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Literature / The Third World War

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In 1978, General Sir John Hackett (a retired, although he never liked the word, Australian-born British general who led a brigade at Arnhem) and a bunch of other high-ranking ex-military and diplomatic people, some contributing anonymously wrote a book on a possible World War III, The Third World War: August 1985.

Written in the style of a history book written in 1987, it had the war start over the collapse of Yugoslavia, with Moscow starting to lose control over the Warsaw Pact. The USSR launch their main offensive against West Germany. There is fighting the world over, including in space.

Before this period, the NATO powers realise the Soviet threat, engage in a crash re-arming programme (including bringing back the draft in the US) and prepare their peoples to survive a conventional conflict as well as a nuclear one.

NATO wins and the USSR collapses, but not before Birmingham (the British one, not the American one) is nuked by the USSR and Minsk nuked in return.

The book sold over 3 million copies.

Part argument for increased defense spending (it makes no attempt to hide it and says so in the OOC acknowledgements), part imagining what it would be like if the Cold War turned hot from people who had seen real war, it is a very interesting read, even if very dated.

In 1982, political changes, most particularly the fall of the Shah in Iran, led to a second book, The Third World War: The Untold Story, which made a number of ret-cons and focused more on the Soviet story. It was presented in character as new evidence coming to light.

A number of other works have been set in the basic scenario, such as:

  • Team Yankee (a book by Harold Coyle, also made into a video game and board game)
  • World at War: Eisenbach Gap
  • Dean Ing did a trilogy (Systemic Shock, Single Combat, and Wild Country) beginning in a 1996 which clearly follows from this book; the first chapter specifically mentioned the nuking of Birmingham and Minsk.
  • Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising presents a similar scenario, though non-nuclear.

This series contains examples of:

  • Animated Adaptation: Future War 198X, an obscure anime movie loosely based on it.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The journals of three civil defense centers in the UK at the back of the first book, one of those centers happening to be in Birmingham and ending mid-word)
  • Artistic License – Military: While it's probably not wise to debate militaria with a retired general who led troops at Arnhem, common wisdom was that any nuclear strike (such as the attack on Birmingham and the retaliatory strike on Minsk) would result in an overwhelming Alpha Strike response intent on completely crushing the aggressor rather than tit-for-tat strikes, and that it would be seen as suicidal and insane for either the US or USSR to target only one city in a nuclear strike by the late '70s-'80s. In Real Life, that was the key fact that caused Colonel Stanislav Petrov, the duty officer at the Oko nuclear early-warning system, to not report that five inbound warheads appeared to be inbound to Moscow in 1983. Knowing that the United States was not stupid enough to launch such a paltry first strike given the USSR's doctrine of overwhelming response, he deduced an error in the system. He was right.
  • Author Tract: One admitted as such.
  • Cool Boat: Kirov and the "Kirov-class cruiser in the Pacific", the name Frunze having not been known at this point, feature in the second book as the class had come to light in 1981. However, they are both sunk pretty quickly.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The USSR collapses after Minsk is nuked.
  • Dive Under the Explosion: In the alarmist reconstruction of what might have happened if World War Three had broken out in the 1980s, the war inevitably becomes a limited nuclear exchange. The Soviet Union, in a spirit of socialist brotherhood and sympathy for the low aesthetic standards enjoyed by the workers of Great Britain, performs a large-scale urban redevelopment of Birmingham, England. The author notes that people pleasure-boating twenty miles away from Ground Zero had the presence of mind to abandon ship and dive overboard, to seek to escape the blast-wave and backdraft from the fireball washing over them. Dive under the explosion taken up to eleven there.
  • Fictional Counterpart: the British Prime Minister in the first book is called Mrs. Plumber. Mrs Thatcher was Leader of the Opposition in 1978, but looked likely to become PM.
    • A British journalist who breaks the story that the PM has been informed that the Soviets are mobilising for war goes by the name of Jardine Snatcher
  • Fictional Document: several of them, including a book on the Southern African war called The Veld Aflame, which also happens to be a punny title.
  • Invaded States of America: Averted. The Soviets discuss the possibility of invading the U.S. West Coast as a diversion from the fighting in Europe, but nix the idea when they realize the logistics it would require.
  • Nuclear Option: When the USSR's military mission starts going south, they decide to play this card as a last-ditch attempt to, if nothing else, prevent the war which they started from ending in an embarrassing backfire by sending a missile on a one-way flight to Birmingham. In the end, it just hastens their defeat.
  • Reporting Names: The "Backfire" is solely referred to under that name, as the writers clearly didn't agree on whether the Soviet claimed designation of Tu-22M was the real one.
  • Retcon: the second book makes a large number, including modifying the space battle when it was realised that the space laser of the period could not actually cause the damage stated in the first book- space mines are used instead to cripple the shuttle, the laser merely blinding the commander. In addition, the entire Middle East section is heavily altered to cover the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Camp David accords.
  • Strawman Political: Hackett and his team have a clear dislike of militant trade unionists, although they never state they are knowingly doing Moscow's bidding, just that they're considered "useful fools"- a line commonly attributed to Lenin
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: August 1985, the book itself being a future history from 1987.