Is World War III Inevitable? What Can Smart Independent Science Fiction Say About It?

Now may be a crucial time for intelligent indie sci-fi to paint a plausible picture of the next global conflict.

Recent news has made clear that a “hands-off” approach to war in the Middle East isn’t working. Does this mean that a United States-led ground war is imminent?

Officially called the New Syrian Force, the contingent was trained by the U.S. military at a base in Turkey and sent across the border into Northern Syria, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reported. But instead of fighting ISIS, they unexpectedly came under attack by al Nusra, a different radical Islamic group.

The New Syrian Force called for American airstrikes, and the al Nusra attack was repulsed. Only one member of the New Syrian Force was killed while the enemy lost an estimated 30 fighters.

But what appeared to be a victory turned into a defeat when the rest of the New Syrian Force scattered. Some were captured by al Nusra. Some made it back to Turkey. Others were simply missing. 1

As seen after the most recent Iraq war led by George Bush, the American public rejects the prospect of a U.S.-led ground war unless attack is imminent. This is at least in part because it is now common knowledge that the war was based on deception.

We know now that American sentiment for the 2003 Iraq war was the result of a series of public relations gambits. Those gambits, from handpicked persuasive stories to falsely interpreted satellite imagery, were crafted to manufacture and manipulate public opinion:

The first Gulf War was sold on a mountain of war propaganda. It took a campaign worthy of George Orwell to convince Americans that our erstwhile ally Saddam Hussein — whom the US had aided in his war with Iran as late as 1988 — had become an irrational monster by 1990.

Twelve years later, the second invasion of Iraq was premised on Hussein’s supposed cooperation with al Qaeda, vials of anthrax, Nigerian yellowcake and claims that Iraq had missiles poised to strike British territory in little as 45 minutes. 2

None of the claims and justifications were true.

The current, globally expanding conflict has been met with political banter and fashionable rhetoric about “religions of peace” and “troops on the ground”. No religion is inherently peaceful or warlike; regardless, religious dogma can be used either to incite war or promote peace, as has been done from their inception. It is also clear that Americans do not want to send ground troops back to Iraq (or into Syria) while nursing fresh memories of the catastrophic nine-year Bush-lead war. 3

Isolation versus Engagement

Most Americans’ “head-in-the-sand” mentality is strikingly similar to World War II isolationism.

During the debate over whether to invade Iraq, or whether to stay in Afghanistan, many people looked back to World War II, describing it as a good and just war — a war the U.S. knew it had to fight. In reality, it wasn’t that simple. When Britain and France went to war with Germany in 1939, Americans were divided about offering military aid, and the debate over the U.S. joining the war was even more heated. It wasn’t until two years later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war against the U.S., that Americans officially entered the conflict.

. . .

“It’s so easy, again, to look back and say, ‘Well, all the things that the isolationists said were wrong,’ ” author Lynne Olson tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. ” … But back then, you know, in ’39, ’40 and most of ’41, people didn’t know that. People had no idea what was going to happen.” 4

Are we headed for another world war as we were back then?

Two major problems with the current American minimalist military strategy1:

1. Aerial bombardment has made essentially zero progress and surely won’t win on its own;
2. The tried-and-true “train rebels to fight” approach has failed yet again.

One apparently inevitable outcome: militant extremism spreads across the world,
eventually encroaching on U.S./allied interests. Ultimately, isolationists and hawks will join hands only to fight an enemy that looms on the existential scale of World War III.

War Never Went Away — It Evolved

Beginning in 2011, professionals as knowledgeable as celebrated Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker predicted the decline and eventual demise of conventional warfare. “Violence has declined because historical circumstances have increasingly favored our better angels,” Pinker explains. 5

The intervening years of destructive human ingenuity have seen the rise of a different kind of threat. Conflict has morphed into “hybrid war”, which is a new buzzword for asymmetric, unconventional tactics used by adversaries of varying size and strength.

The term ‘hybrid warfare’ appeared at least as early as 2005 and was subsequently used to describe the strategy used by the Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War. Since then, the term “hybrid” has dominated much of the discussion about modern and future warfare, to the point where it has been adopted by senior military leaders and promoted as a basis for modern military strategies.

The gist of the debate is that modern adversaries make use of conventional/unconventional, regular/irregular, overt/covert means, and exploit all the dimensions of war to combat the Western superiority in conventional warfare. Hybrid threats exploit the “full-spectrum” of modern warfare; they are not restricted to conventional means.

In practice, any threat can be hybrid as long as it is not limited to a single form and dimension of warfare. When any threat or use of force is defined as hybrid, the term loses its value and causes confusion instead of clarifying the “reality” of modern warfare.

. . .

Most, if not all, conflicts in the history of mankind have been defined by the use of asymmetries that exploit an opponent’s weaknesses, thus leading to complex situations involving regular/irregular and conventional/unconventional tactics. Similarly, the rise of cyber warfare has not fundamentally changed the nature of warfare, but expanded its use in a new dimension. 6

As noted by Pinker and colleagues, conventional warfare among developed nations may have declined. Hybrid war, though, is most often fought in the so-called “third world”, where almost half of the human population lives. 7

By 2050, seventy percent of the world — those in “developing” (i.e. third-world) nations — will live in megacity slums. Protoype: Mumbai, India.

These staggering statistical trends are driving the evolution of the “megacity,” defined as an urban agglomeration of more than 10 million people. Sixty years ago there were only two: New York/Newark and Tokyo. Today there are 22 such megacities – the majority in the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America – and by 2025 there will probably be 30 or more.

Consider just India. Though the country is still largely one of villagers – about 70 percent of India’s 1.2 billion inhabitants live in rural areas – immigration and internal migrations have transformed it into a country with 25 of the 100 fastest-growing cities worldwide. Two of them, Mumbai (Bombay) and Delhi, already rank among the top five most populous urban areas. 8

Manipulative Media Hysteria is Now Business as Usual

The American public is currently too short-sighted and fear-driven to prevent the conflagration that has already begun. As we’ve seen in the 2003 Iraq war, both fear and short-sightedness are attitudes eagerly driven by mass media. Both history and future stand as casualties of the twentyfour-hour “shock and awe” coverage of news and incessant “expert” opinion. Practically every news story now has the word “terrifying” in the headline.

If you want to create (or enjoy) a hard sci-fi — that is, reality-based — style in your science fiction, the paragraphs you’ll read below are a primer on what will likely be the backstory for World War III.

Iraq May Be Remembered as Where It All Began

Similar to the division between North and South Korea, “Iraq” is a set of political boundaries that were not designed with consideration of the people living within those boundaries.

Iraq and Syria were artificial creations of British and French diplomats when the Ottoman Empire disintegrated on the eve of World War I. Each contains communities of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Iraq is run by a Shiite-dominated government with ties to Iran, while the Bashar Assad government in Syria is dominated by Alawites, a Shiite sect. The Islamic State is a fundamentalist Sunni group.

Iraq and Syria were artificial creations of British and French diplomats when the Ottoman Empire disintegrated on the eve of World War I. Each contains communities of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Iraq is run by a Shiite-dominated government with ties to Iran, while the Bashar Assad government in Syria is dominated by Alawites, a Shiite sect. The Islamic State is a fundamentalist Sunni group.

Ironically, it was Vice President Joe Biden who initially called for a more human-centric approach:

In 2006, then Sen. Joe Biden argued for splitting Iraq into three autonomous ethnic zones with a limited role for a central government. The George W. Bush administration sought to keep Iraq unified, but Sunnis eventually became disaffected with a Shiite government in Baghdad that excluded them. Kurds have been in continual disputes over budgets and oil with Bagdad, and they have seized control of the strategic northern city of Kirkuk. 9

In 2011, American President Barack Obama faced a conundrum:

1. Remain in Iraq.
This decision, as mentioned above, was becoming increasingly unpopular with the public. Moreover, sustained military presence in the country would most likely have done little to solve the sectarian disputes that were the source of ongoing strife.

2. Pull American troops out of Iraq.
Popular with the public, this choice would leave Iraq with an unprepared army, fractious political situation, and a perfect opportunity for those who sought power and/or revenge against their sectarian enemies.

Of course, we know that President Obama had little choice at all, after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki demanded complete American withdrawal from Iraq. 10

This created an ideal opening for the revival of old grievances and the settling of scores — and what quickly degenerated into the present predicament.

The Rise of Militainment

Sketchy “official sources” are relatively rarely fact-checked in any depth; dissent is framed as the actions of hooligans, criminals and potential “terrorists”.

Such an incessantly churning, attention-deficient media climate makes hard, necessary choices about war impossible to support publicly, while turning war propaganda itself into jingoistic “militainment”.

Challenges for Smart Sci-Fi

For science fiction, one key question is this: how can we create speculative fiction about a third world war that is not:

– nihilistic prognostication about inherent human evil,
– conveniently defeatist oversimplification about a “post-apocalypse” world;
– pornographic indulgence about the destructive beauty of future warfighting technology?

Science fiction can be used as part of what Steven Pinker calls “cosmopolitanism”. Pinker writes: “These forms of virtual reality can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.” 5

It’s an exciting challenge, and one that, in the end, we may not be able to afford to ignore.

Further Reading:

1. Congress hears bombshell admission on program to fight ISIS. (September 16, 2015). Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-program-isis-fighters-syria-general-lloyd-austin-congress/.

2. Holland, Joshua. (June 27, 2014). The First Iraq War Was Also Sold to the Public Based on a Pack of Lies. Retrieved from http://billmoyers.com/2014/06/27/the-first-iraq-war-was-also-sold-to-the-public-based-on-a-pack-of-lies/.

3. Clement, Scott and Peyton M. Craighill. (August 8, 2014). Iraq airstrikes will test a war-weary American public. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/08/08/iraq-airstrikes-will-test-americans-tolerance-for-military-action/.

4. ‘Angry Days’ Shows An America Torn Over Entering World War II. (March 26, 2013). Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2013/03/26/175288241/angry-days-shows-an-america-torn-over-entering-world-war-ii.

5. Pinker, Steven. (September 24, 2011). Violence Vanquished. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424053111904106704576583203589408180.

6. Hybrid war – does it even exist? (2015). Retrieved from http://www.nato.int/docu/review/2015/Also-in-2015/hybrid-modern-future-warfare-russia-ukraine/EN/index.htm.

7. Shah, Anup. (January 07, 2013). Poverty Facts and Stats. Retrieved from http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats.

8. Bruinius, Harry. (May 5, 2010). Megacities of the world: a glimpse of how we’ll live tomorrow. Retrieved from http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-Issues/2010/0505/Megacities-of-the-world-a-glimpse-of-how-we-ll-live-tomorrow.

9. Intelligence Chief: Iraq and Syria May Not Survive as States. (Sep 11 2015). Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/intelligence-chief-iraq-syria-may-not-survive-states-n425251.

10. MacAskill, Ewen. (21 October 2011). Iraq rejects US request to maintain bases after troop withdrawal. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/21/iraq-rejects-us-plea-bases.

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