Military historian discusses his new series on modern warfare
``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
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.
He lives in London now and has twin 17-year-old sons, one of whom is just going into the Royal Navy. What does he teach his sons about war?
He guffaws . . . but genteelly. ``First of all, you can't teach your sons anything. I think the most you can do is bail them out once in a while. I'm hardly in a position to preach pacifism to them, am I? They've read the book and know about my service. I don't disapprove of soldiers or sailors. The profession is, I think, or soon ought to be, obsolete. But it is not a dishonorable profession. Soldiers do not cause wars. They just have to fight them.''
If Canada were involved in a war, would Dyer  encourage his sons to volunteer, or  encourage them to avoid taking part for as long as possible? Or  to escape if possible?
He becomes very serious. ``The second and then the third. If we were invaded by Mars I might change my mind. . . .''
If he had been an American citizen during the Vietnam war and his sons were called up, would he have encouraged them to flee to Canada?
``Yes! And I would say the same thing about the Falkland war if I were in Britain. I do not believe that fighting the kind of wars that we are going to be faced with is a sensible activity. And even at considerable cost to the individual -- and there is considerable cost -- I would resist the draft.''
If war is an institution, how do you go about changing that institution?
``Because institutions are so resistant to change, it has to be done by consensus. You have to appeal to people's interests and to their common sense over a long period of time. In a way this is happening now. It is just very hard for states which recognize the self-interest in change to make the change. There is a line of opinion which essentially says that we can't change the international system, either because the world is full of evil people except for us or because it just won't change fast enough , so changing the international system, the institution, won't prevent war.
``Therefore, how do we prevent war? Deterrents. How do you preserve deterrents? Military strength. It is a legitimate argument, and I don't deny the right of somebody to hold that opinion. I just don't agree with it, because I think it is an act of self-deception to believe that you can prevent wars by preparing for them.
``We have a very limited historical perspective about what deterrence is. Stopping Hitler, in many minds. Everything we do in the West, in fact everything the Russians do, seems to be designed to prevent 1939. We're busy stopping Hitler in Moscow and they're busy stopping Hitler in Washington. But 1939 was not the only way wars started. I don't think we can keep those old attitudes alive, not with the kind of weapons we've got today.''
When a man so outspoken in his antiwar attitudes prepares a seven-hour commentary on war, there's bound to be a bit of controversy stirred up. ``War: A Commentary by Gwynne Dyer'' certainly contains material that many will believe is controversial. ``War,'' which was produced and directed by Michael Bryans, is, like its author and commentator, wry, scholarly, and fascinating. This devastating study of the institutional madness in which our civilization indulges periodically may do more for the peace mov ement than 100 marches on Moscow or Washington.