Just two living generations ago, the deadliest war in human history was fought. Some of the soldiers who fought in that war, and the civilians who survived it, are still alive today.
Thus, no one should think that another war like World War II is impossible, or that the events of our time are somehow immune to history’s perennial cycles of war and peace. It’s easy to assume that history automatically arcs in the right direction, or that the era of world wars is over. It could never happen again, we want to believe. However, there are hotspots around the globe that are just one “Franz Ferdinand” event away from erupting.
American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn once wrote: “Unless they are immediate victims, the majority of mankind behaves as if war was an act of God which could not be prevented; or they behave as if war elsewhere was none of their business. It would be a bitter cosmic joke if we destroy ourselves due to atrophy of the imagination.”
In the end, the only way to prevent the next world war from happening is to believe that it could. With history as our guide, one thing is clear: wars happen. The only question is where it will it start.
Ukraine and Eastern Europe
In Ukraine, the combat regularly exceeds the intensity of anything most have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tank battles, rocket attacks, heavy artillery, trench warfare, and even a civilian airliner shot down by a surface-to-air missile — the war in Ukraine is terrifying.
In September 2014, I watched a tank battle from a hilltop in the coastal city of Mariupol. It was like something out of a Hollywood movie. Except it wasn’t. It was for real. A tank battle in Europe, in our time.
The next day, Sept. 5, 2014, the war’s first cease-fire was signed. All that remained was a wasteland of charred, destroyed tanks and armored personnel carriers. And lots of dead soldiers, too, their bodies frozen in the moments and motions of their deaths like the plaster molds of the dead at Pompeii.
But what was even more shocking is that it all felt like a secret. And it still does.
Today, more than six years after the war began in April 2014, Ukrainian troops remain hunkered down in trenches and improvised forts along a roughly 250-mile front line in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. There, Ukraine’s military continues to fight a static, trench war against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists, foreign mercenaries, and Russian regulars.
It is a limited, conventional war, similar, in many ways, to World War I trench warfare on a smaller scale and with a high-tech edge. So far, the war has killed nearly 14,000 people — more than half of whom died after the second, February 2015 cease-fire supposedly went into effect.
For years, international cease-fire monitors have not worked at night due to safety concerns. As a result, the war has adopted a nocturnal routine in which the use of heavy weapons ramps up after the sun goes down. It’s not uncommon to see the night sky light up with tracer fire or the distant flash of exploding shells. That’s not to say, however, that sporadic fighting doesn’t go on during the daytime. Because it often does.
It has become a long-range battle in which soldiers hardly ever see at whom they’re shooting. At some places, no man’s land can be several miles wide. At others, the Ukrainians and their enemies are close enough to shout insults at each other. Neither side is fighting to achieve a breakthrough or take significant new ground. Rather, both sides simply go on fighting to not be the one that backs down first.
The war remains an existential threat to Ukraine because it could, at any moment, spiral into something much worse. There’s always the chance for an unanticipated escalation. And the longer that precarious status quo continues, the greater the chance that an unforeseen accident could ignite a much bigger war that spreads well beyond the limits of the Donbas battlefields.
In fact, the war in Ukraine has already sent shockwaves across Eastern Europe, spurring many countries to prepare for a bigger war. Today, the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (all of which are a part of NATO) are among the most rapidly militarizing countries on earth, in terms of defense spending increases. And Poland has dramatically increased its military spending, too.
For its part, NATO is rotating military forces and holding exercises across Eastern Europe at levels unseen since the Cold War. Mutual distrust is increasing — and so is the danger of an accidental conflict — as NATO and Russian forces interact more often.
As U.S. military forces in Europe repaint their desert-tan equipment in forest green, there’s a feeling of déjà vu among those few troops who can remember the Cold War. And as the sounds of gunfire and artillery echo across the Donbas, it’s also important to remember that during World War II Ukraine was the deadliest battlefield of history’s deadliest war.
The Pacific Islands and the South China Sea
The Arctic, Outer Space, and Cyberspace
In one of his most famous World War II speeches, Winston Churchill said: “[W]e shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
In this new era of warfare, we’ll be fighting in those places, too — as well as in the Arctic, outer space, and in cyberspace. These new battlefields will require new technologies, new types of warriors, and new definitions about what the word “war” actually means.
Changing climate conditions have steadily eroded the extent of the Arctic ice cap, opening up hitherto unavailable nautical passages, as well as access to vast natural resources.
Russia, which has some 34 military installations in or near the Arctic, has stepped up its military operations in the region. Russia has also stood up a new Arctic Command and is building or refurbishing dozens of airfields across the Arctic. Moreover, Russia has recently modernized its ballistic submarine fleet and added new nuclear-powered icebreakers.
China, too, has set its sights on the Arctic region. In January 2018, Beijing’s so-called Polar Silk Road Arctic strategy declared China to be a “near-Arctic state” — even though China’s nearest territory to the Arctic is some 900 miles away.
To counter these emerging threats, the U.S. Air Force has been shifting some of its most advanced military hardware to Alaska.
The recent creation of the Space Force similarly reflects the very real threats the U.S. now faces from its adversaries in space. Protecting America’s satellites is a vital national security interest, upon which much of our modern world depends. (Think GPS, satellite communication, weather forecasting, etc.)
We’re also at the dawn of a new era of edgeless warfare, in which war and peace may be measured on a spectrum, not as binary conditions. In the next war, U.S. military personnel will face much more confusing battlefields where nothing can be taken for granted — especially communication — and where decisions on the use of lethal force will be less clear and have graver consequences.
The old paradigms of the justice of war — which include metrics, such as the proportionate use of deadly force — are being challenged in this era of so-called gray zone warfare. For instance, is it ethically defensible to launch lethal airstrikes in retaliation for a cyberattack?
Our military and civilian leaders need to grapple with these tough ethical issues today, so that we aren’t trying to craft novel moral guidelines about the just use of military force in the throes of a military conflict.
Throughout history, the U.S. has enjoyed “warm-up” periods in its wars to arrive at a coherent strategic vision and develop workable tactics to achieve victory.
Famously, U.S. military forces had a chance to hone their combat acumen on the North African front in World War II before embarking on the liberation of Europe.
In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning account of the Allied North African campaign, “An Army at Dawn,” Rick Atkinson wrote, “Like the first battles in virtually every American war, this campaign revealed a nation and an army unready to fight and unsure of their martial skills, yet willful and inventive enough to prevail.”
In Korea, U.S. forces rebounded after Pusan. In Vietnam, America flirted with myriad strategies and tactics over more than a decade of aimless warfare. And in the post-9/11 era, the U.S. military learned how to fight counterinsurgency conflicts while already in combat, over the span of years.
Today, America’s military has spent a generation fighting below its weight class in combat theaters where the consequences for indecision, both strategic and tactical, never truly risked defeat. No one ever seriously thought the Taliban or Al Qaeda had the means to drive U.S. forces off the battlefield. There would never be an American Dunkirk in Afghanistan or Iraq. Could there be, though, in Estonia or the South China Sea?
Against a near-peer adversary like Russia or China, there will be no warm-up fronts on which to hone America’s tactics and confidence. The next war will be over before we learn how to fight it.
Author: Nolan Peterson
Source: Coffeeordie: WHERE WILL THE NEXT WORLD WAR START?