World War III. The Big One. The (Presumed) End of Life as We Know It. There is no other prospective event that so captures the imaginations the public at large. The military plans and practices for it. Politicians bloviate about it. Hollywood churns out movies about it. Authors and game designers craft intricate narratives about it, sparing no detail in the grim consequences.
And of course, preppers prep for it. The looming specter of another World War, one fought with real doomsday weapons, is a chilling reminder and call to action: be ready. A World War today would likely be the ultimate survival test in a way. Anything worse would be completely unsurvivable, but it is likely to be so bad only the luckiest, most exceedingly prepared or well-connected have any prayer to.
It has been over 70 years since the end of World War II, and while there have been innumerable wars and smaller conflicts in that time, despite the proclamations of pontificating pundits not one of them have truly met the grisly watermark set by either of the previous wars that hold that lofty, terrible title.
So, though the prospect is terrifying, is another World War a likely occurrence? Would it have already happened by now or are we just lucky? What are the chances that global gamesmanship and maneuvering could send us over the brink into the next Great War? Is it all just posturing? Is the prospect of a new, genuine World War a lie?
The Shadow of War
Why worry about World War III at all? Hasn’t the world been at war for decades, now? America certainly has, tramping all over the Middle East since 9/11 in a ceaseless effort to stamp out terrorism. The Middle East and Africa have enjoyed their own countless, smaller conflicts, uprisings and police actions.
Major world powers fight wars by proxy, installing and removing governments in smaller, weaker countries as it suits their needs. Chemical weapons are deployed. Atrocities are committed. Robotic weapons kill with nary a soldier or pilot within thousands of miles. All of this is war, is it not? The sights, sounds and cost in flesh and treasure will certainly verify this is so.
These conflicts, viewed as a mosaic of human suffering sure seem like the whole world is at war, but they are not truly intercontinental wars, with incalculable commitments of men and materiel from superpowers aimed at one another. And yet, none of these conflicts, however awful, have even come close to the destruction and death wrought by the two, true World Wars.
The prospect of a major war is terrifying enough for participants, and also has far-reaching consequences for civilians at home: shortages, rationing, curfews, potential attacks on population centers, economic depression and more.
On a larger scale, international trade will cease or be severely curtailed. Few nations are as fortunate as America, with two enormous oceans to either side and a large friendly ally on the northern border. Invasion and occupation will become the rule of the day as borders are trampled or rewritten entirely across the globe.
Alliances will form, shift and break apart. Entire countries and cultures will never be the same. Many will not survive in any appreciable form. All dreadful consequences but lack the final, crowning horror that a true World War will entail: the chance of global catastrophe from superweapon deployment.
World War I was believed to be “the war to end all wars”: its combination of militarized technological leaps and advancements, trench warfare, chemical weapons and a staggering number of casualties, both civilian and military, led historians to proclaim that it alone would have quenched mankind’s thirst for bloodshed.
World War I saw the introduction of militarized aircraft, the use of the first true machineguns, tanks and more in an absolute meat grinder of a conflict that killed some 17.5 million people, and wounded uncountable scores more. The atrocities, destruction and loss were beyond imagining. The Great War caused a psychic wound on humanity that resonated for generations. Most thought there would never be such a conflict again, not even anything close. How wrong they were.
A few precious, short decades later, World War II began in earnest. The tools were recognizable, but vastly improved. We still recognize many of the guns, planes, tanks, techniques and tactics today as the progenitors of our modern equivalents. As unthinkable, unbelievable and atrocious as the number of dead tallied by World War I was, its sequel was worse: 73 million people, military and civilian. Lost their lives between the years of 1937 and 1945. It is a number so large you cannot truly imagine that many people at all. It defies thought.
Unlike the muddy, hellish fighting of the trenches, World War II was fought often in and over the cities of Europe, changing the landscape forever after, and erasing many from existence. The War was only, finally brought to an end with the deployment of a new and titanically powerful weapon: the atomic bomb.
The power of the atom was unleashed on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, annihilating great swathes of them in a picosecond. Though the war was finally brought to an end, many knew that a new and dreadful threat had taken up its throne on earth. The nuclear genie was out of the bottle. The world would never again go unburdened by the horrific threat of nuclear war, and the potential scouring of life on earth.
Quietly progressing in the wake of its demonically incandescent cousin, chemical and biological weapons have certainly progressed from their infancy in past World Wars to become nightmare threats from Hell’s furthest reaches. Chemical weapons deployed en masse could poison and kill hundreds of thousands with ease, the victims condemned to die in screaming agony.
Biological weapons have far greater persistence and implications than mere toxins, as each of these engineered germs has the potential to reinfect, to spread, or even to mutate into new and possibly more virulent and deadly forms, jumping from person to person, from man to beast to man, invisibly, silently infecting and killing.
This unholy trinity represents the most unthinkable and apocalyptic weapons mankind has devised. A mass deployment of any of them, were a World War not underway in earnest, would certainly trigger one, but far too late to save any of their victims.
World War III, should it occur, will change not just the landscape of the world, it will change the very fabric of humankind, if it does not unravel it completely.
The Prospect of a New World War
The complexities and intricacies of jockeying national interests are so vast it is impossible to calculate them all and print out a nice, round answer. Add to that the impossibly manifold overlapping motivations, fears and meddling from countless smaller factions, forces and rogue states and you seemingly cannot make heads or tails of it. Or maybe you can. Before we consider the prospect of World War III breaking out, we should look at a few of the major mechanisms and motivators that shape conduct on the world stage.
Among superpowers, who will be the primary belligerents in a World War if not its instigators, the 800lb fissile gorilla in the room is nuclear weapons. It is the threat posed by enormous nuclear arsenals held by these nations that makes the prospect of World War III so dire. Indeed it is that very threat that has prevented war at least some of the time in the not to recent past. Mutually Assured Destruction describes a doctrine that any power that sought to utilize their nuclear arsenal against an enemy would see themselves wiped out in turn by nuclear flame.
MAD was a fixture of strategy and “diplomacy” during the Cold War, and remains the unspoken rule of law when considering use of nuclear weapons: if we use ours, someone will use theirs. Where does it stop? Chances are when the planet is a nice, glass parking lot. Perhaps germs will survive.
I would love to say that a nuclear war is vanishingly small, but that would be a lie. The United States and U.S.S.R came shiveringly close to nuclear annihilation on multiple occasions. Read up on the Cuban Missile Crisis, September 1983 Nuclear False Alarm, and the 1995 Norwegian Rocket Incident for some petrifying bedtime reading, and that is just a few…
Chemical and biological weapons have their own taboos, mostly constrained by the super powers, who rarely, if ever utilize them. Smaller nations can get away with limited deployments, but this always seen as a Major No-No™ by the big boys and results in severe punitive action and saber-rattling. At any rate, while their effects are horrible beyond thought, a major exchange of chemical or biological weaponry is unlikely, by a superpower. A false-flag or terror attack using either could sow enough carnage and pandemonium to trigger WWIII, however.
So, the chance for a dramatic kick off to World War III certainly exists, but is it plausible? I’d have to say yes; humans gonna human, after all and we have been killing the daylights out of each other since before history was. That being said, it is not all doom and gloom. Read on.
No matter how you slice the data, the world is getting less violent, not more. I know, I know, that is hard to believe based on what we see on the news, but researchers and scientists, Harvard University’s Steven Pinker among them, have determined that, aside from the most endemically violent areas on earth, violence overall, is dropping.
War, genocide, terrorism, even simple murder, all dropping, and have been trending downward for years. But considering how many parts of the world are peaceful against the ones that are violent shows a significant improvement in overall global peace and safety compared to years past.
International trade and cultural exchange has incentivized nations and people of varying cultures to cooperate for mutual gain. Democracy as a concept is taking root in places where it has not been or flourished in ages. Democratic nations, statistically, are less likely to wage war than non-democratic ones.
Consider for a moment the non-stop breakneck coverage of any terror attack, no matter how small or ineffective: this big screen coverage distorts our view of tensions across the globe that, combined with the ever-present threats and saber-rattling from world leaders, makes it seem like tensions are reaching a boiling point, that war is brewing on the horizon, when in reality things are pretty safe and stable, at least in America and much of the rest of the world.
Is the possibility of World War III a lie? No, war is always just an international incident or black swan event away from bursting forth. Is it likely? Also no, and with cause. Though the weapons that would certainly be deployed from pole to pole in such an occurrence are the very stuff of nightmares, by all observable metrics the world is in a state of equilibrium, if not calm, especially when you assess tensions among superpowers, whose historic squabbling has resulted in the deaths of lesser nations the world over.
Does this mean you should not prepare for an outbreak of war, or even The Big One, World War III? Absolutely not. Like I said, it is only one twist of fate away from flipping the script into an all-but-certainty. And, not for nothing, the whole world has thought “that can never happen” and “that will never happen again” twice before, and look where it got them.
World War III is the ultimate in plausible doomsday scenarios. More than any comet, gamma ray burst, magnetic pole reversal or alien invasion, the prospect of a globe-spanning war with superweapons being exchanged like spitballs in the back of a 6th grade classroom is by far more probable. Though unlikely in this era of relative peace, you would do well to understand what would be at stake in such an apocalyptic scenario and plan accordingly.