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Military historian discusses his new series on modern warfare

By Arthur Unger / September 30, 1985



``War is a social institution,'' says Gwynne Dyer, ``a large-scale phenomenon that has definite identifying characteristics and operates in certain ways. We shouldn't be worrying about changing the weapons systems. . . . We should be concentrating on changing the institution.'' Mr. Dyer is a Canadian journalist and military historian whose seven-part National Film Board of Canada series, War: A Commentary by Gwynne Dyer (PBS, Tuesdays, 9-10 p.m., starting Oct. 1), will be followed by an eighth segment still to be taped, in which many of the controversial questions raised will be discussed in detail by people with varied opinions. The final segment will be hosted by Edwin Newman and will include interviews with key defense analysts and government leaders such as US Secretary of

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Defense Caspar Weinberger, former US Defense Secretaries Robert McNamara, James Schlesinger, and Harold Brown, British Defense Minister Michael Heseltine, and Lord Peter Alexander, a NATO general.

The series, a presentation for PBS by KCTS, Seattle, is straight-faced but far from strait-laced as it probes the history of modern warfare from the Napoleonic era till today, pointing out ironies, idiocies, and inconsistencies along the way. There are scholarly observations and bitingly caustic ones as well.

Mr. Dyer served as a reserve officer in the Canadian, British, and US Navies and has taught military history at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto as well as the British Military Academy at Sandhurst. In our interview he conceded, however, that he has never actually served active time in the armed forces during a war.

``Indeed I am grateful for that,'' he says. ``It's also something very few soldiers I've met have spent time doing as well.''

In the course of his research, did Dyer find any reason for optimism concerning the abolition of wars?

``As long as we recognize that what we are dealing with is an institution, there is some room for optimism. We fight wars because we like to (it's not the Russians or the Americans who are at fault, they are just the players this time). If you are an intelligent human being you start thinking about how institutions, which are after all malleable to some degree, can be changed. So it is not hopeless. On the other hand, it is an awfully large, long-term job to change any major institution.''

Dyer feels that the reason for the absorption with the Vietnam war is that people saw it happen on TV for the first time. ``The guilt trip about Vietnam is happening because the war was seen live. If you look at what all sides did during WWII . . . nobody ever questioned that. From now on no sensible military commander is going to allow newsmen to follow him around. The British didn't allow it in the Falklands, and the Americans didn't allow it in Grenada. Perhaps the Vietnam wa r was the first and last war that will ever be properly covered.''

Might it be possible to push warfare back to the comparatively ``civilized'' pre-Napoleonic style if we banned such weapons as chemicals and nuclear bombs?

He shakes his head sadly. ``They would just be reinvented in a short time. I don't think the problem of warfare is soluble by technical quick-fixes, by just getting rid of particular weapons.''

Crown is simultaneously publishing a hard-cover version of ``War'' which delves further back into the history of warfare. So you will probably be seeing Dyer on many talk shows, promoting the book.