 years since. All are one hour broadcasts and available on YouTube, unfortunately in somewhat fuzzy copies but which I can still recommend [links with each title, below.]  He also included a book as a complement to the series, which is now in a second updated edition, 2005, War: A Lethal Custom.

Dyer is a Canadian journalist and historian.  He has served in the Canadian, British and American navies and holds a Ph.D. in war studies from the University of London.  He has taught at Sandhurst and served on the Board of Governors of Canada’s Royal Military College. His syndicated column appears in more than 175 newspapers internationally.  Among his military compatriots his point of view is in the small minority:  War is a serious business, and ugly.  It has grown, through technology, nationalism and mass organization from smallish soldier on soldier battles to the possibility of nuclear destruction of life on earth. With his military bona fides and the backing of the CBC he was able to film War in ten different countries, among six national armies, including U.S. Marines boot-camp.

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The opening hour of the series, “The Road to Total War“, quickly and sure handedly sets out his thesis: war has grown, in the space of about 100 years, from small localized events to the threat of nuclear annihilation. In short order, he swerves from the CBC’s, and his, alarm about nuclear war to bring forward a former U.S. pilot, part of the bombing of Germany in WWII, who quickly cites death figures for the cities he bombed,  as well as in soldier-to-soldier combat on Iwo Jima.   “The problem is war,” he says “not just nuclear war.”

Another old veteran, when asked about the morality of the firebombing during the war replies,

“Tell me one operation of war that is moral.  Sticking a bayonet into a man’s belly, is that moral?”

From the Napoleonic wars, through WWI, and II to the bombing of  Hiroshima, Dyer uses paintings, sound effects and newsreel footage to give an idea not only of battle but the change in scale of explosive power and deaths per minute, or to put it differently, the decrease in man-hours necessary to end man-years of life.

His own flat narration adds an appropriately ominous tone to the scenes, as do his occasional well-turned phrases. At the scene of the battle of Manassas in Northern Virginia in 1862, pointing to where 14,000 union dead lay, he says “They all believed that courage was the most important thing, but the bullets didn’t care.”

Closing the first episode he says:

“We continue to think of war as a natural and justifiable part of the way we behave and if it is, of course, well then we’re doomed.”… but perhaps it’s not.  The rest of the series will be used to examine war — whether it’s natural or learned, how we learn it and what we use it for….and what we might do to change it.

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The second hour carries the chilling title, “Anybody’s Son Will Do.” Basic training is the same around the world. Opening and closing with shots of Soviet soldiers marching guard duty, he tells us.

“Young men are not natural soldiers any more than they’re natural carpenters or accountants, but it’s a trade that almost anybody can learn. Soldiering takes up a much bigger part of your life than most jobs, but it doesn’t take a special kind of person. Anybody’s son will do.”

He obtained permission to film at U.S. Marine Corps Paris Island boot-camp, from arrival on 2 a.m. buses, to the shearing of collar length hair to verbal abuse and extreme physical training to the final overcoming of all the obstacles   –not all do– and the adoption of the Marine Corps elan, Semper Fi.  Scarcely believable that they are the same kids we saw at the beginning.

This, in particular, as well and episode 3, below, is worth knowing about if youngsters near you catch the military service bug, think it is just an extreme game of some kind. Thought provoking stuff.

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The third hour, “The Profession of Arms” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It focuses on the role of officers in the military, and the relationships between soldiers, officers, and society, opening with officer training in the snows of Canada. It includes interviews with American officers, and renowned historian, and former Army officer, Paul Fussel.   He talks to Canadian officers and officers-in-training, to U.S. Lt. Colonels and Majors and Russian officers, interspersed with film footage of the interviews or battles, or the faces of the wounded as recurrent themes emerge.

“We ask soldiers to kill other people they don’t even know whenever we decide those people are the enemy. And we ask them to sign a contract with unlimited liability. By becoming soldiers they agree to die whenever we ask them to.  …  Soldiers need special beliefs and attitudes.  They need to live in a special moral world.  … They have to ignore a lot of reality to be good.”

Discipline, morale, and loyalty have been part of the ideal warrior code, he tells us, since the first battle we know much about, at the battle of Megiddo near present day Haifa, when better disciplined Egyptian armies turned Canaanite forces into a fleeing mob,  in 1469 BC.  They had accomplished the main aim of war, breaking down the discipline and morale of the other side.  Three thousand years later, in the English Civil wars, battles were fought in essentially the same way, with swords, staves, shields and physical strength in massed formations.  Fire arms, when they began to appear at about the same time, in the mid seventeenth century,  led to increasing distance between men and formations and therefore the need to manage battle not simply be an inspired leader. This in turn led to the need for professional officers and training academies. The first was created by the Danes in 1701.  It is even more complicated today, he points out later.  Officers have to be “choreographers of violence in three dimensions.”

Dyer takes us into the Russian Tank School for a fascinating set of clips and covering narrative. Then, even more to the point — chaos, destruction, preparedness and unpredictability– he interviews several Israeli officers who fought in the Golan Heights in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, citing errors of both Israeli –of boldness– and Syrian –of caution.  All were proud of what they accomplished. One speaks about the magnetic draw of doing what is said to be impossible.

On the deck on an aircraft carrier he again makes the point about the difference of face-to-face battles and those of today.  Of a complement of 5,500 on a carrier, the only ones who ever possibly see the enemy faces are the pilots.  The rest are doing what, after all is a job, fueling aircraft, changing tries, checking engines … serving machines.   Yet all continue to see themselves with a warrior’s image.  Even nuclear technicians, never grubby or dirty, deep in air-conditioned silos, see themselves as warriors, romantic heroes and worthy of the respect and veneration given by society to such men.

And the heart of the issue of “why war” for me are a set of interviews in the Canadian army.  “It’s fun” says Ian Hunt who got his enlistment surge from watching Apocalypse Now, a putatively anti-war film. As another older  veteran says, “I would never go to war again, but on the other hand I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

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I won’t review the final four in the series which, if you watch the first, I believe you will be engaged enough to follow on your own, though I found, because of the poor quality of the video, it was better to watch on a small screen, not a large wall monitor.

The last, “Goodbye War” is worth a few words, principally because the phrase “Goodby War” turns out to be a hopeful imperative, not a plan, or even a very good set of ideas.  We have to de-nationalize and turn over elements of our sovereignty to the U.N., he concludes.   Perhaps in 1983 there was a remnant of a whisper of a breath of a hope for this.  Given the contempt the U.N. is held in by large sections of the U.S. the wish is as good as giving up the hope of peace.

Nevertheless it is a segment worth watching. He returns to the opening concern with nuclear war.

“During the last two years  of the Second World War, a million people were being killed each month.  If we now go to war a million people will be killed each week.”

A brief visual history of the beginning of WWI points out that Czar Nicholas agonized about mobilization for weeks, before giving the go-ahead. That decision time today, he says “has been reduced to minutes.”

Scenes of a jubilant rally in the main plaza in Buenos Aires when Argentina announced it had seized the Malvinas/Falklands from Great Britain, underlines his point that while leaders make decisions, populations are often of the same mind.  Stirring responses are shown from the British.  In the end some 1,000 soldiers from both sides died fighting over territory on which about 2,000 lived.

As Einstein is quoted as saying in 1945 “everything has changed everything except our way of thinking … the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”

Dyer adds, “Truth is we love our countries too much for their own good, or for ours.”

He concludes by saying “If we can accept the need to change and accept the cost of changing then we can have a future.”

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A Final Note

Along with the accurate and telling observations about weaponry, nationalism and man’s behavior Dyer threads a thesis, which he shares with many others, about the origins of war — that there was not much war to speak of until the first city-states accumulated enough wealth, power and organizational depth to field armies.

Other scholars in the field, anthropologists and historians dispute this.  They argue that war has been with us since our ancestral hominids roamed the plains.  Others show that civilian deaths, far from being a new phenomenon, have existed since history began.  The story of Carthage being leveled and salted is well known, and it is not the only such city. The entire population of Baghdad was wiped out by the grandson of Genghis Khan in 1258, trampled by the feet of the invaders horses.  No one would argue against the fear that weapons today could wipe out the human race, though that is something of an abstract issue, since wiping out the world one knows is a matter of what one knows; a survivor of the Mongol sack of Baghdad would have thought his world destroyed.

The two views, learned and innate, have found data and built logical-historical arguments in support.  Underneath, however, as Keith Otterbein  points out in his How War Began may be two psychological profiles.  Those who think that war is recent, and learned, think that it can be perhaps unlearned.  as Dyer says more than once.  Those who think it is an evolutionary component of our deep being think that belief in a war-less world is a akin to the old woman who confronted William James about the earth revolving around the sun.  “The earth sits on the back of a turtle,” she insisted.  And what is beneath the turtle asked James.  You can’t trick me, she replied, “it’s turtles all the way down!”

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Gwynne Dyer continues to think, write and speak on war, and for the last several years about climate change,  Climate Wars (2008).  He is an important geopolitical analyst and public intellectual.  If arguments from 1983 aren’t of interest, take the time to be acquainted with his some current thinking.

His own site is Gwynne Dyer dot com

He spoke with CBC Radio about Why Canada Fights as the centenary of the beginning of WWI in 2014

Here he talks about ISIS, in 2006 YouTube

Geopolitics of Climate Change, March 2015 – YouTube

Books[edit]

Documentaries[edit]

  • War (miniseries) (1983 8-part miniseries) The third part of the series named “the Profession of Arms” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
  • The Defence of Canada (1986)
  • Harder Than It Looks (1987)
  • The Human Race (1994)

 

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