Everyone seems to think World War III has started. Newt Gingrich, President Bush, Sean Hannity – the opinions are coming fast and furious. Unfortunately, the assertion seems to be more bombast than substance. While the conflict against Wahabbi Islam and its variants span the globe, it is not at all clear that it approaches anything like a world war.
World Wars I and II saw the institution of the draft and/or the mobilization of millions of men in dozens of countries on several continents. The smallest battles in these wars injured or killed hundreds, the big battles saw tens of thousands of casualties. In both wars, huge sections of major cities were either seriously damaged or entirely destroyed.
In both wars, governments nearly succeeded in destroying entire populations: in World War I, the Turks committed genocide against the Armenians, in World War II, Germany committed genocide against gypsies, Jews and Catholics. Both wars resulted in the functional disappearance of empires (Austria-Hungarian and Britain’s empire, respectively).
In both world wars, the economies of the combatants were so fully engaged in producing war material and maintaining men in the field that strict rationing was enforced on the entire civilian population of virtually every participating country.
It is important to remember that the designation “world war” is a purely 20th-century phenomenon. The Napoleanic Wars, for instance, were certainly fought at various locations around the world (including the Pacific) and certainly involved the whole of Europe, the northern coasts of Africa, the Middle-East and Asia. Those wars mobilized millions of men and involved the destruction of significant urban areas Despite this, Napolean is not considered to have started a “world war.”
Similarly, we can point to various times in Britain’s history where she was simultaneously involved in several wars to maintain a world-wide empire (the American Revolution, for instance, was but one brush-fire in a much larger series of British conflicts), but she is not considered to have started a “world war” either.
So, does the current conflict rise to the level of “world war”? It’s hard to see how it would.
Certainly one can point to armed conflict in at least a dozen countries around the world, but that’s about the strongest argument that can be made. Muslims are not fully mobilized for war, nor is a significant percentage of Muslim men involved in armed conflict. Even the most successful Islamic assault, September 11th, had less than two dozen enemy combatants directly involved. Most of the incidents involve groups much smaller than one dozen.
The “battles”, if one wishes to call the various terrorist incidents by this name, are not particularly deadly. In most cases (September 11 being an unusual exception), casualties do not even reach a thousand injured, in fact, they generally don’t get much above one hundred or so. There is no war-time rationing. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case.
Apart from the two occasions where American forces actually invaded a country (Afghanistan and Iraq), there have been no serious pitched battles between combatants. Instead, the terrorists have inflicted a level of violence much more similar to that inflicted by mob-run gangs who fought each other and police during Prohibition.
Cities are not razed, most are left entirely untouched. Even September 11 involved the total destruction of less than a dozen buildings in New York City, an urban area that contains hundreds of thousands of commercial buildings. Most attacks consist of train bombings or individual suicide bombers, barely noticeable events on the military violence scale.
Islamic terrorists seem to be set up much more along the lines of organized criminal gangs than they are armies. Indeed, given the level of intra-Muslim violence, it is not unreasonable to draw comparisons between gang warfare and the current level of Islamic violence.
In short, if this is World War III, then world wars are definitely getting pretty wimpy.