I've blogged about international wars before, and their place in shaping the world we live in.
But I've seen numerous articles on how we're actually living through WW IV at the moment, the War Against Terrorism, and that got me thinking (always dangerous) about what exactly do we mean by a World War?
Wikipedia has a reasonably good definition, but is inaccurate in significant ways.
A world war is a military conflict affecting the majority of the world's countries. World wars usually span multiple continents, and are very bloody and destructive.Note that it says 'affects' rather than 'is participated in by'.
So I'll take the Humpty Dumpty approach :
'When I use a word', said Humpty Dumpty in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'
My definition of a World War, like Wikipedias, is based on two criteria : the proportion of Humanity that at least have heard about it as it was waged, and the geographic extent of military operations.
I'll start with what Churchill said (and I agree with him) was the First World War, otherwise known as the 7 years war. I really can't improve much on the Wikipedia article, except to observe that this was a 'Sport of Kings' war, deciding basically which nation state got to collect the taxes from which province. There was little or no ideological basis for it, any more than there would be in a struggle about which mob of organised crime bosses got to collect protection money from which streets.
I'll then move on to the Napoleonic Wars, which I'll separate from that of the French Revolutionary Wars, simply on geographic grounds. Before the Revolution was Betrayed, and the French Republic became the French Empire, the war was confined to Europe and Egypt, with limited naval action elsewhere. It's nature was Utopian : as Francois Minet said :
The French revolution was... to terminate the strife of kings among themselves, and to commence that between kings and people...But when Napoleon crowned himself, all that remained of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite were the words on the flag. There were remnants of the original Utopean idealism used as Propaganda by both sides: one committed to the old established order, the ancien regime, of international law as it existed: the other supposedly a war of Liberation, but actually 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss', only this one unconstrained by legal norms and customs. Napoleon's empire was one where Military Victory was glorified for its own sake, it was 'Romantic Militarism'. Dynasties were uncremoniously turfed out, and new ones put in, as l'Empereur dictated. Boundaries were redrawn likewise. Private soldiers rose in rank, and were installed as Kings, both in name and in fact, and absolute rulers de facto, if not de jure. Oddly enough, the Napoleonic Wars were also the largest in geographical extent: Napoleon planned (but was unable to execute) a strike towards India and Australia. Battles occurred in North America (what the US calls 'the War of 1812'), but also in South America too, and with naval encounters in the Pacific and Indian oceans. This was a War where the prize was Global Domination : either by a New World Order, or the same ramshackle system that had evolved since the 30 years war.
The Third World War was the Great War : what we usually call World War One. The nature of this war was a return to the old 'Sport of Kings', but with ideological overtones: as in the Napoleonic Wars, it was the Old Regime, established law and custom, vs someone who wanted to rock the boat. But not too much - just take a few provinces, a small nation or two. Nothing to upset the applecart, just re-distribute the apples. Though in the case of one of the major players, Romantic Patriotism played a part: the Prussian mentality took 'For God, Kaiser/King/Tsar and Country' to the extreme. Military action occurred in a large chunk of Africa, and colonies were scarfed up in the South Pacific and China, but otherwise it was a wholly European war, with little effect on the Americas or Asia. Except that India (as part of the British Empire) was involved from the start, as were Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, Japan went along for the ride(and the yummy Pacific colonies), and of course the USA was eventually driven into the War simply because of truly outrageously incompetent German diplomacy, and because the Germans were threatening to upset the boat, not just rock it. The Germans also spread the seeds of what would later come back to bite them, big time. They organised and financed the train from Switzerland into Russia that carried Vladimir Ilyich Ulanov, better known as Lenin. The Political equivalent of Biological warfare.
For the purposes of this article, I'll separate World War II from World War I, even though the Versailles Treaty was in many ways not a peace treaty, but as Foch said, an 'Armistice for Twenty Years'. This was because the nature of the struggle in "The Good War/Great War Part II" was entirely Utopian. An alliance-of-convenience of pseudo-Marxist Dictatorship and Democracy, versus malignantly racist Dictator-led cults which worshipped War as a Good in itself. Utopian idealism on both sides, a religious war, a war to the knife. A war for Global Domination. Most of the action occurred in Eastern Europe, but also China, Western Europe, SE Asia, the SW and Western Pacific, and North and North-East Africa. Many nations were involved : in one case, a Brazilian squadron flying American aircraft out of Italy against Rumanian pilots flying German aircraft out of Greece.
Then comes the Cold War. Before it could heat up too much, it was chilled by the invention of the Hydrogen bomb by the USSR and very shortly thereafter the USA (the US successfully experimented with a Thermonuclear blast before the USSR, but Stalin had a useable H-bomb first, not that he knew it). Major Military action was confined to proxy-wars. The biggest ones were in Korea, Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia, and a series of them in the Middle East. Smaller ones involved Indonesia, Malaysia, Cuba, Bolivia, and later Mozambique and Angola. There were also a large number of air combats, ranging from Dogfights in the straits off Taiwan, to US Recon aircraft fighting their way out of spy missions in Russia. There may have been some naval engagements involving weapons fire too, but this is still classified. Was the Cold War strictly Utopian - Democracy vs and alliance of Bolshevism and Maoism? Or just 'the Great game' played between rival empires, using ideology as a cover? My bet's the former : because no matter what the original causes, people on both sides believed their own side's propaganda, and in a war that lasted over 40 years, the second and third generations were convinced they were Good vs Evil. Instead of worshipping War, both sides attempted to show that *they* were the true "lovers of Peace", it was the other side that was bent on conquest.
I did my part in this, and I certainly believed that although "our" side was far from perfect, the other side was far worse. And had ample evidence to prove it. A military defeat like Cambodia was terrible, especially for the Cambodians: but the defeat we inflicted on ourselves when Allende was ousted corroded our souls.
A Cynic would say that History is written by the winners: and the West won the Cold War. But it did so when the other side no longer could believe their own propaganda, too many ugly facts kept getting in the way. So it really was Imperfect vs A Lot More Imperfect.
Now we finally reach today's world, and the War Against Terror. At least, that's what it's called today, though there's precious little interest if the terrorists aren't Islamic.
It's like "The Good War" : on one side, a ramshackle coalition of the willing, the not-particularly willing, and as Kerry puts it "the Bribed and Coerced", vs Islamic Fundamentalism - a Romantic movement that glorifies Martyrdom, and firmly believes that God is on its side. Again, it's a war for Global Domination, and a war to the knife. But it's an asymetric war, with few clashes between mighty armies (though there's been 2 so far).
I'll leave off talking about it in this article, it's too soon to tell what's going to happen. But it's likely to last at least as long as the Cold War.
To recap: We have the following World Wars:
|I||1756-1763||7 Years War||Sport of Kings||Europe, North America, Carribean, India||II||1799-1815||Napoleonic||Imperial/Militaristic||Europe, North Africa, North America, South America, and nearly India and Australia|
|III||1914-1919||The Great War||Sport of Kings/Militaristic||Europe, Central and North Africa, Middle East, small parts of East Asia and the Pacific|
|IV||1933-1945||The Good War||Utopian/Racist/Militaristic||Europe, East Asia, North Africa, Middle East, SW Pacific|
|V||1947-1991||Cold War||Utopian||East and SE Asia, Central Africa, and the Middle East|
|VI||1993-?||War vs Terror||Utopian/Religious/Romantic||Too early to tell. Skirmishes in Africa, USA, SE Asia, and wars in the Middle East.|
The dates of beginning and end of the wars are not always the most well-known ones: for example, I date the War Against Terror as starting with the ground bomb attack on the WTC, and the start of the Good War when hostilities began in China.