A third world war is not possible in our time. Or at least, it is not possible in the way that any mainstream scholar or pundit thinks about such a thing.
There are many grave evils that threaten the international order and, by extension, the United States. Some of these dangers are quite likely in fact. A global conventional war between the great states like China, Russia, and the United States on the scale of the two previous world wars is not one of them.
There are three reasons why a third world war is profoundly unlikely in our time. First, nuclear weapons have made decisive conventional conflicts (wars waged with traditional uniformed infantry, artillery, and aircraft etc.) between nuclear powers virtually impossible. Since 1945, no two nuclear armed powers have fought a meaningful WWII-style conflict. For instance, India and Pakistan, which have a history of ethnic and religious tension since the end of colonization, have not fought a large scale war since both nations developed atomic weapons.
A similar dynamic dominated the Cold War. The United States and the USSR, despite fighting numerous proxy conflicts in a global struggle for supremacy, were unable to conduct a large scale direct conventional conflict.
The existence of weapons of mass destruction raises serious questions for the utility of conventional forces as a defense against other major powers. In a world with nuclear weapons it is not clear how a conventional force can score a decisive victory against a regime that can annihilate its opponents with the press of a button in a moment of crisis.
As it stands, nuclear “strategy,” if we can even call it that, amounts to deterrence rooted in Mutual Assured Destruction. All nuclear strategy, at bottom, is an argument for mass slaughter in an emergency. But indiscriminate slaughter is not war. No government today can utilize nuclear weapons against a conventional target in a way that fulfills rational political aims; thus nuclear weapons make decisive conventional war between nuclear-armed powers virtually impossible.
Conventional militaries face a different difficulty against non-nuclear armed opponents: the rise of insurgencies—wars waged by non-uniformed, non-state actors without a clear chain of command. Insurgencies blur the distinction between soldier and civilian. Insurgency, like atomic bombing, is a form of total war. Every man, women, and child is a potential target to an insurgent. The battlefield is everywhere and nowhere. The 9/11 hijackings are an excellent example of the tactics employed by insurgent forces.
Unable to win a fair fight against an enemy conventional military, insurgents turn to attacking “soft” targets in the rear. Terror bombing, suicide attacks, ambushes, and the use of improvised explosive devices are all characteristic of insurgent warfare.
Conventional militaries since 1945 have struggled to win decisive engagements against indigenous forces using such tactics. The French wars in Algeria and Indochina, the American war in Vietnam, the German experience in Yugoslavia in WWII, and America’s disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to use but a few examples, all demonstrate the deep and profound difficulties faced by modern high-tech militaries against much less advanced indigenous forces utilizing insurgent tactics.
Israel’s ongoing struggle with Hamas is an excellent example of the problem. The Palestinians of the Gaza strip are impoverished. They have no air force, no tanks, and no navy. They are technologically overmatched by the Israelis. But Hamas is able to launch occasional attacks against Israeli forces and civilians utilizing low tech rockets, small arms, and explosives.
The Israelis are in a bind. Hamas does not fight in uniform, and they hide among the civilians. When Israel strikes back against targets in Gaza it inevitably kills women and children. These strikes spur anger in the local population against Israel and give Hamas the political support it needs in order to continue recruiting willing foot soldiers.
The Israelis could try and solve the problem in Gaza through mass extermination. If there are no more Palestinians, then there will be no more Hamas. Conservative commentator Mark Levin appears to agree with this reasoning. In a recent tweet he embraced the idea that there were “no innocent Palestinians.” By that logic, wiping out the population of Gaza down to every man, woman, and child is justified.
D.W. Wilbur, over at Townhall, made exactly this argument: “Finally, America should be standing unwavering right alongside Israel as Israel gives Palestinians no more than 48 hours to release and account for all hostages being held, or to face complete and utter destruction. And to hell with what the UN or any other country thinks!”
Setting aside the dictates of Christian morality, if Israel wanted, it could starve the Gaza strip into annihilation. Of course, international pity for the pathetic situation of the famished Palestinian population would almost certainly work against Israel’s favor. Moreover, it takes an enormous capacity for callousness and cruelty to exterminate an entire population. It is doubtful that the Israeli government could actually do such a thing even if it wanted to. Instead, it will continue to grind away in an endless and fruitless struggle against a much less advanced population of stateless refugees that have no prospect of sovereignty and a burning resentment against their Israeli rulers.
This leads to the third problem preventing another world war: the inability of modern states to mobilize resources and loyalty on the scale necessary to wage wars with death tolls in the millions.
During WWII, the Soviet population suffered more than 25 million killed—to say nothing of wounded. There is no way that the modern Russian state could demand that kind of sacrifice from its people today. The Russian people would rather be conquered than suffer that kind of social catastrophe. At Stalingrad, the Nazis and Soviets suffered a million casualties apiece. It is exceedingly difficult to imagine either power willing to take such casualties today. Such a war would break the nations involved.
Americans are no different. The United States suffered a half million dead in WWII, put 12 million men under arms, and mobilized nearly half of the economy by 1945 toward war production. There is no way that Joe Biden, or any other American political leader, could extract that kind of dedication and loyalty from the American people today. It simply isn’t possible. Our political disagreements are so fundamental and the fabric of our communal life so tattered that such an expenditure of effort isn’t comprehensible.
As I have pointed out before, America no longer has anywhere close to the production capacity we had during WWII. It would take the United States more than 1,000 years, at current production rates, to produce the number of artillery shells the Allies fired in WWII. We simply do not have the logistical infrastructure, manufacturing know-how, or raw resources to build a large conventional force.
This is to say nothing of the massive decline in human capital suffered by the United States since the 1940s. Obesity, drug abuse, and mental illness are so widespread among the youth that less than a quarter physically qualify for military service. Our military leadership is in decline too. Scandal is so common among our armed forces that it has become accepted. Earlier this year, a Colonel was caught publicly posting photos of himself having homosexual relations with subordinate officers while dressed in fetish gear. There was no punishment. A military leadership class focused on engaging in “pup play” is not the sort that can sustain the spiritual demands of cataclysmic global war.
Many of America’s Generals spend their days trolling civilian critics on twitter or whining about their inability to wear nail polish in uniform. Others, like Mark Milley, are obese and so far out of physical standards that it is impossible to imagine them being able to keep up with the demands of sustained military action, even in the rear!
Today, the modern state is not capable of total mobilization. At most the modern state can implement, as COVID lockdowns showed, total demobilization. The state can still make the demand on its population to do nothing but it cannot inspire its people to take action.
In order to wage the sort of conflicts that we saw in the early 20th century, a nation needs to either be extremely confident in itself and possessing of the sorts of deep-rooted virtues that make large scale sacrifice possible or it needs to be facing an existential threat of such a magnitude that its people will choose near annihilation to surrender. The virtues required for such a military action are not inexhaustible.
Industrial war especially burns through social, political, and human capital at an enormous rate. None of the combatants in WWII have ever spiritually recovered from the cataclysm of that war, not even the United States.
We can see this decline in the way that modern western states treat their populations. No Western government today has any loyalty to the traditional way of life of its people or even to the preservation of its national existence. That is why western countries throw open their borders to mass migration from the third world. All respectable academics, political leaders, and cultural “influencers” are in perfect agreement: the history of Europe and the West is one of racism, genocide, colonialism, homophobia, sexism, and antisemitism.
Our politics is, therefore, intensely racial. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are the watchwords of every Fortune 500 company, government agency, and academic institution. In the culture war, the Left has won a totalizing intellectual victory.
The primary aim of all Western governments today is to expurgate themselves of their racist past. This means mass immigration from the global south. A closed society made up of only Europeans is automatically bigoted and fascist. It cannot, therefore, be allowed to exist. The purpose of the British government, therefore, is to turn London into Abbottabad. The purpose of the German government is to turn Berlin and Munich into Istanbul. These governments are succeeding.
The Biden regime in the United States is no different. The destruction of the Civil War statues commemorating the reconciliation between North and South is part of this project of national self-annihilation. The Left has made clear: it isn’t just the South that was evil but also the Northerners who sought to make peace and friendship with them after the war. The people who make peace with the Devil are no different than Satan himself.
The greatest danger to America today is internal dissention that leads to insurgency and civil war. China and Russia, to say nothing of Iran and North Korea, are not meaningful threats. These powers are not real “adversaries.” Short of a mutually destructive exchange of nuclear weapons, there is very little these powers can do to threaten the United States’ ongoing existence. Those states, just like us, are caught in the same spiritual malaise that throws into question the very continued existence of the nation-state as we know it today.
The most serious political question before us is whether we, as Americans, want our nation to survive. Is it even moral for us to preserve a nation that once had slavery and segregation? At core, all of our real political debates today boil down to how one answers that question. The Democratic Party is the party of national self-annihilation in the name of anti-racism and sexual liberation. The MAGA Right is the faction in favor of continued national survival.
The “death of God” in the West—the collective loss of belief in meaning, authority, and self-confidence endemic to modern western man—poses the greatest challenge to the continued survival of our civilization. Internal spiritual dissolution, not external military threat, is our most serious challenge.
Our situation appears dire. There are very few today who rightly understand the nature of our crisis, much less have any solution to offer. The pessimists of the historicist school see our present decline as the inevitable result of the working out of historical processes. Against these natural and unavoidable forces there is only the prospect for limited and ultimately fruitless action. No matter what choices we make, our civilization is headed for the same fate as the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians.
Our spiritual illness, in this view, is terminal. Are there any alternatives to this pessimism? If there are not then how should we live? What place is there for humane learning and the preservation of civilized values in the face of a potentially totalizing collapse back into the darkness of primeval, barbaric life? What place is there for politics?
These questions possess the utmost importance for us. No civilized man, no philosopher, no historian, no artist, no student of political things can avert his eyes from the problem of spiritual collapse.