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

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.

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