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World War III: The Permanent War by Zack Breslin

In Europe, the permanent war is also one of self-perpetuation. With each terrorist attack carried out by Islamic fundamentalists in Europe, there is an accompanying backlash against innocent Muslim communities. In Spain, already there are reports of a rise in hate crimes against Muslims; for instance, a woman wearing a hijab was severely beaten by a group of youths after the attack; and a Mosque in Seville was graffitied with the message “Killers, you’re going to pay”. Instances such as these (and they are repeated after each attack) make the radicalisation of young Muslim men in Europe more likely. One can imagine some maniac Imam telling his impressionable young followers that the West hates Muslims and that there is a war between the West and Islam— “and look! You don’t believe me? What about the young woman savagely beaten? Or their desecration of our place of worship?”.

Research has shown that post-terror attack retributions against Muslims leads to “the Muslim community retreating from assimilation and becoming more traditional and more cohesive” and that “terror groups may intentionally induce a backlash on persons of a similar ethnic origin in the targeted country, in order to decrease their rate of assimilation”. Those who mastermind attacks in Europe know what they are doing—by increasing the alienation and resentment that Muslim communities in the West feel, they are seeking to deliberately perpetuate the acts of war that such attacks amount to. The uninformed reactions of some people in Europe are as vital a part of the weapon of terrorism as the homemade bomb or the AK47 and have helped create a situation whereby the threat of terrorism in Europe is now permanent.

A self-perpetuating permanent state of war is thus taking place not only in the conventional battlefields of the Middle East and Africa, but is also being fought via terrorist attacks in Europe (although it is worth remembering that only 2 percent of terrorist attacks worldwide occur in Europe). Given the scope of the geographical battlefield in which this war is being fought (in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America) the permanent state of war that much of the world finds itself in could be described as a sort of simmering, low intensity, World War III—a World War very unlike the previous two global conflicts. A World War where the “combatant” is as likely to be a U.S. marine in Afghanistan or an unmanned drone in Pakistan as it is to be a disaffected teenager in the banlieues of Paris or a crazy Imam sitting in a room full of gas canisters. It is a World War in which 99 percent of the victims are civilians and one which seemingly has no end. It could be described as the permanent war of the future.

But if the permanent war is the war of the future, the spectre of the old forms of global conflict remain. Last week several newspapers reported that Russia was planning to carry out military exercises in Belarus, in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, and in Russia itself. The manoeuvres are expected to involve as many as 100,000 troops and could turn out to be the largest such exercise Russia has undertaken since the end of the Cold War. This is a military show of strength by Russia in an era where the level of tension between Russia and the West is such that we may be witnessing the birth of a new Cold War.

There is a long list of contentious issues that have created mutual suspicion between Russia and the West; the expansion of NATO, the annexation of Crimea, the cyber warfare and espionage committed by both sides, the support for opposing proxies in Syria and in Ukraine, the possible Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, the Western sanctions on Russia and now, a military build-up by both sides along the Russian border. The governments of Eastern Europe claim that Putin has an eye on conquering them, whilst Putin claims that the West is encircling Russia and wants only to dominate the country he leads. It’s the type of narrative that you can imagine future historians including in a chapter titled “2010-2020: The Build Up to War”.

But is such a conflict, a war between great powers each with the ability to annihilate the other in a matter of minutes, likely? No, it is not but nor is it impossible. Just last week, American officials announced they were considering sending hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to the Ukrainian government to fight Russian backed rebels. What if Russia directly attacks the Ukrainian Government, now supported militarily by America? Or what if Trump gets tired of allegations he is a puppet of Russia and decides he needs to decisively stand up to Putin? A miscalculation by either side could lead to a situation where war breaks out between these two military superpowers. Such an outcome is certainly not unthinkable in the current geopolitical setting. When fallible, flawed human beings are making decisions under extreme pressure there is infinite scope for miscalculation. And historically, miscalculation has been one of the major causes of war.

We live in an era of permanent global war—a new type of war—which could be described as World War III given its wide geographical context. But there remains the possibility of an older form of World War, a war between modern states with immense military power at their disposal. If such a war broke out it could very easily escalate into nuclear exchanges. Such a war would not be permanent, but it could very well be final.

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