A collection of newspaper columns is supposed to act as a gap-filler for a publisher and a quick ego-stroke for its author. A column, after all, is the reactionary, unreflective bastard child of the essay, always chasing events and ideas, often affecting a false, harrumphing sense of authority and gravitas to mask its relative unimportance to the larger culture. (Sort of like a book review.)
A collection of columns by Gwynne Dyer is a different beast. Dyer, one of the most respected and well-known writers on geopolitics and global conflict in the world, has been doing this for more than 30 years, averaging around 100 syndicated columns in each of those years, and yet he has never before put together a collection. In fact, as he admits in the introduction to With Every Mistake, he “generally cannot remember the topic, let alone the title, of the article I wrote twenty-four hours ago.”
Why put them together now? Partly, Dyer admits, because a formal ban on his columns in all CanWest-owned newspapers means that most Canadian readers outside of Toronto probably have not seen his byline for years.
Given that, and all that has happened in the world in the last four years – the period that this book covers – and you have something approaching required reading. But Dyer does something very interesting in With Every Mistake. Instead of patting himself on the back, he uses this collection to castigate himself and his fellow journalists for consistently missing the big picture by getting caught up in the details – in particular, for having been so very wrong about the direction America was headed after 9/11.
Dyer’s selection of columns acts as a kind of narrative, moving from his “embarrassingly naïve” (his words) first attempts at understanding the Bush White House to his eventual realization that he had it exactly wrong. (Much more is covered here than just the U.S. and its various global adventures, but those columns form the book’s backbone.) Simply put, Dyer persisted in writing about the post-9/11 White House in reactive terms, assuming the administration was chasing events just like the columnists and journalists covering it. The U.S. was hit hard on 9/11, so it hit back at Afghanistan, a move Dyer says “made perfect sense.” The way it did so – using warlords to do its dirty work, then neglecting to stabilize the country after the Taliban fell – made far less sense, strategically. It wasn’t until after the U.S. invaded Iraq that Dyer realized Bush and his fellow hawks were in fact being frighteningly pro-active, actively seeking to implement a Pax Americana, a global hegemony that he believes will very likely mean the end of America’s reign as the world’s sole superpower.
Most heinous, in Dyer’s view, is the damage being done to the one institution charged with the responsibility of keeping us from destroying each other: the UN. Dyer sees the UN not as a flower-scattering utopia teaching the world to sing, but as a tool designed to head off total nuclear annihilation. It’s certainly not a tool with which to depose hateful dictators – if it were, those dictators would never come to the global table. “The UN is a nuclear blast shelter,” he writes, with typically blackened wit, “not the international equivalent of a refuge for battered women.”
This is the same argument Dyer outlined in his 2004 book Future: Tense: The Coming World Order, but to see it slowly emerging through his columns is a revelation, not only of Dyer’s thought processes, but of the fundamental limitations of journalism in trying to make sense of world events.