College Quarterly
Winter 2004 - Volume 7 Number 1
Notes Ignorant Armies: Sliding into War in Iraq.
Gwynne Dyer
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2003.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

The US-led occupation of Iraq currently divides Americans and America’s friends as well. It will continue to do so for some time as the US comes to grips with its new role as a world empire. Much ink will be spilt as the motives for war are debated. George W. Bush’s bizarre claim that he struck Iraq because God instructed him to do so is even more disturbing than the more mundane explanation that he introduced “pre-emptive” war because of faulty intelligence (Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction), avarice (the United States wanted the oil and Vice-President Cheney’s old firm, Halliburton wanted lucrative government contracts), geopolitics (the US needed a base from which to protect Saudi Arabia from Islamist revolution), or “family values” (George Bush the younger wanted vengeance for Saddam Hussein’s apparent attempt on the life of George Bush the elder).

As circumstances change, as the guerilla war carries on, and as the US seeks to extract itself from the unwanted responsibilities of “nation-building,” we can expect instant analyses to find themselves between paperback covers almost before the dust settles on the newest episode in the middle eastern melodrama. Into this volatile situation has been thrust Ignorant Armies, a book by Gwynne Dyer which takes its title from Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach”. It is an odd project. Written in three and a half sleep-deprived weeks shortly before the US-led invasion of Iraq, it might be tempting to lay it aside as already obsolete, for events would seem to have well and fully overtaken it. The official war is long over. The unofficial war lingers on. Saddam Hussein is released from his “spider-hole.” And, US leaders are telling anyone who will listen that political authority will be transferred to Iraqi nationals promptly. So, this recent product of a print and broadcast journalist cannot even claim to be instant historical analysis; it is subject to dismissal as (almost literally) “yesterday’s news”. To discount this book would, however, be a mistake.

Gwynne Dyer brings with him some outstanding credentials. As comfortable before a camera as at a keyboard, he is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s chief commentator on Iraq and his weekly column on international affairs appears in 175 newspapers worldwide. Ignorant Armies is short yet comprehensive, accessible yet insightful. It provides a perceptive account of the tactics and symbiotic mentality on both sides of what has been ominously described as a clash of cultures. It leaves the reader with a solid an understanding both of what went on and why it went on in the months preceding the assault by the “coalition of the willing.”

Though it may still be news to some, there are strange linkages among a number of the principals in this deadly morality play. The Bushes and the bin Ladens, for example, go back a long way, from the times when the Arabs bankrolled the young Mr. Bush in his early oil explorations to the infamous morning of 11 September 2001 when President Bush, the father, was having breakfast with the bin Ladens in Washington as the World Trade Center came down. The Bushes have also had a long history with Saddam Hussein, who served US interests and obtained US weapons of mass destruction for his own war with Iran. As one wag commented, “You want proof that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction? Just ask Washington for the receipts!” Less amusing, of course, is the realization that, after Saddam Hussein used poison gas against his own people, the first President Bush doubled foreign aid to the dictator. The path to what Dyer insists was an entirely “unnecessary” war is not easily mapped. It traverses territory that is grisly and it sometimes indulges in self-parody rising (or falling) to the level of “Monty Python” absurdity. Until future scholars see current events in the oil fields with disinterested eyes, however, Dyer’s book will stand as a clear and coherent first step toward understanding.

He is particularly good in his interpretation of the strategies of terrorism. He makes it clear that the tactics of al-Qaeda (or any other terrorist organization for that matter) are not those madmen. There is dispassionate calculation and rational (if heinous) thought behind the random violence and suicidal assaults. Exploring the stratagems that lie behind the headlines is a necessary precondition for understanding what is happening in the minds of people who cannot be witlessly dismissed as insane or as “the evil ones.” Osama bin Laden and his associates have learned their lessons from the crucible of recent history. They have been clever and observant students. More than moral outrage, faulty intelligence and overwhelming (and generally useless) military force will be necessary if their opponents are to prevail. Gwynne Dyer provides a basis for the kind of wisdom needed in order, if nothing else, not to make matters worse.

Howard A. Doughty, B.A.(York), M.A.(Hawaii), M.A.(York), M.Ed.(Toronto), teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. His email address is


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
Copyright ©
2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology