World War III

Let’s face it, we’re heading for the cliff again. At speed.

There’s a classic book about the stockmarket that refers to ‘The Madness of Crowds.’ As I pack and move my books today, I will come across it and linger for a moment. Today’s madness is in the Mid-East, and it is monumental in proportion. There’s never been a period of greater volatility in the region.

I get Sunni and Shia, and the various flavors that make the mixture even more explosive, sects with names such as Alawites, Wahhabi, Sufi, Druze… Actually, it’s more complex than Monty Python’s Judean People’s Front, so I’ll let Wikipedia draw you a picture.

Confused? You will be, after you travel through this maze.

Confused? You will be, after you travel through this maze.

As far as I can understand, this horrendogram represents schools of Islam. To these you must add a host of factions, or movements—for Sunni alone, these include the Salafists (or Wahhabi, mentioned above), with Al Qaeda as a Jihad element; then add several others, such as Jamaat-e-Islami. Several of these are interested in restoring the Caliphate, and instituting an Islamic World Economy. Those themes are cross-cutting in both The India Road and Atmos Fear.

Ever since the Mid-East became rich, i.e. since oil became a driver of the world economy roughly five generations ago, Western nations have conspired, cajoled, and if necessary crushed any attempt at Arab unity. The development of Arabia as a block, i.e. the concept of a caliphate reaching from the Arabian Sea to the Atlantic was understood by the great political strategists of the XXth century to be an enormous danger to the prosperity of Europe and America.

If the control of Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt also generated spectacular wealth for Western oil majors, all the better. After World War II, Israel became a further piece of this puzzle. And the United States are now caught in a fantastic paradox: on the one hand, the dictators that dynastically controlled the Arab world, men like Saddam Hussein or Mubarak, clearly oppressed and tortured their own people—democrats they weren’t. On the other hand, the ‘freedom’ movements vying to replace them carry a hatred for the U.S., and for Western values and culture in general.

So what’s a gal to do?

The United States, and a sprinkling of Europe (i.e. Britain) are intervening surgically, having learnt the financial and political lessons of Iraq II. Funding wars is even worse than hosting the Olympics (the U.K. did both) and the recessive consequences are rocking the world. Gone are the days when reparations were extracted through rape and pillage, the physical removal of precious metals, the transport of trophy and treasure that found its way into the galleries of the Louvre and the British Museum.

Settlement is far more globalized today, the values at stake are in the many billions of dollars, and some semblance of democracy should be visible in the occupied wasteland. Welcome to the brave new world of conquerors with a conscience.

The nature of war has shifted radically: yesteryear, gentlemen went from formal declaration to final treaty—war was a binary affair. Nowadays, asymmetry rules. This topic has generated huge interest, but the bottom line is this: if one side fights a conventional war and the other does not, there’s a strong chance that the asymmetric combatant will win.

In the late nineteenth century, Great Britain lost Afghanistan for that very reason, and the coalition of the willing, or whatever it’s called now, is about to do the same in the early XXIst. In between, examples such as Algeria, Vietnam, and on balance, Iraq.

Wars are no longer a tidy job, the kind of dates we learnt in school, accurate to the day. There will be no more VE day, or any other milestone to end a war, because the time boundaries have become diffuse. And great power will no longer equate to great victory, at least in the conventional sense. As far back as 1975, the issue was being discussed in the aftermath of the Vietnam debacle—not just the American one, but the French one too.

I guess my other question is when does a war scale to become a world war? We live in a childrens’ world of goodies and baddies, but the black and white model is actually fifty shades of grey,

So what defines a world war? The first one pitted Britain against Germany, dragged in the majority of European nations, and finally the U.S. Colonial possessions took sides and made the whole fracas more global. It was the first war fought on land, sea, and air. It ended the Austro-Hungarian empire.

We can extend that list in the second war, itself largely driven by the draconian terms that settled the first. It was one of the few predictions economists got right—John Maynard Keynes abandoned the peace conference at Versailles in protest of a peace that would inevitably fail. The Great War was also the swansong for much of the age of empire, partly because of resistance in occupied nations, partly because the colonial powers were financially exhausted.

What we now have is an asymmetric experiment, which started with the First Gulf War, or perhaps even further back with the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets, and has burgeoned into a large scale regional conflict. The warring nations are not fighting each other, but that may soon come. Right now we can count off Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen.

Dylan wrote about it fifty years ago.

There’s a battle outside and it’s raging
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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