At least two views of society compete to explain its function. One is that humans are inherently aggressive beings, constrained to orderliness by the superimposition of social rules. It is thus society whose survival is of paramount importance. Individuals must obey the rules of society and succumb to society's "needs" as determined by its leaders in order to avoid chaos. The other view is that society exists because individuals voluntarily join together to advance their own interests through cooperation, division of labor, and trade. Society exists for individuals.
Gwynne Dyer, in his eight-part TV series War, airing on PBS stations beginning October 1, subscribes to the first view. The series of one-hour programs offers numerous tidbits of fascinating information about wars past and present. But Dyer's preoccupation with man-the-aggressive-animal continually flaws his analysis of why war occurs.
Dyer has degrees in history from Rice University and the University of London but left teaching in 1973 for a career in journalism. His radio program Goodbye War first aired in Canada in 1979 and is the reputed inspiration of the present TV series.
In the first episode, "The Road to Total War," Dyer offers what he professes is a brief overview of the history of war. He confines his saga, however, to the period from Napoleon to the present, thereby limiting his conclusions.
War in the 20th century, according to Dyer, differs fundamentally from war in the past. In modern war, the "role of the soldier has become obsolete due to the advance of technology.…The soldier now serves machines." But this observation can hardly be made uniquely of modern times. The same complaint has been periodically leveled at least since medieval times, when Roman popes condemned the use of the crossbow because, in allowing commoners on foot to match noblemen on horseback, it took the valor out of combat.
In fact, there is little that is in essence distinctive about modern war. Contrary to Dyer's repeated assertions, wars have always been devastating. They have often included pillage, rape, and destruction of "civilian" populations. To claim otherwise is to ignore, for example, the Crusades, the wars that expanded the Roman Empire, or innumerable wars among feudal warlords in the Orient. To be sure, we have modern cataclysmic weapons, but it is not technology that determines the essence of war.
The development of those cataclysmic weapons is the subject of Dyer's sixth episode, "Notes on Nuclear War." He describes the progression to modern war as commencing from the use of set-piece, horizontal warfare in the Battle of Borodino in 1812 (Napoleon's victory here facilitated the capture of Moscow), to the use of rifled muskets at Manassas in the US Civil War. This led then to machine guns in World War I and thus the horror of continuous battlefronts. The introduction of tanks and airplanes, making possible moving fronts and blitzkriegs, advanced the march of military destruction. Out of this steady progression of warfare technology emerged a military-industrial complex in the West.
As a depiction of technological evolution, the episode is worth watching. But the accompanying analysis is flawed.
Like war itself, according to Dyer, this technological progression is the result of man's aggressive and competitive nature. Each nation attempts to outpace the others; and within each nation, military branches compete to outdo one another as military leaders vie to advance their careers. Dyer concludes that what is needed to stem the tide of aggression and technological advance is a "higher" coercive authority—a theme that pervades the series. In his discussion of the military-industrial complex, however, he entirely overlooks the context in which individual military leaders operate: the modern central state.
That's what Dyer misses throughout by focusing so relentlessly on human aggressiveness. The Napoleonic era, for example, is significant, but not for the reasons Dyer identifies. Though mass conscription began with the Napoleonic wars, the practice was essentially only an evolution of the serf's allegiance to his lord in exchange for protection.
The real significance of the Napoleonic era was that it produced the modern state, whose authority was secured by a standing army. What was "new" or "modern" about the Napoleonic era was the increased power accorded the central state—a state that was not merely autocratic or monarchic. Instead, it was bureaucratic and thus essentially capable of running itself without a single, indispensable leader. The modern central state is an institutionalization of the view of society as all-important and necessary to prevent chaos among naturally aggressive individuals. Because Dyer endorses this view, he fails to comprehend the pivotal importance of the central state in unleashing aggression and fostering coercion, rather than enhancing peace.
Dyer's attempts to explain why war occurs are thus hopelessly clouded by his view of humankind. In episode two, "Anybody's Son Will Do," the viewer gets an inside picture of a US Marine Corps boot camp and, in episode three, "The Profession of Arms," an inside look at the lives and motivations of career officers. The thrust of both is that armies can "change people to do things they wouldn't even think of." Dyer's thesis seems to be substantiated in the fascinating footage presented.
Yet the presentation is deceptive. He tries to illustrate how conscription can be used to render any individual a "killing machine," but the boot camp he films is peopled with volunteers. Would the basic indoctrination during times of mass conscription be so uniformly effective? Ample evidence suggests not. Nearly half of all US conscripts put into combat situations in World War II never fired a single shot according to some military experts.
The episode does reveal, however, an important consideration that turns up elsewhere in the series—the emotional attitude of the trainees and how they can be manipulated. Exaggerated love of family, confused sexuality, the adolescent need to belong—all can be played upon to induce aggressive group behavior and fervent nationalism.
But Dyer doesn't investigate the nature of the state and how, relying as it does on coercion, it serves to arouse and utilize aggression. He repeatedly contends that we are all responsible for war. We "believe" in war, and so wars continue to plague us. We all "participate" in war directly or indirectly (he conveniently ignores draft evaders, war protesters, war-tax resisters, and so on). We are all responsible for war because we are inherently aggressive. We are only prevented from warring with one another because governments, with coercion at their disposal, keep us reined in. Nation-states, on the other hand, are not subject to any overriding coercive authority that can mandate the peaceful resolution of disputes.
Yet herein lies the central contradiction of Dyer's thesis. War is essentially the most extreme form of coercion. Peace is not the absence of war; it is the absence of coercion. But to prevent war, Dyer appeals to an overarching world authority—one that could "coerce" us into peace.
Dyer's peace prescription follows naturally from his view of man, state, and society. He believes the world runs on power—the power of states to coerce individuals and combat other nation-states. This is a point he makes frequently and attempts to illustrate clearly in "The Deadly Game of Nations," an episode that turns to the Middle East and Israel. In fact, however, the world runs on cooperation. If this seems an incongruous statement in our pessimistic era, consider that the vast majority of interactions among individuals are voluntary and peaceful. If anything, the case of Israel, with its triple-digit inflation, economic fragility, and perpetual insecurity, illustrates the chaos suffered by a region dominated by power rather than cooperation.
In viewing war, not coercion, as the fundamental problem, Dyer is unable to distinguish between offensive and defensive war. Offensive wars represent attempts by states to impose their rule on others. But to engage in war to protect individual rights is defensive. Dyer, in focusing on group survival rather than individual rights, sees all modern war as bad. His framework must almost inevitably lead to this conclusion.
Throughout the series Dyer leads the viewer to believe that nuclear war is the logical result of any defensive action today. He accepts the prevalent military view that a nuclear war will most likely result from defensive efforts on the European front to stave off Soviet aggression. The West, Dyer believes, will be unable to repel a conventional ground attack sufficiently rapidly in the region and will be compelled to resort to nuclear weapons. Nuclear war between the two superpowers will result—a scenario so awful that we must, if we are to survive, accept his solution. We must give up our independence to a "world government."
This analysis, presented most explicitly in episode five, "The Same Old Game," ignores military reality. The 75 wars that have occurred since the debut of the United Nations and the atomic bomb have been primarily guerrilla wars. The most likely confrontation between East and West will be in the Pacific or in some Third World country, where resort to nuclear weapons between the two superpowers is much less likely for tactical and political reasons.
Even if nuclear war is a possibility, however remote, Dyer's "world government" provides no enduring solution, since it would enhance the capacity of the central state to undermine individual rights, an outcome that would produce, not peace, but increased potential for upheaval.
In episode seven, "Goodbye War," Dyer quotes Sherlock Holmes, who once opined that "when you eliminate all the impossible solutions, what you have left, no matter how improbable, is the answer." Assessing the history of war and our present capacity for self-destruction, Dyer finds that improbable answer in a sort of enhanced United Nations that would have the power to coerce us into peace. Says Dyer, "the globe will not be free until the countries have created a higher authority" and will "give up so much of their sacred independence."
What Sherlock Holmes might point out is that Dyer's calculations omit one possible solution—reducing the powers of central governments, no matter how improbable it might seem. In fact, alongside the state military-industrial complex that so preoccupies Dyer is unprecedented evidence of humans' propensity to cooperate. The international marketplace flourishes, even between East and West, representing the real hope for a peaceful future.
Jim Trotter is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Southeast Asia from 1961 to 1963. He now owns and operates a business in California.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: PBS’s WAR to End All Wars?".