The Shortest History of War

Heinrich Severloh was a good soldier. On 6 June 1944, the 20-year-old Wehrmacht private manned a machine-gun overlooking Omaha Beach.

He did his job without complaint: mowing down American soldiers as they disembarked on to the shore more than 500 metres away. Firing almost continuously for nine hours, his gun alone accounted for at least half of the 4,184 Americans killed or wounded in that area of the beach.

But then one American GI reached the bunker. Severloh was forced to smash his head in with a rifle butt and watch the man die in front of him. ‘It was only then I realised I had been killing people all the time,’ he later recalled.

In The Shortest History of War, Gwynne Dyer quotes a marine drill instructor on how recruits must be ‘brainwashed’ into killing. The instructor would have recognised Severloh’s experience, particularly his revelation that it is easier to kill people when they are far away and, as Severloh himself put it, ‘look like ants’.

But training people to kill for their country is still difficult, especially if, as Dyer says, that same country has reared them to believe murder is the greatest sin.

After the global wars of the last century, it was finally decided that the sinning was getting out of hand. In response, a serious attempt was made to take the business of warfare out of the reach of individual countries altogether. This gave us the United Nations.

Dyer’s book is the third instalment in the ‘shortest history’ series that I have read. The previous two, both by journalist James Hawes, focused on the countries of England and Germany respectively. He argued that their histories could be understood by a central geographical, but also political and cultural, division: in Germany’s case, east and west; in England’s, north and south.

The argument here is equally straightforward: that war is inevitable as long as nation-states of varying sizes continue to compete with one another.

In this sense, it is polemic rather than history. For instance, Dyer spends more time discussing the possibility of nuclear war in the last 70 years than he does exploring the actuality of medieval warfare across several centuries. But perhaps he is right to do so. Nuclear war (and a nuclear winter to follow) would have had consequences for everyone. For the most part, medieval warfare did not.

This is why he identifies ‘continuing nuclear proliferation’ as one of the three potential triggers of the next global war, along with climate change and the rise of non-democratic powers such as China. Taken together, these issues are putting the ‘ramshackle system we have designed to keep the peace under acute stress.’

But, despite its shortcomings, this system is – according to Dyer – still the best chance we have of avoiding another Omaha Beach. He argues that in the coming decades, countries must continue to pass up their sovereignty and allow a supranational body to settle their disputes for them.

It is an unashamed call for collective action. But is Dyer wrong? After all, no country can tackle climate change or stand up to a vast autocracy alone.

The author is not naive. He knows full well that nationalism is stronger in the West than it has been at any point since the end of the Cold War. But he is also optimistic, reminding us that it is no coincidence that the period since 1945, when the ‘international community’ came into existence in a modern sense, is the longest era without a major global war in centuries.

This is not the most thorough or complete history of warfare on the market, and nor is it meant to be. But Dyer does give you something to chew over.

Review by Calum Henderson.
The Shortest History of War, Gwynne Dyer, Old Street, hbk (£12.99), ISBN 978-1910400845.