World War III: The Permanent War

World War III: The Permanent War


Zack Breslin

If you followed the news this week (August 2018), you may have come across three stories that reveal the state of war and peace in the world today. The first was Donald Trump’s announcement that he would now seek to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan, having previously indicated he favoured complete withdrawal. The second was that the recent terrorist attackers in Spain had been planning an attack much larger in scale than the one actually carried out. The third news story appears somewhat unrelated to the first two; the Russian military’s plan to conduct large-scale military exercises in Eastern Europe.

Each of these stories reveals something about the political/military situation that the world finds itself in and are worth highlighting to illuminate the world of war we live in and the catastrophic war we may be heading towards.

On Monday night, Donald Trump delivered a speech that set out his policy on the war in Afghanistan. Although characteristically vague on details, Trump revealed his intention to increase troop numbers and keep fighting the war. The announcement represented a change of direction for the president who prior to assuming office had advocated complete withdrawal. Notable from the speech was the statement “we are not nation building again, we are killing terrorists” which appears to be a marked departure from formal Pentagon policy, which “elevates the mission of stabilizing war-torn nations, making it equal in importance to defeating adversaries on the battlefield”.

Of course, Donald Trump’s soundbites tend to have few policy implications and his “new” strategy is merely the same as Barack Obama’s and Bush Jr.’s before him. That is to keep fighting the war in the vain hope that somehow Afghanistan will become secure enough for its government to take full control of the country. It is a policy that is nearly sixteen years old and which has only resulted in continuous war. Trump’s announcement then is tantamount to an acceptance by his administration of the reality that America finds itself in; a condition of permanent war.

This summer there will have been teenagers graduating from high school in America (and in America’s military allies in Europe) who do not remember a time when their country was not at war. The duration of America’s ongoing “War on Terror”, of which Afghanistan is only one constituent part, has now lasted longer than World War I, World II and the Korean War put together. It is a war that knows few boundaries. Hostilities began in Afghanistan in 2001 (or New York, if you prefer) but the “battlefield” has come to encompass Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, the Philippines and Mali, amongst other locations. It is a permanent war that has no determinate end goal, aside from defeating extremism. Pentagon policy papers refer to it as “the Long War” and envision it as a war lasting for decades, with U.S. military intervention in dozens of countries across multiple continents.

And how could it be otherwise? The nature of the permanent war means that victory is impossible. As Rosa Brooks asks in the book How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, “you can ‘win’ a war against Nazi Germany, but how do you win against shifting, inchoate, extremist networks?”. The current phase of the war, the battlefield operations against Islamic State, demonstrates this perfectly; as the territories controlled by Islamic State are reconquered, the group itself is not defeated but merely shifts its focus from defending territory to carrying out terrorist attacks. The loss of territory, which in older wars signified defeat, simply initiates a new phase and an enemy whose form has shifted. A war against a stateless network of hidden fighters cannot be won conventionally.

In addition to being unwinnable, the permanent war is self-perpetuating. Violence gives rise to violence and each act of “killing terrorists”, as Trump eloquently describes it, creates more terrorists. The “collateral damage” of innocent civilians bombed to death fosters the resentment and victimhood that recruiters for the likes of IS and Al-Qaeda feed upon. Under the logic of permanent war, the more that damaged and resentful individuals seek revenge by joining such networks, the more the U.S. and its allies carry out bombing raids and drone strikes.

In Syria, the battle to retake Raqqa from IS has resulted in close to a thousand civilian deaths as a direct result of Western military operations over the last few months but this is a drop in the ocean compared to the overall human cost of the permanent war so far. This cost is impossible to quantify but the death toll in the countries affected is quite possibly running into the millions, which is to say nothing of those severely wounded (physically and psychologically), nor the physical destruction of several countries now facing grim economic futures. How many of the victims consider the West as an enemy deserving of retribution? An opinion poll which found that “more than 90 percent of young people in Iraq now consider the United States an ‘enemy’ of their country” is indicative of how the battles in this war create the next generation of combatants.

These combatants are clearly not based in the Middle-East alone. The permanent war has found its way to the cities of Europe, as evidenced in the second news story we identified as highlighting the wars of the present. After the attacks in Spain on the 17th of August in which vehicles were driven into crowds of people, killing fifteen, the story broke midweek that the perpetrators were planning attacks of a much larger scale. It was revealed that the attackers had stockpiled 120 canisters of gas and were planning to use them to target crowded tourist sites such as the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, potentially resulting in several hundreds of deaths.

After the accidental explosion of the gas canisters (which killed the group’s apparent ringleader), the attackers fell back on the more rudimentary tactic of using vehicles to mow people down. That the initial plan was one of such potential mass destruction serves as a reminder of the permanent threat that Europe faces of further attacks carried out by organised cells of terrorists. There can be no doubt that Europe is one of the “battlefields” in which the permanent war is being fought.

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.


Zack Breslin is the News Editor at The Scum Gentry Alternative Arts and Media. You can read his blog on Irish politics at or follow him on Twitter at @zack_breslin to keep up to date with his latest writing projects.

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