Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Friday, August 13, 2010

GUEST POST: on social collapse and the Christian Right

Kir'Shara here (nobody has yet asked me what the hell that name means, oddly enough), with a brief introduction to today's post by a guest. The essay you are about to read was digitally penned by one of our regular readers and a friend of mine, who goes by the online moniker of Reave.

I'll have some concluding thoughts after his essay. For now, I will say only that I hope everything he and I write about on this topic turns out to be entirely unnecessary. I hope everything will be okay. Unfortunately, every great philosophical and spiritual tradition of the human species says it won't be, because that's not how human life works. Things change, and fall apart. Only the details are in doubt. All we can do is consider the possibilities and prepare.

And realize, as a friend once put it to me, that in the end, the only true power we have over the world is the power to be in it.

* * * * *

From Reave:

I probably ought not listen to talk radio in the Midwest. Well, anywhere except on the coasts, for that matter. Hearing conservative Christian talk radio is a lot different than hearing ABOUT it; in certain parts of the country, mostly the sparsely populated bits, it truly is ubiquitous. Like, pretty much every FM station north of 100.3, which is usually a pop station and the last fortress of sane radio before one enters the crazy. That's a LOT of people saying the same shit, you know?

Anyway, there was a consistent theme I heard on a number of Christian talk shows today. Anyone who's paying any attention at all knows that Fundamentalist Christianity is throwing a serious temper tantrum these days, in the form of a persecution complex. Bill O'Reilly's war on Christmas, the skirmishes over a giant cross war memorial in Utah, the continuing attempts in Texas to get the Ten Commandments bolted to courthouse doors, all are the hilarious attempts of an entrenched and powerful social majority to assume the mantle of the opressed to score points. "Christianity is under siege," they say, and I always mutter "if only." When I see "In Vishnu We Trust" on a dollar bill, or hear Thor invoked on the loud speaker before a high school football game, we'll talk. Hell, I'm willing to swing by the water cooler and listen to you rant if we can just get "under God" struck from the Pledge of Allegiance. But I digress.

Like I said, this isn't news. But what I hadn't directly experienced before today is that the blatant and cynical maneuvering of highly placed evangelical PR gurus is having a sinister effect on the poor ignorant bastards who actually believe them. This show I tuned into today was going on about the degradation of American morals, etc, and the need to preserve knowledge and home-school children, blah, blah. The host was talking about preserving books (properly Christian ones, of course, stockpiling Bibles and such), and I realized that she was talking about preparing for a collapse in civil order. If you are reading this blog, you may be making the same sorts of plans yourself; a lot of us are expecting a collapse as well. But when she took callers, people started talking about Revelations, and the Antichrist and such, and at one point one caller said "I really believe that soon I may die for saying 'I believe in my Lord, Jesus Christ.' And I am ready for that day." My first reaction was to roll my eyes and shout at the radio "are you fucking SERIOUS?" The implication here is that this guy thinks Christians are going to be herded into camps or  something, which is fucking ridiculous. It's like imagining a Nazi Germany where the Jews came to power and started exterminating the Germans. Wait, what? *blink*

As I was laughing, though, it sank in. Yes, WHAT the guy said was laughable to the point of peeing myself, but the WAY he said it was chilling. This guy BELIEVED it. Somewhere out here in Wisconsin there is a man who honestly expects Obama's death squad to arrive at his door, any day now, and carry all of the Christians in the upper Midwest off to death camps. And he wasn't alone; many callers shared the same thoughts. I could hear a deadly mixture of fear and conviction in their voices. We're talking about a great mass of superstitious people prepared to die in a religious war that nobody is interested in having, except them. And THAT is some seriously scary shit. Because all that is holding these people in check is the continued presence of a relatively strong government that, for all of its many, many failings, has done a reasonable job of keeping religiously and ethnically motivated mass murder to a minimum over the past thirty or forty years.

But one of the things we have to be prepared for in the coming years of Long Descent, is the degradation and weakness, if not complete dissolution, of a powerful central government in this country. I won't go into all of the details here, but suffice to say that the United States, more than any other country, is going to face great difficulty maintaining national unity in the face of peak oil and climate change. Even if it does maintain a nominal national identity, it will most likely resemble the federal government of the early 19th century, that had precious little direct influence over regional or state law and living.

In other words, if you live in a part of the country where a large number of Christian nutjobs are gearing up for fucking Armageddon, you're sitting on a powder keg that is going to start going off right when those most likely to stop it, Federal authorities, start being awfully scarce.  When the national trade and communications infrastructure is fraying and collapsing, these folks are gonna look for someone to blame, and find the same people they blame for everything from shitty music to food recalls now; racial and religious minorities, queer folk of every gender and orientation, scientists, "communists", uppity women, you name it. And there will be NO BARRIER to them seeking retribution. When there is no more FBI to investigate hate crimes, and precious little in the way of even State law enforcement, lynchings are going to be in vogue again. We might even get exotic and find burning at the stake coming back into fashion for the feminists and witches.

I know this is not a pretty picture, and no one wants to think that their country is that close to exploding into sectarian violence, but make no mistake; when a strong religious majority with eliminationist tendencies whips itself into a siege-mentality froth, and tops it all off with the seeming fulfillment of their end of the world myths and the collapse of any kind of mitigating central authority, BAD SHIT HAPPENS. The witch burning hysteria in dark ages Europe came from precisely this sort of thing; ethnically and religiously motivated wars going on overseas, coupled with domestic disaster (plague, in their case) led to the systematic extermination of everyone who didn't convert to Christianity fast enough. Imagine witch hunters in pickup trucks carrying shotguns. I'm not kidding.

Like other posts here about the Long Descent, I am not presenting problems to get off on the horror of it all, but to talk about solutions. A consistent theme on this blog has been community, and the essential role it will play in the survival strategies of each and every one of us. Some people would respond to the issue I've just laid out with classic survivalist porn: get yourself a compound and a lotta guns, and hold the Bible-wielding psychopaths off with concentrated firepower! Which, on top of being a bit blood thirsty for my taste, would never work; if you come to the attention to the community at large as an enemy, they outnumber you, and they will dig you out. The way to deal with this problem, as with so many others, is planning ahead.

Consider your community. What's on the radio? Are there an awful lot of confrontational, religiously oriented billboards around? Are there a lot of churches, and more importantly, do those churches have fire-and-brimstone pastors, as opposed to peace and understanding types? Even if you aren't Christian, or are the wrong brand of Christian, it nonetheless makes sense to take the pulse of the local Christian community. Are they aggressive? Angry? Threatened? Is there a lot of incensed letter writing in local newspapers about the library allowing such-and-such a book on the shelves? Are there a lot of confederate flag bumper stickers paired with occupied gun racks? All of these are clues that you live in a community that may become quite unwelcoming to someone who isn't one of their own. Basically, do you live someplace where you could stand on a soapbox in the middle of the town square and kiss your same sex partner, or pray openly to a pagan deity, and feel safe? If not, how much MORE unsafe will you feel when the shit hits the fan?

A lot of us are considering moving to places better suited to riding out the coming storm. If you are so planning, don't neglect this aspect; it will gain you very little to escape a city and set yourself up on the perfect off-the-grid organic farm with your hippie commune if you run afoul of the local sheriff who doesn't take kindly to fairies and queers. Keeping your head down might not always work; I grew up in a town where everyone knew what church everyone else attended, and if there's a face around town that never shows up in a pew, they'll figure it out faster than you would believe possible. One could always ostensibly convert, of course; many pagans and Jews avoided fire and sword that way more than once in Europe's history. My point is, consider the overall social milieu in which you find yourself, and ask yourself if you are surrounded by people on whom you will feel comfortable depending when society hits the rocks. If not, find some, because as we've said many times before, a solid community is worth more than a hundred years' worth of dehydrated food!

Some people will not have the option to relocate, for practical and emotional reasons. This will make things difficult, just as somebody who cannot bring themselves to leave the city of Las Vegas is going to have a rough time of it when the water turns off. If you find yourself in an inherently unfriendly community, and cannot leave, your best defense is to GET INVOLVED. Introduce yourself to your immediate neighbors, if you have not already. Take advantage of every social opportunity that you can; even in the heart of the Bible Belt, there are more or less secular activities like barrel races, rodeos, barbecues, 4H fairs, and the like. Make yourself visible and liked, make friends. So if the worst comes to pass, and mob rule becomes an issue, having as many friends as possible in that mob is the best route to safety. Mob violence and anger is directed at the faceless "other;" people are far, far less likely to participate in or condone violence towards people they know and like, personally. Even during the worst of the Inquisition in Dark Ages Europe, it was people who were not only different but profoundly socially isolated that were at the greatest risk; old widows, unintergrated immigrants, and the like. Because as frustrating and ignorant as they can be, individual people are generally decent enough. It is when they are piled into large, angry groups that problems arise. Make yourself known to the mob, BEFORE the trouble starts, and you may even be able to exert an ameliorating influence on it. Now is your best chance to inject a bit of diversity and tolerance into your community, using yourself as the vector. It's not an easy row to hoe (as the only openly non-Christian kid who went to my small town high school, I know from whence I speak!), but none of this is going to be easy, for any of us.

Basically, I'm arguing that we are coming up on a time when the world will again shrink, and those closest to you geographically will have the most significant impact on your daily life. It is CRUCIAL to bear this fact in mind, and be certain that you live in a community where you are safe, either through general accord between your lifestyle/beliefs and that of the community, or by forging strong personal bonds with those around you. Neglect both, and you may find yourself isolated at the worst possible time.

* * * * *

An afterward, by Kir'Shara:

In this blog and other places I have always written about American conservative Christians as if they are something Other. I write of "them," out there. When in fact, it might be you. If you, reading this, are a conservative, evangelical Christian, you believe that Christ will return soon to Rapture the faithful; that Satan inflicts evil through his mortal agents on Earth; that God calls upon you to resist such agents with all your might. To you, I'm one of those agents, because I don't believe in the things that you do.

But we both believe our generation will see the ending of this world. For me the end will happen because our oil is running short and global warming is setting the world on fire. I know you see global warming, especially, as a hoax invented by liberals to end the American way of life. Maybe my words come from the Devil, but tell me: why couldn't global warming, and peak oil, be the fire promised by God after he sent the flood (II Peter 3:6-7)?

Would you really hurt me or people I love because we live differently than you? I hope that you wouldn't. Like you, although for different reasons, I believe the end is coming. If you are right, and Christ returns to take you with Him to the sky, I will be left here to face the fire. Until then, why don't we talk?

And after you are gone in Rapture, I will remember.

* * * * *

My friend Reave explores a topic which, so far as I can tell, doesn't get a lot of attention in the peak oil and energy descent community. Folks involved with those issues devote much time and energy to preparing for the massive upheavals that energy depletion and ecological disintegration will bring to our society. In my experience, writing on such disruption avoids dealing -- except simplistically or in passing -- with one of the most plausible, and frightening possibilities of the coming era. And that is: the potential for direct, organized, political and religious violence in the United States, experienced in our own individual lives. I'm not talking about crime, or the looting and panic that can happen in the aftermath of a disaster. I'm talking about people coming to kill you because of what you believe or who you are. I fear it, and I know that many conservative Christians do as well.

It is an undeniable truth that such things are profoundly more likely to happen when a once stable society begins to fall apart. It is a central premise of this blog that the stable, prosperous United States all of us, right or left, have come to think of as normal is about to be destroyed. Preparation for that time will demand more than seeking new practices for a harsher world, in food, shelter, transportation, and health. We will have to face the potential for violence against people we love.
I have a Buddhist friend who thinks my fears of systematic political and religious violence in America are unfounded. Remember, she said, after the 2004 election, when you thought we were all going to be taken away in box cars? That did not happen. But, I would argue, 2004 was just one step in a larger process, dating back decades: the gathering of atmospheric conditions for a storm -- for the unthinkable to become possible. The Manichean conservative fury driving the campaign of 2004 has been building, like many political storms in many countries, toward culmination. Perhaps my conservative reader would find this conclusion unfair; but on the website of an evangelical church in my city, I see these words: "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live." To someone on the right, perhaps this signifies mercy. To me, it sounds like a threat. 

Organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, who track right wing movements in the United States, have amassed quantitative evidence of violent rhetoric and preparation on the American right. Isolated acts of violence against liberals, Muslims, and gays are increasing. Indeed, gay people, non-Christians, and racial minorities have lived with the threat and reality of political violence for their entire lives, in a prosperous and stable society. We know this. We know from history what happens when social disintegration and political extremism come together, like matter and anti-matter. And we know, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the disintegration is coming. We know that climate change and peak oil will hammer human societies with unprecedented force. Because they manifest in the physical, quantitative data that technological society, above all else, is best equipped to gather and comprehend.
A reader, whether left, right, or other, might think I want all of us lefties to start stockpiling ammo and guns. I actually think finding peaceful alternatives will be vital for the future of this country.  Reave's essay moved me to begin reading the sermons of Martin Luther King and the essays of the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. These two messengers of peace write, in contrasting but synchronous ways, of non-violence as a practical strategy for living. Not as woolly-headed self-help cliches, not as delusional, escapist fantasy, but as mercilessly pragmatic lessons from two lives tempered by agony and doubt.

Along with other lessons from our history, we will need such wisdom in the history yet to be.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Local currency: getting things done when things fall apart

When the established institutions won't help you, you go around them. You seek help from the people you know. Because there's no other choice. Economic collapse isn't the only time this is true. It's just life.

* * * * * 

In the late 1980s, Frank Tortoriello had a problem. His world wasn't falling apart, but he faced a real problem none the less. He ran a deli in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He wanted to move his business to a larger location, and to do that, he needed $4,500. So he did what you're supposed to do. He applied to the local bank for a loan. They said no. Normally, that would have been the end of it. The other banks would probably say no as well. Maybe Mr. Tortoriello could have turned to family members for a helping hand.

He decided to do something else. Something I never would have thought of in that situation. He printed his own money.

I'm not kidding.

I am, however, oversimplifying. Frank Tortoriello had his new location all picked out and ready to go. He just needed money for the move. So, he issued "Deli Dollars" to pay for it. He issued notes -- printed slips of paper just like currency -- with a face value of ten dollars. But they weren't dollars, because that would have gotten Frank thrown into the rape dungeon archipelago of the U.S. prison system. Instead, his Deli Dollars were designed by a local artist, emblazoned with the image of Frank and his deli staff being carried by town citizens to the new deli location, cooking all the way. Frank signed each note himself to prevent counterfeiting. He planned to distribute them to his customers; each ten dollar note would be redeemable in ten dollars worth of products at the deli's new location when that location opened. Here's the brilliant part. Frank sold these notes over a 30 day period to his customers, for eight U.S. dollars each. In other words, he gave his customers in Great Barrington, Massachusetts a 20 percent discount on deli products, to be applied once his new location opened.

In the 30 day sale of Deli Dollars, Frank raised $5,000 in U.S. currency. Customers bought his notes happily, because of his local reputation for being an insanely hard worker. And a good man. His neighbors knew that the deli would rise again and they'd get to redeem their Deli Dollars in deli food a few months hence. During the sale of Frank's temporary local currency, the town went nuts with excitement. How could it not? What he was doing was so inherently cool, people couldn't help being excited. They won't give me a bank loan? Fine! The hell with 'em! I'll make my own money! Hah! As it turned out, the bankers who had turned down Frank's original loan request were among those who bought his Deli Dollars. Sometimes, justice does indeed triumph. Not by force, but by the ridiculous, Field of Dreams-y power of hope. And of Cool.

Frank successfully moved to his new deli location. And he paid back all of the citizens who had loaned him money. As one description of Frank's endeavor put it: "Frank repaid the loan, not in hard-to-come-by federal notes but in cheese-on-rye sandwiches."

Frank Tortoriello's Deli Dollar note

* * * * * 

My tendency as a writer is to ramble on about sweeping global events, pondering gigantically large physical and social trends. It all points toward the big picture getting very dark. But again and again, I keep asking myself the question once posed to me by a friend: even if you're right, what the hell am I supposed to do about it? 

What are we, as individuals, supposed to do? What can we realistically accomplish, not only on our own but with the help of family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, churchgoers, local business owners? These are the people who matter most in our lives. They aren't headlines or video images from far away. They are people with names we know, faces we see every day.

As I write for this blog, I find a theme emerging in my thinking: we can't rely on established power structures to help us get through mounting economic and ecological stress. By "established power structures" I mean: governments at all levels; the two major political parties; large corporations and financial giants. These entities should all be regarded, I'm coming to believe, as obstacles and adversaries first, helpful instruments in everyday life second. We should begin looking for local alternatives to them, for services and resources we've long obtained from huge national and international institutions like Wal-Mart, Bank of America, the federally-funded state highway department, and the political parties that run the whole mess (mostly according to the dictates of corporate campaign donations).

We will continue dealing with all of these entities, because in many cases we have no choice. If you really need to help yourself or your loved ones by getting a much-needed cheap electric gizmo at Megalo-Mart, or standing in line at a Big Government office to sign up for unemployment checks and food stamps, go for it. But we shouldn't delude ourselves that the institutions pulling the strings on those services have our best interests at heart. Neither should we expect big box stores and government programs to continue forever. In all likelihood, economic and ecological stress will worsen within a decade, and perhaps much sooner, to collapse on an epic scale (even more epic, I mean, than what we see today). As the collapse unfolds, big institutions dominating the U.S political, legal, and economic system will have little interest in helping what used to be the middle class, which by then will be reduced to vast legions of the unemployed, debt-ridden, poverty-stricken, sickness-addled, and homeless. Government and big business will not help them. And remember: "them" will be us.

Or so the signs indicate to me. Perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe, as conditions worsen, the U.S. economic and political elite will rediscover social conscience and activist government in the service of economic equality and opportunity. It's happened before. The cruel robber baron capitalism of the late nineteenth century eventually yielded to technocratic progressivism and the New Deal, both sterling twentieth century examples of capitalism saving itself. I'm betting this will not happen today. Corporate funded Democrats are planning to dismantle Medicare and Social Security while allowing basic public services, like bridges, roads, schools, libraries, electric power stations, and public health facilities to rot. This happens in large part because Democrats rig the economic game to favor their corporate benefactors, while waging a metaphysically expensive global war that yields precisely zero material benefit to American society, except for those with jobs or investments in the military-industrial complex. Republicans follow the same policies even more ruthlessly, fueling merciless economics and perpetual war with the fires of race hatred and religious extremism.

Maybe these two parties and their gigantic, system-spanning institutions left over from prosperity will turn out to be helpful in the coming era of collapse. More likely, though, we'll be on our own.

Like Frank Tortoriello and his deli in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, back in the day. 

* * * * *

Today, Great Barrington is home to a thriving local currency, the BerkShare, which far surpasses Frank's humble Deli Dollars in scope and ambition. Berkshares are real money. They are printed locally, on wallet-sized paper notes, in face values up to 50 dollars. More than 365 local businesses accept them as legal tender for goods and services. More than two million dollars worth of BerkShares circulate in the community. They are redeemable in U.S. dollars at 13 local bank locations, at an exchange rate of one BerkShare equal to ninety five cents in federal currency. This last point is what makes BerkShares -- or any local currency -- perfectly legal. In the 1970s, the U.S. Treasury Department was asked about the legality of an experimental local currency begun by a New Hamsphire economist. Said a Treasury bureaucrat: ""We don't care if he issues pine cones, as long as it is exchangeable for dollars so that transactions can be recorded for tax purposes."

Since Berkshares are redeemable only in the Great Barrington area, they promote local spending and local jobs. Experience and empirical evidence suggest that local businesses promote healthy local economies, much more so than giant Megalo-Mart box stores and national chains. This article in Time magazine provides a good overview of how the process works. Local businesses keep money in the community, where it can provide for the community's real needs. Spending money at Megalo-Mart, by contrast, goes mostly for the well-being of distant owners of a vast corporate behemoth. And they, it is well documented, have spent many a decade trying to strangle local businesses around America. To a large extent, they succeeded. But don't worry, what goes around comes around, at least in this case. In a few years, crippling oil prices will strangle global supply chains and just-in-time delivery. Brachiosaurus-sized box stores will not be quite so feasible to operate under those circumstances. Local businesses will have to step into the void left by their extinction. Local currencies can help them do it. 

We're going to need such creative, unconventional, local responses as the larger economy disintegrates. They are possible, and they are already underway. Time to pick up the pace, though. The hour is getting late.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Future Histories Past

It won't be immediately obvious how this post relates to climate change and peak oil, but bear with me. While plodding through mindless paperwork today at my job, I noticed that tomorrow is August 4. That date struck the random chord of a childhood memory. That memory is of a war that never happened, which began -- in a universe that might have been -- on August 4.

The war in question was described in a certain book that scared the holy bejeebers out of me when I read it around age 11 (circa 1980):

This book, published in 1978, was written as if it were a non-fiction account, looking back from the year 1987 on a (mostly) conventional war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. You probably don't remember the Warsaw Pact. It was an alliance of East European countries dominated by the now-deceased Soviet Union during the Cold War. For decades the Warsaw Pact massed armored divisions of the USSR and its satellites along multiple European frontiers with their adversaries, which were the United States and its West European allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). I grew up in a time when a war between the two European alliances seemed very plausible. I had nightmares about it. In the book whose cover appears above, the nightmare comes true.

Much of this blog is about imagining a possible future, by exploring a history that has yet to happen. Future history, for me, is rooted in events that we can see, because they're happening now. For as long as I can remember, I've loved losing myself in imaginary futures. In worlds that might be, history still to come.

Some of the worlds I imagined when I was younger frightened me. Yet I couldn't tear myself out of them. Terrifying though it was, I devoured General Sir John Hackett's story of global war in a hypothetical 1985. For young me in the year 1980 or so, five years hence seemed infinitely far away. Yet in a way, I lived in that imaginary future as much as I did the present. If not more. I spent hours reading books about World War III, or playing board games that tried to simulate it. On many a Saturday afternoon, my friends and I took command of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, pushing little cardboard pieces representing armored divisions across a map grid of Western Europe, resolving bloodless battles with the non-thunderous clatter of rolling plastic dice. We blew up the world many times over, while gorging ourselves on Doritos and Coke.

 NATO defends West Germany, in the 1983 game NATO: The Next War in Europe
(image from Board Game Geek)

Fortunately, I found at least equal pleasure in visions of a future that was somewhat less ghastly. When brighter fancies possessed me, I imagined adventures on alien worlds, far out in the great galactic dark. There, humanity had ended war and injustice among its peoples, turning instead to battling adversity together, out among the stars. I can thank Star Trek for visions like that. In my fantasies of Trekian interstellar adventure, I charted new solar systems and saved humanity from extinction by fearsome aliens, escaping with only a bloody lip and a torn shirt.

I'm not sure what the point of this post is, other than to notice in my psyche a lifelong fascination with things yet to be. And preferring them, whether interplanetary romance or apocalyptic nightmare, to the mundane world of the everyday. When I was a kid, I fought World War III to avoid mowing the lawn. Today, reading about peak oil and climate change seem preferable to time spent on the job. Which, I think, is possibly quite weird.

Tomorrow marks the twenty fifth anniversary of General Sir John Hackett's Third World War that never was. Sounds like a reason to party, does it not?

A post-script follows, detailing how Mr. Hackett's war turned out. Because maybe you want to know.

* * * * *

The Third World War: August 1985
By General Sir John Winthrop Hackett, British Army of the Rhine. Et al.

The end of the Cold War begins with several months of tension in Central Europe. In this scenario, the Soviet leadership is portrayed as extremely nervous about increases in US defense spending by second term President Jimmy Carter. Carter's successor, elected in 1984, continues the rearmament policy. Meanwhile, Moscow confronts a Communist Yugoslav government that has too long challenged Soviet supremacy in the international socialist movement. With its military superiority in Europe waning, the Kremlin decides to move from a position of strength while it still can. Soviet divisions roll into Yugoslavia in early July, 1985. 

Unfortunately, Soviet leaders have miscalculated. The Americans respond by frantically deploying a battalion of United States Marines into Yugoslavia, as a signal to Moscow that its invasion will not be tolerated. The Americans intend this move as a deterrent, not a prelude to war. But within hours the Marines find themselves engaged in full-scale combat against an onrushing typhoon of Soviet armor. Dramatic news footage is beamed around the world, showing United States forces blowing Soviet tanks to fiery molten chunks. The images are, in more ways than one, explosive. The Warsaw Pact countries begin a full military mobilization, and NATO responds in kind. In ports along the American east coast, U.S. Navy convoys start loading munitions and troops. The United States Air Force initiates a round the clock airlift of men and materiel to Western Europe.

It's the guns of August, one more time. The Soviet leadership decides to go for broke. Warsaw Pact forces smash across the inter-German border (between East Germany and West) in the pre-dawn hours of August 4, 1985. For two weeks, they drive NATO ground forces back, overrunning the north German plain, pushing into the Netherlands, and threatening to break the back of a frayed Western alliance. General Hackett's book serves up harrowing descriptions of West German cities being bombed, chaotic hordes of refugees fleeing before advancing Soviet troops, and the cities of Western Europe in flames.

But NATO armies hold, aided by France's decision to intervene in the war in full force. The Soviet offensive stalls, and NATO launches a counter-attack in the northern sector of the German front. British and West German forces make headway, reinforced by the rapid influx of fresh U.S. and French troops, forcing their Soviet adversaries back to regroup and dig in. The men in the Kremlin grow nervous. Their aura of invincibility has been pierced. The momentum of the war is shifting. The fragile puppet regimes of Moscow's East European satellites might, they fear, begin to unravel. Something will have to be done.

To change the geopolitical dynamic and lay the groundwork for a series of ultimatums against the West, the Soviet Union launches a strategic nuclear missile strike on the city of Birmingham, in the United Kingdom. The goal of the attack is to intimidate NATO and create a crisis of morale in Western militaries and populations, by raising the specter of Armageddon. Birmingham is annihilated in a sea of fire. The result, again, is not what the Soviets intended. An American retaliatory strike incinerates Minsk, in the Soviet republic of Byelorussia (today the independent country of Belarus).

And that leads to the end-game. Crowds begin to gather on the streets of East European cities, demonstrating against the war. And their governments. And their Soviet occupiers. Soviet troops in West Germany begin talking amongst themselves, glaring sullenly at their KGB enforcers. Some Soviet units on the German front roll to a stop, their guns going silent. Rumors begin to spread in the Soviet ranks of desertions, mutinies. The crowds in East European capitals multiply, sensing weakness, becoming an ocean of humanity, their chants thundering in the night. The phenomenon spreads within hours to the cities of the Soviet Union itself. In the streets of Kiev and Leningrad and elsewhere, gigantic teaming seas of human beings gather. They have glimpsed the end of the world and decided they will not let it happen and the time has come to pull their country back from the brink. The armed forces of the Soviet Union make no move to stop them. The officers and men sit and watch. Or they join the crowds.

The nations of the Warsaw Pact and the homeland of their Soviet masters are engulfed by the tide. What happened in 1789 and 1848 and 1871 and 1956 and 1968 is happening again. Whole populations in the streets, armies cowering as the storm gathers force. Revolution. How such a tumult will turn out isn't always clear. Except for 1789, the earlier revolutions ended in defeat when the ancien regime recovered, rallying its armies to cleanse the streets in blood. But in the revolution of 1985, the armies themselves see visions of  how their war will end -- in fires out of Hell, unleashed by the men who watch them every year from atop Lenin's tomb. And so the armies go home. Revolution wins the day. In the plains of Germany and around the world, guns go silent.

The Third World War ends with a cease-fire on August 20, 1985. The official dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics follow soon after that.

And the future awaits.