Islamic Studies

The Truth About War

“If the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make; when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in battle:for how can they charitably dispose of any thing when blood is their argument! Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it…”

William Shakespeare
King Henry V.

I picked up the thick red book because of two things: the fact that it was written by Gwynne Dyer, and because, on the cover of his book, I saw the following line: “I am afeard there are few die well that die in battle”. The book was called ‘War’, in bold black font displayed prominently on the front; the words  sat above it, quietly white against a backdrop of solid, blood red. I was immediately interested in reading anything by Gwynne Dyer,  because he had come to speak at my high school in either late 2002, or the spring of 2003, I can’t quite remember. What I do remember, however, is that he spoke about the then-impending war in Iraq.

Of course I had to buy this book, more so after I looked it over and saw that it was  ‘a highly readable history of human warfare’, as declared by the Times Colonist on the back cover. On my way to the checkout counter, I picked up a tale of two queens in Renaissance Italy – It was $6.99 on sale and I’m a sucker for European historical fiction, so I couldn’t resist. That one proved more than a little handy after the disturbed look the cashier gave me, when he realized he was ringing in a hijabi buying a book called ‘War’.

The author of ‘War’, Gwynne Dyer, is a journalist and historian who was gracious enough to speak to a group of high school students about the complexities of a war with Iraq. My Grade 12 Social Studies class, prepped by weeks of class discussion and speculation, was herded into the auditorium to listen to Dr. Dyer’s talk. I won’t mince words here: we were, all of us,  a bunch of fattened, plucked, marinated, basted turkeys, primed to the ultimate. (Well, I shouldn’t say ‘all of us’ entirely,  I do remember some of us being rather obnoxious anti-war contributors to class discussions.)

It was still a rude shock, I think, after days of hearing about this ‘3-week max war’, to listen to Dr. Dyer say that it would take weeks and weeks, months,  perhaps years to take Iraq. He spoke about guerrilla infighting in the streets of Baghdad: it was Vietnam all over again, he said, Saddam would take his weapons and men, and would retreat into the civilian population. The  Goliath power of the U.S. army would drive the Iraqi resistance forces deep into hidden bunkers, inside and within the cities, wherein it would be almost impossible to distinguish regular non-armed, non-combatant members of the populace with those that were.

Most of us understand that the United States has always shown itself more than perfectly capable of bombing large sections of land, areas of civilian inhabitation such as cities and villages, and so on and so forth, which matches up with their obviously superior military capabilities. There is also an alarmingly regular propensity to bomb hospitals, orphanages, pharmaceutical companies, and schools, but this does generally go with the territory when one pursues the noble occupation of ‘carpet bombing’.

“Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God loveth not transgressors.” [ 2:190, The Holy Quran].

However, for the invader, it’s always a considerably more messy game to fight down on the ground. Torturously carving your way through unfamiliar, hostile territory, day after day- the sauna-like Vietnamese jungle pressing onto you from all sides, the formidable heat of the Mesopotamian sun assailing you at every turn, and the prevailing uncertainty- a sly, jeering companion. Well, here, perhaps the most constant of companions is really fear – fear and uncertainty, which is what guerrillas inspire best when they fight guerrilla style. The guerrilla army aims to avoid facing the superior military force in combat, risking defeat and dispersion, so it hides and waits, hides and waits. It uses the natural territory familiar to itself, and it watches the invading force struggle with a climate and environment inhospitably alien to it, and vice versa. The guerrilla army works with the landscape to destroy the enemy piecemeal, using brutal, sudden attacks.

And so it is one of the ugliest methods of fighting, because civilians, unfortunately also sharing the same landscape, become no different than trenches to strategically cower behind.

Well, of course, Dr. Dyer turned out to be completely right. We all know by now how this tune goes. He predicted that Saddam would run and hide amongst innocent Iraqis – he was right. He predicted that the United States would never have an easy time ‘taking’ Iraq: hundreds if not thousands of U.S. troops would die in this conflict, a sickeningly larger amount of innocent Iraqis who would be would be ruined, debased, broken, killed. It would cost billions, if not trillions  of dollars to finance this war and deal with the resulting repercussions. With people like Gwynne Dyer predicting this, pointing out the wastefulness and destruction war would produce, what would propel these worldly powers to go ahead with it? It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around such colossal, devastating arrogance.

But we were sold this war on the basis of obtuse abstractions – and so the war itself has become an obtuse abstraction. Theoretically everyone knows that war is a bloody business, people die in gruesome, haphazard, savage ways. But it is another thing altogether to actually look at, to feel it, to realize what the bloody business of warentails. God forbid if you were shopping for cereal in the grocery store one day, and a fellow shopper next to you had his or her arm ripped out of its socket. Can you imagine the trauma of being even a witness to such an act? Physical violence like this is disturbing to human beings. The majority of people have a natural revulsion to images of accidents, injuries, and some even become queasy at the mere sight of blood.

Gwynne Dyer, in his book ‘War’, presents something entirely novel to me, an aspect ofwar I had never thought about. It had never occurred to me before to question the fact that on the fields of battle, armed, trained, and equipped men would kill as they were ordered to do so – if only from the basic and most primal instinct to preserve their own lives. And this is where it gets interesting:

… There are no historical records of Roman legionnaires refusing to use their swords, or Marlborough’s infantrymen refusing to fire their muskets against the enemy. But then dispersion hit the battlefield, removing each rifleman from the direct observation of his companions, and when U.S. Army Colonel S.L.A. Marshall finally took the trouble to inquire into what American infantry men were actually doing on the battlefield in 1943-45, he found that on average only 15 percent of trained combat riflemen fired their weapons at all in battle. The rest did not flee, but they would not kill – even when their own position was under attack and their lives were in immediate danger….

…Even more indicative of what was going on was the fact that almost all the crew-served weapons had been fired. Every man had been trained to kill and knew it was his duty to kill, and so long as he was in the presence of other soldiers who could see his actions, he went ahead and did it. But the great majority of the riflemen, each unobserved by the others in his individual foxhole, had chosen not to kill, even though it increased the likelihood of his own death.

Surely it would have been impossible for soldiers in the days of mass formations and black-powder muskets to shirk their duty to fire, for they had to go through a complex sequence of actions to load their muskets, which produced a visible kick and a cloud of black-powder smoke when fired. Subsequent research, however, suggests that a very high proportion of soldiers did not fire even in these circumstances: of 27, 574 abandoned muskets picked up after the battle of Gettysburg in 1863, over 90 percent were loaded, although the nineteen-to-one ratio between loading time and firing time would logically argue that only about 5 percent of the muskets should have been loaded and ready to fire when their owners dropped them…The only rational conclusion is that huge numbers of soldiers at Gettysburg, both Union and Confederate, were refusing to fire their weapons even in stand up, face-to-face combat at short range, and were presumably going through the act of loading and perhaps even mimicking the act of firing when somebody nearby actually did fire in order to hide their internal defection from the killing process. .

…Men will kill under compulsion – men will do almost anything if they know it is expected of them and they are under strong social pressure to comply – but the vast majority of men are not born killers. It may be significant, in this regard, that the U.S. Air Force discovered during World War II that less than 1 percent of its fighter pilots became “aces” – five kills in aerial combat – and that these men accounted for roughly 30 – 40 percent of all enemy aircraft destroyed in the air, while the majority of fighter pilots never shot anybody down. Fighter pilots almost all flew in single-seat aircraft where nobody else could observe closely what they were doing, and as late as World War II they could often see that inside the enemy aircraft was another human being. It may be the same inhibition that stopped most individual infantrymen from killing their enemies also operated in the air. 1

What he’s saying here is that there is a lot of evidence which points to the fact that men, finding themselves alone and unobserved in solitary situations on the fields of battle, would choose not to fire. Even during the American Civil War, where it was quite apparent to see who was firing and who was not, when there were no long range missiles, or anti aircraft guns, or  weapons that enable people to be very far away from the damage they are inflicting, a large number of men still would choose not to fire. That same evidence is not found in instances where men fought in crews, surrounded by their peers.

There is a very interesting implication we can derive from this evidence: in the split second moment, it is quite difficult for the human being to overcome his or her natural  reverence for human life, his or her natural reflex to not kill.

“Fighting is prescribed for you, though you detest it.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 216, The Holy Quran].

Furthermore, we can also derive from these passages, the obvious connection of what human beings are capable of doing for the sake of other human beings.

So we can see the problem here. Modern warfare has devised a variety of new situations in battle where the soldier is far removed from his companions, from the essence of social compulsion. A single man is often all that is needed to detonate the appropriate devices to destroy thousands of people, millions of dollars worth of infrastructure, etc. With guerrilla warfare, it’s a person to person fight, the battle moves away from the battlefield wherein army faces army, to isolated pockets of fighting where it’s a small number of people fighting each other.

If you were a major Western world power, the only one to come out of the Second World War with a booming economy, this would pose quite the problem. On one hand, you have all of these plans to pour billions of dollars into military strategy and weapons development to pursue your various, nefarious, imperialistic designs. On the other hand, you have quite a massive amount of evidence which shows that you can give a man a gun, but it’s another job altogether to get him to fire it. How do you get him to fire, to actually kill another human being, in situations where there is no one around to really make sure he does it?

It would be very foolish indeed, for one to believe that nothing would be done about this. In ‘War’, Gwynne Dyer elaborates:

Part of the job can be done by weapons training that actually lays down reflex pathways that bypass the moral censor. The long, grassy fields with bull’s-eyes propped up at the end give way to combat simulators with pop-up human silhouettes that stay in sight only briefly: fire instantly and accurately and they drop; hesitate and they disappear in a couple of seconds anyway. But conditioning the reflexes only does half the job; it is also necessary to address the psychological reluctance to kill directly. These days soldiers are taught, very specifically, to kill.

“Well, first off, what is a mine? A mine is nothing more, privates, than an explosive or chemical substance made to destroy and kill the enemy…. You want to rip his eyeballs out, you want to tear apart his love machine, you want to destroy him, privates, you don’t want to have nothing left of him. You want to send him home in a Glad Bag to his mommy!

Hey, show no mercy to the enemy, they are not going to show it on you. Marines are born and trained killers; you’ve got to prove that every day? Do you understand?”

-Lecture on the use of mines, Parris Island, 1982 2

He goes on to describe the entire Marine methodology of reconditioning young recruits into killing machines. Is there a problem, then,  when old marine training software is turned into video games for youth?

Many people like to talk about the presence of training camps in Afghanistan, where impressionable young men have learned to kill people. But, looking at the above excerpt from a lecture given at  a marine training camp, how can one deny that such brainwashing is also taking place right here, in the backyard of the ‘civilized’ world? The evidence is all there: people from across the world are embarking on this mechanized, robotic method of warfare from Parris Island to Afghanistan, and so, ladies and gentlemen, let’s lay all the cards out on the table, call a spade a spade, and cease the hypocrisy.

The truth is, the only way we can kill one another when the guerrilla style of warfare moves war to streets and homes, is to attempt to reprogram human nature, to mutilate the human psyche, to create programmed carcasses of human beings that are capable of horrific atrocities.  This is what war is in our lifetimes, the possibility of not only the complete and utter annihilation of the bodies of millions of people, but also of the souls. You can kill a civilian once; but you will kill your own soldiers twice when you train them to be inhuman murder machines.

A November 15, 2007 article in the U.K. Times Online had the following headlines: “America suffers an epidemic of suicides among traumatised army veterans: More American military veterans have been committing suicide than US soldiers have been dying in Iraq, it was claimed yesterday.” It’s a very sad article to read- the mother of a soldier who had killed himself, talking about how the light had gone from her son‘s eyes. There are some interesting statistics mentioned of the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars showing up in soup kitchens all over the country, melting into the homeless population.

For me, all of this is the by-product of the arrogant attempt to recondition the modern  soldier. How do you teach someone to ‘bypass their moral centers’ for the spectacle ofwar, and then expect them to start ‘passing’ them again when reintegrating into society? The humanity inside a person revolts against it.  It’s easy to imagine war in far off places, affecting far off people, made half savage by reigning media depictions. It’s quite different when the living spectres of these soldiers come back to haunt their own homes.

The cover of the book struck me, one, for the author, and two, because of the line: “I am afeard there are few die well that die in battle”, a speech made by a soldier on the eve of the battle of Agincourt, in the play Henry V by William Shakespeare.  This was an infamously bloody three hour battle during the Hundred Years War, where French troops faced English troops on a muddy field at Agincourt in France. In modern warfare, where civilians themselves have become muddy, blood spattered fields, this line has been made more chillingly true than ever.

Anam Majeed


1 pgs. 54-57 Dyer, Gwynne War, 2005: Vintage Canada, Random House.

2 pgs. 58-59, Ibid.

About the author

Anam Majeed

Anam Majeed

Anam Majeed is a postgraduate student with a background in International Relations and the Biological Sciences. She enjoys reading about history, politics, and medicine, and likes to write about current affairs and society.

Leave a Comment