Literature Opinion

IA Book Club: The Shortest History of War

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Jim Kable reviews Gwynne Dyer's 'The Shortest History of War', which looks at the comparative role of war in society and how we might do away with it.

MY STUDIES in education, history and sociology – of First Nations Australians – began in the 1980s, coinciding with publications from historian Henry Reynolds. They revealed to the nation its long and sorry history — of Frontier Wars; of massacres and dispossession, and of missions and stolen generations. They told of the reality of Australia's Indigenous people not being counted in the official human population until 1967.

At the start of his book The Shortest History of War, Gwynne Dyer begins with a brief comparison of three societies. The third is an examination of “the chimp wars” as documented by primatologist Jane Goodall.

The second concerns the Yanomamo of neighbouring Venezuelan and Brazilian jungle territory on the headwaters of the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers, which, in a 1968 book by Napoleon Chagnon, were exposed as constantly being at war with each other.

And the first... well, it was a calculation of the probable number of deaths via wars of a traditional society in northern Australia (of 25 per cent of men over a 20-year period) 'comprehensively' studied with 'extensive' interviews, writes Dyer, with calculations and conclusions from anthropologist W Lloyd Warner. The people Warner called the Murngin

The Murngin? It’s a long-ago term for the Yolngu of north-eastern Arnhem Land. What was going on here? I sent a question to Gwynne Dyer seeking clarification (though to date have received no reply).

At the same time, I sent questions to musician and author Ted Egan in central Australia who had studied W Lloyd Warner in his work in the field in the Northern Territory from the late 1940s onwards.

 'Yuendumu' man Wally Jabaljarri with scars from 'karintjukara' duels, 1959 (photo courtesy of Ted Egan Collection)

Wars? Well, not really according to Ted Egan.

In his written response to my questions Egan said:

Everything in traditional First Australian society is geared to the "prevention" of war. There were ritual punishments in "Yolngu" society known as “makarrta” [sic] for the breaking of law – a spearing of the thigh – sometimes, but not usually, fatal. And in desert country “karintjukara” [ritual punishment] was traditionally done with stone knives – a blow-by-blow back-and-forth duel with the objective being to cut and leave scars — at sunset, with seconds to prevent the ritual getting out of hand. Honour was restored. The scarring was evidence of prowess.

Clearly, W Lloyd Warner was using his own society with its own rituals of wars of invasion, subjugation, dispossession and total conquest, and fashioning findings to fit his unquestioned assumptions of equivalence.

'Warner was largely overlooked by the budding profession of anthropology' states Dyer, as if it were mistaken. But really for good reason, as knowledge and understanding grew.

Since I could not trust the first part of the thesis Dyer was building — what of the other examples: of chimp wars and South American examples and First Nations societies? Were they to be seen as primitive and equivalent?

Well, in summary, having read the rest of the book – though written clearly from a Euro-centric point of view (with little to do with a history of war out of Africa, East Asia or out of the Americas, unless involving the arrival or threats from Europeans) – it does become interesting.

And believable, too, once Dyer gets beyond his suppositions and begins using archaeological evidence and written records. He drops in interesting aspects of war little elsewhere given prominence: 

On page 34:

'And until the end of the Second World War, the armies were unaware that most of their soldiers, even if not running away, weren’t actually killing anybody.'  

Dyer’s book has ten chapters, covering the listing of the developmental stages of war from the evolution of battles through to 'A Short History of Nuclear War' (1945-1990) — although there is no mention of U.S., French or British “testing” (and by the latter on Australian soil). Dyer references what he calls the 'Trifurcation' era in which we now exist: nuclear possibilities, conventional wars – still being carried out in different parts of the world like Ukraine-Crimea and Syria – and terror.

I landed at Lod airport in Israel just six months after the Japanese Red Army attacked it in 1972 — the bullet holes still in the plate glass windows overlooking the airport. And I was in Japan just a week after the fundamentalist Aum sect released Sarin nerve gas on a subway train (1995).

A kinship connection has described to me the fortuitous circumstances of why he was not at New York's World Trade Centre when it was attacked on 11 September 2001 — but watched it unfold from his office in Queens after having turned back at the Brooklyn Bridge to retrieve plans left there by a subordinate. Former director of MI5 Stella Rimington (on the George W Bush declaration of war on terror following the 9/11 attack, as referenced by Dyer) reckons that the war on terror was already by then some 35 years old.

And having mentioned "G Dubya Bush", it seems important to note the Bush Doctrine (which I photographed in 2016 in the Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas). I've paraphrased the four points made: Take the fight to the enemy; make no distinction between terrorists and the nations that harbour them; confront threats before they fully emerge and advance freedom. Honestly, I think we might see wars easily lasting several more generations with this kind of celebrated idiocy.

Dyer gives a nod to war crimes trials and indeed a couple of pages are devoted to the alleged Australian Special Air Service (SAS) war crimes committed in Afghanistan.

He ends his book with his hopes that the United Nations and other mechanisms for creating a genuine international community might lead to the abolition of war, and so concludes with these final words: 'Good riddance.' 

This book was reviewed by an IA Book Club member. If you would like to receive free high-quality books and have your review published on IA, subscribe to Independent Australia for your complimentary IA Book Club membership.

Jim Kable is a retired teacher who taught for many years in rural and metropolitan NSW, in Europe and later, long-term in Japan. He is also a member of the steering committee of political party The New Liberals.

‘The Shortest History of War’ is available from Black Inc for $24.99 (paperback) RRP.

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