The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, which started World War 1
It’s that time of year again when people dust off their crystal balls and peer into them to try to predict what the future holds. For this season’s predictions, I am going to concentrate on my near term forecast for the UK, and what World War 4 may look like.
As I’m sure you know, the UK voted in a referendum in June 2016 to leave the European Union (“Brexit”), and this has caused political and economic instability ever since. The British Prime Minister Theresa May scored an own goal in June this year by calling an early general election, hoping to get a vote of confidence in the way she was managing the Brexit process. What she actually got was a vote of no confidence and a decreased parliamentary majority. The UK Government is currently surviving by means of an alliance with a little known fringe party, the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. Before the election this party was so little known that newspapers ran articles with headlines like, I kid you not, “Who are the Democratic Unionist Party?”:
Anyway, this lot have been propping up a weak UK government ever since, so that it can continue to push its policies through Parliament. My forecast for 2018 is that this arrangement will break down, there will be another general election, and that the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn will be voted in. The political instability will then continue pretty much unchanged. So much for that.
Now for the question of World War 4. No, that’s not a typo, because I am counting the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) as the First World War. During this period, multiple European countries fought against each other in multiple coalitions, there was some peripheral engagement in North Africa and North America, and it was just as much a World War as the two subsequent ones. However, so as not to cause any more confusion, from now on I will refer to the Napoleonic Wars as World War 0.5 and the two 20th century World Wars as World Wars 1 and 2.
Wars are fought with whatever weapons are at hand. So, World War 0.5 was fought mainly with men, swords and horses. The French are said to have fielded 47,000 horses in the Battle of Waterloo alone.
World War 1 was fought mainly in trenches with men, guns and explosives
World War 2 was fought mainly with heavy oil powered machinery (tanks, aircraft, battleships), men and explosives (unmanned rockets and bombs dropped from aircraft). It culminated with the detonation of two primitive nuclear bombs.
What will World War 4 be fought with? Let’s look at what is in short supply, what is in plentiful supply, and what the most vulnerable points of the combatants might be.
We don’t have the horses to fight a World War 0.5 style campaign. They could be bred up again, and indeed they probably will be bred up, but this will take many generations and a remodelling of society to rebuild the necessary infrastructure such as blacksmiths’ forges, stables, farriers and so on.
With peak conventional oil now starting to come into view in the rear view mirror, we probably don’t have the oil resources to fight a World War 2 style campaign reliant on heavy machinery. We probably also don’t have the infrastructure to build (and destroy) hundreds of tanks, ships and aircraft every week, because that would need (among other things) plentiful supplies of coal and iron ore and the foundries and factories to process it. Coal is still plentiful in the United States and China but the coal industry in the UK has almost shut down compared to its peak around 1900. Most of the heavy industry which was formerly in the West has relocated to China in the name of “globalization”.
We have plenty of people (world population currently 7.6 billion) and they are cheap and easy to produce, so I would guess that in World War 4, we will see more of a return to large numbers of people fighting on foot using hand weapons, as in World War 0.5 and 1, and as in medieval and Roman times before then.
Nuclear weapons are good for deterrence but largely pointless as weapons of war. If the purpose of war is to take and hold territory, nuclear weapons don’t help to do this – they just render the territory useless and uninhabitable by either side. So my feeling is that although occasional nuclear weapons may be used in World War 4, for example to disrupt communications (see below), they probably won’t play a major role.
Information technology, fake news and propaganda is likely to play a larger part in World War 4 than in previous wars, because so much of our society is built around information technology infrastructure. People are already starting to worry about vulnerability of undersea communication cables to Russian attacks:
and the same goes for the vulnerability of satellites to be shot down, and the vulnerability of ground based IT equipment to a nuclear weapon airburst, or electromagnetic pulse (EMP). We have had endless fake news about the supposed Russian invasion of Ukraine and the supposed Russian meddling in the US presidential election, with almost nobody in the mainstream media putting the other side of the story or asking the difficult questions. Propaganda and fake news have always been used as weapons of war. Both Western and Eastern societies are vulnerable to misuse of communications in this way, the West because of the tendency of media corporations to merge so that most media outlets are controlled by very few people:
and of course broadcast media in China and Russia have always been tightly controlled by the State.
A relatively recent example of propaganda being used as a weapon of war can be seen in the Rwandan civil war (1990-93). Crude propaganda was repeatedly broadcast over the state-controlled radio referring to the Tutsi population as “cockroaches”. This ultimately led to the genocide of around 1 million Tutsis by their Hutu countrymen. This civil war was fought by people on foot using hand weapons, because both of these were in plentiful supply: see above.
And what might be the trigger which sets off World War 4? Well, it could be anything at any time. World War 1 was set off by the assassination of a little known Austrian aristocrat, Archduke Ferdinand, in the little known Bosnian town of Sarajevo. World War 4 could be started by one of the many thousands of Saudi Arabian princelets competing for power. It could be started by one of Donald Trump’s tweets. Who knows, it could even be started by accident.
Have a great Christmas.
Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin