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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Wimpy World War III

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.


Ron said...

They don't make wars like they used to. Our Aussie army, God bless 'em, have been in Iraq and the 'Ghan from the start. Nobody's been killed yet. One of 'em accidentally shot himself I believe (enquiry continuing). In the first day of the Battle of the Somme in World War I wasn't it something like 60,000 casualties, 20,000 of whom died, on our side alone? Day one!

I thought just occurred to me: what if it's all backwards now? Few casualties until the final days - when Iran launches the nukes?

Patrick said...

Several documentaries on the History Channel and a few modern history books have made similar observations. However, they have also made the observation that societies as a whole are less likely to "accept" a world war than in the past because of the weak faith in governments worldwide. A war in today's world would more likely lead to a less stable state governments rather than to an increase in stability. There may always be warhawks, but they may be prompting military strikes over longterm wars.

Dave said...

I believe the commentators are unfortunately conflating multiple attacks on Israel, whose significance has been exaggerated by disproportionate response, with an worldwide attack on the US. If one sets that idea alongside the declared War on Terror, well then, it looks like a world war.

A paranoid person could go further and ideologically line up every local conflict in the world in a two-column chart and come up with a historical framework for labeling this period "World War IV" (the cold war being WWIII).

What a bunch of idiots.

Marshall Darts said...

Coming Soon-WWW III-from the People Who Brought You Iraq

They never cease to amaze. The same people who have us in a mess in Iraq want to solve the problem they created by having more of our troops fighting a wider war throughout the Middle East and Iran.

Who is telling us this is WWW III, and by implication, trying to justify a wider conflict to include Syria and Iran? The same geniuses who helped get us into Iraq. Newt Gingrich, William Kristol, Sean (high school) Hannity, Oliver North, William (the virtuous gambler) Bennett, Bill O'Reilly, Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes. Not one day of military service out of the whole group.

I guess they figure that if they can't win a smaller war they can win a larger one, though I fail to see how that follows. Do not expect even the U.K. to be around for the next misadventure the neocons want to undertake. Once Tony Blair is gone his successor has the perfect opportunity to get out of a bad situation and I think he'll take it.

Instead of figuring out a diplomatic way to get us out of the Middle East, these yo-yo's keep trying to find a military victory somewhere, anywhere, as an excuse for their strategic ineptitude.

The people are saying in poll after poll, "Get out", and the neocons are promising to drag them further into the Middle East quagmire.

This latest attempt won't work to scare the American people into voting Republican in November. Just the opposite, it will scare them into getting rid of their Republican representatives so that don't have to send even more troops to the Middle East and stay even longer.

Jordan Potter said...

"WWW III"? World Wide Web Three?

And of course there's the trusty old workhorse, "quagmire" . . .