Next War Will Be Much Worse
Wealth, knowledge, and technology will make us miss World War II
World War I and World War II did not come upon the world because humanity was unenlightened. Rather, they were the result of the modernity that enlightenment had brought with itself. Europe was no stranger to continental wars. In the three hundred years before World War I and from the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, Europe had witnessed the Thirty Years’ War, the Seven Years’ War, the Nine Years’ War, the French Revolutionary Wars, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Franco-Prussian War. Millions upon millions perished. Some of these wars took the lives of one or two Europeans out of every hundred.
Enlightenment created a mass amount of wealth and knowledge that led to the creation of professional military in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These led to the establishment of military academies to study the science of war. More than that, this accumulation of wealth and knowledge created new technologies and more efficient productivity to produce more lethal weapons. Enlightenment did not erase war. It made war vastly more deadly and destructive. Every new war was the most destructive in history. The Great War was rebranded to World War I only because the next war dwarfed any preceding it in destructiveness, reach, and violence.
A new technology ended World War II. The grand finale of the war introduced the atomic bomb to the world. The new technology that ended the war gave the promise that the next one would make World War II look like a picnic. Ever since, we have only learned how to build larger and more destructive atomic bombs, namely the thermonuclear bomb. The world is yet to see that next war, but it came close to it. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted, just a year after the Soviets had detonated Tsar Bomba. At 27 megatons equivalent of TNT, Tsar Bomba was more than a thousand times larger than Fat Man and Little Boy that America had dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Soviets had stopped at 27 megatons because that was the largest bomb that a pilot could drop but escape the explosion safely. If a 27-megaton explosion is not scary enough, half a century later, there are new avionic technologies such as supersonic that allow the pilot to escape far larger explosions safely.
The return of the age of great power competition has brought with it the second nuclear era as Russia has been proliferating new nuclear weapons, both traditional and exotic ones, such as the Russian Poseidon nuclear torpedo. China is in violation of the Zero-Yield Ban Treaty and busy building new warheads and missile silos. The United States is modernizing its nuclear weapons, too, though still abiding by a one-sided ban on building new weapons. To a large degree, the next war did not happen between the United States and the Soviet Union because of its potential for ruins, but that assurance is also a warning. Just because it did not once happen does not mean that it will never happen, as it came close to eruption, nonetheless.
Today, Russia’s nuclear stockpile is superior to the United States’s. There was little that the Americans in charge were willing to do after Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008 and with Ukraine in 2014 because of this. Russia has two desires: First, to reincorporate its “near abroad” states into Russia; second, to restore its status as a great power, great power defined as a state that can violate rules of the international order without paying an unbearable penalty. By this definition, Russia has already fulfilled the latter objective.
But even if we bring the world to nuclear zero, the next war still will be much worse. In 2017, headlines talked about the dropping of the “Mother Of All Bombs” in Afghanistan, the largest non-nuclear bomb ever detonated. New technologies as such, new military doctrines and strategies, and more wealth to build more weapons and sustain a war mean that humans are far more capable of killing each other. More wealth and better civilian technologies also mean that wartime life is still far better and more livable than it’s ever been during wartime, which means that public support for war can be sustained longer than before, allowing war to proceed longer. New vehicles such as unmanned vehicles and submarines also make it easier to target enemy territories. When one thinks of all of these together, you realize that you don’t need a nuclear war for the worst war in human history to be prosecuted.
People think that I’m a warmonger because I’m a neoconservative. I’m a supporter of small wars to avoid big ones. If history has ever taught me something, it’s that big wars happen because small ones were not fought earlier—because peace-lovers fool ourselves that an adversary’s appetite for empire is satiable. And if we don’t contain our adversaries’ aggressions in a land far away, then we will have to choose between submission or a war much greater and much closer to home.
To make sure that Ukraine doesn’t fall is to prolong the peace we are enjoying, it is to push history’s greatest war further from present. If we allow Ukraine to fall, and if we allow Russia to succeed, then we are going to face a Russia more confident, wealthier, and with more combat experience—a Russia far more lethal and closer to us. And we are going to face that Russia at a time when humanity has accumulated the greatest sum of knowledge of killing without having an ounce of the will to kill. Not defending Ukraine is suicide.