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Book Review - The Shortest History of War


Cover of The Shortest History of War


By Gwynne Dyer

Black Inc, 2021, ISBN 9781760641696, 243pp

Reviewed by Dr Albert Palazzo


The eminent historian Michael Howard in his classic 1988 essay, “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” offered to the military profession his sage words on the education of its members. He advised soldiers to read military history in its width, depth and context so that the study of past wars can help them prepare for future wars.[1] Now along comes Gwynne Dyer and his notably brief book The Shortest History of War which, at first glance, seems to clash with Howard’s instruction. Is it possible for military professionals to benefit from a book which offers a fleeting overview of their core business, namely the waging of war? The short answer is very much yes.

Dyer is a skilled writer with an established reputation and his previous works, such as Climate Wars as well as a miniseries based on his book War, have received justified acclaim. His depth of knowledge and experience as a writer is on full display in The Shortest History of War, rewarding the reader with an authoritative yet accessible account of his subject.

Dyer’s analysis starts with war’s beginning, as waged by our distant ancestors and concludes with the prospect for future conflict in a rapidly warming world.  It is not a book about battle, for which countless tomes already exist. Rather its value lies in it being about the ideas that drive war and shape the ever changing character of its waging.

The Shortest History of War is divided into 10 chapters, three address theoretical issues while remaining seven outline the history of war in a chronological sequence. The theoretical chapters consider why humans wage wars, the methods by which we fight and lastly how we can replace war with less destructive means of dispute resolution. These are important pages as they provide an easily absorbed synthesis of crucial concepts that every war fighter must understand. The last of these chapters is particularly important because modern and emerging weapons are so destructive that to risk their use also risks the survival of humanity.

Unsurprisingly, the chronological chapters are very broad; the first is on war in the classical age and covers nearly 3,000 years of conflict in just 20 pages. The chapters’ time period shortens as the modern period draws near, but addressing the most recent 20 years of conflict in 30 pages requires a forced march by the author and the reader. For this reviewer the most important chapter was the one on nuclear war. As tensions grow in the Western Pacific between China and the United States, it is a timely reminder of what is at stake when nuclear armed powers disagree. No matter the length, however, each chapter offers concise and invigorating coverage, and touches the main forces that shaped each age.

For the new soldier, The Shortest History of War serves as an excellent introduction to the profession of arms. On entry to the Army, all new soldiers would benefit from a workshop set around this book, not just to provide essential information about the role of war in human society but also to foster a life-long pursuit of knowledge and thinking. More experienced soldiers would also benefit from the themes Dyer highlights including his explanation of their importance to war’s development.

There is a temptation to recommend this book because it is ‘low drag’. Being short and well written means that The Shortest History of War can be read in a day, unlike the effort required to read and absorb a more ‘weighty’ and ‘serious’ work. However, being a quick read does not necessarily equate with fluff, and no book can cover everything. Those seeking to improve their understanding of war should not dismiss this book because Dyer has the skill to write something of benefit that is also easy to read. It takes considerable writing skill, reasoning and depth of knowledge to successfully synthesise 5,000 years of war into a readable and informative narrative which has benefit for the military professional at any stage of their career.

While Howard’s counsel is correct, it is not absolute. As experienced soldiers would know, sometimes the correct option for success is to disregard the rules. The Shortest History of War is not the full story, nor does it strive to be, but it is useful nonetheless. Preparing for war is a life’s work and requires exploration and thinking at numerous levels. Different approaches have their place. For soldiers who are just starting our in their exploration of war, or for those who should set the example, The Shortest History of War is a good place to start.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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