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"The world looks like it did ten years ago, but underneath, it's become very strange indeed. An invisible struggle has begun. Most of the people who knew this are already dead."
Harold Finch, Person of Interest, "Relevance"

A war that is kept secret from the public at large. The involved parties may or may not be unknown to muggles as well, but the central concept of the trope is that the conflict itself is somehow hidden, covert or underground. Basic fodder for conspiracy theories and naturally fiction in general.

In trope-speak, a war that is concealed behind a masquerade. Compare Great Offscreen War, where the war in question is kept from the audience but not from the characters; this trope tends to be the other way around.

The Marvel Comics Crisis Crossovers can be found at Secret Wars (1984), Secret War (2004), and Secret Wars (2015).

As information on a work's Secret War can involve reveals, this page contains untagged Spoilers. Beware.


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    Anime and Manga 

    Comic Books 

  • Hex Wives: A centuries-long war has been waged between a constantly reincarnating coven of witches and all-male secret society known as the Architects. The story starts with the Architects having come up with a new strategy to remove the witches from the board: make them forget they are witches.
  • Rom: Spaceknight: The war with the Dire Wraiths starts out this way.
  • Secret Wars (1984) takes place in an alien world. A group of heroes and villains is teleported there by an all-powerful being, and forced to fight. People back on Earth only knew that the heroes were missing, but not why or the specific events. Upon their return, Reed Richards convinced everyone to keep everything a secret, because The World Is Not Ready to know about a being such as the Beyonder.
  • Secret Wars (2015) has the same name, but it is just an homage, not a sequel. In this story all the multiverse was destroyed, but Dr. Doom achieved godhood at the last moment, and created a new universe with a single world, composed by portions of worlds he saved from destroyed earths. But two ships survived the destruction of the multiverse, one from the Marvel Universe and another from the Ultimate Marvel universe. The multiverse was restored at the end of the story, and only a handful of people (Dr. Doom, a pair who were with him and the people in the ships) remember Battleworld, the destruction and recreation of the universe. Everybody else remember the incursion, and that it ended; surely thinking that the Avengers simply saved the day somehow.
  • Secret War (2004) (in singular) has no relations with the other two. It is about a covert operation carried out by Nick Fury, who gave Laser-Guided Amnesia to the heroes that took part in it after their victory. The idea was to keep the whole thing under wraps, but the heroes started to remember it, which caused problems.
  • The Swedish cyberpunk comic Det osynliga kriget ("The Invisible War") turns out to be about a war fought with nanotech robots - destroying factories and infrastructure by making buildings fall down. To the public, that's just sloppy building practices that are part of their already Crapsack World.
  • The Ultimates: Although the final battle against the Chitauri is public knowledge, the one in Micronesia (where more than 20,000 agents died) remains classified.

    Fan Works 
  • Earth's Alien History has a shadow war going on between the Conspiracy of Light and Torchwood, due to their differing ideological views on how to fend off future threats — the Conspiracy wants to protect all sentient life in as moral a way as possible, while Torchwood only cares about protecting TeTO and is willing to do whatever it takes to do so.
  • The Roboutian Heresy: The forces of the Adeptus Mechanicus have been fighting against the surviving elements of the Dark Mechanicum under the surface of Mars since the end of the Heresy. The war and its related Lie of Iron was maintained to keep up the then-façade of 'the Imperium won at Mars'. As of The Terran Crucible Part 2, the war on Mars was truly won.
  • Secret War: Rather predictably, this Warhammer 40,000 fanfiction is built on this trope.

  • Underworld (2003): The war between vampires and lycans in the series is kept out of public knowledge, partly thanks to the Cleaners, a group made up of elite human soldiers and headed by the first immortal Alexander Corvinus. Their job is to work behind the scenes to clean up the mess the immortals leave behind. Following the third movie, where Corvinus dies and the Cleaners are all killed, humanity discovers vampires and werewolves and embarks on a full-scale genocide after there's no one left to clean up the two sides' messes.
  • Also, the war between vampires and one very angry half-vampire in Blade (1998).
    Blade: You better wake up. The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping! There is another world beneath it - the real world. And if you wanna survive it, you better learn to pull the trigger!
  • The Resistance of Zion vs. the Machines inside The Matrix.
  • The central conflict in Cats & Dogs. It is somewhat helped because the actual war is long over — it's just that the cats (and, it is implied in the sequel, the dogs as well) have their rogues who try to restart the war and win it in one go.
  • Hellboy (2004): It's mentioned in passing that World War II was simply the public front of the Occult War, which only came to an end with Adolf Hitler's real death in 1958.
  • I, Frankenstein: The war between the Legions of Hell and the Gargoyle Order (created by Archangel Michael to fight the demons) has been going on for centuries, if not millennia (it's stated by the gargoyles' leader that the demons were released on earth during Lucifer's rebellion). Both sides are vulnerable to one another (demons can only be "descended" by weapons marked with the gargoyle sigil, while gargoyles can only be "ascended" by beings without a soul, like demons and Adam). There are finite numbers on both sides, and no reinforcements are coming (although the demons are working to correct that oversight), and attrition has been slowly eating away at both sides, although there are still more demons than gargoyles. While the demons do employ unwitting humans for some tasks, they cannot use them as foot soldiers, since humans are unable to "ascend" gargoyles; the gargoyles won't use humans because they believe that human life is sacred (in fact, they give Adam a What the Hell, Hero? speech after his fight with demons in an alley results in the death of a human).

  • The long conflict between the Dark and the Light in The Dark is Rising series.
  • Harry Potter: The war between the wizards. Half-Blood Prince shows that the Prime Minister (and likely the Queen as well) are made aware of it after a number of incidents and disasters happen due to Voldemort (such as huge amounts of fog meaning breeding Dementors and a highly destructive "tornado" is actually the work of rampaging giants).
  • The war between the Old and New Gods in American Gods.
  • The Star Trek Expanded Universe retcons the Eugenics Wars into a secret war, in an attempt to maintain Plausible Deniability after they didn't happen on schedule. When the population at large saw the brushfire wars of the 1990s, they were really seeing the children of Chrysalis trying to take over the world.
  • The war between the Muineers and the mutineer-Mutineers in the first Empire from the Ashes book, which has been going on since the dawn of human civilization. By the end of the book, it has become very, very not secret—people don't know what the hell is going on, but they sure can see the mayhem.
  • Fyodor Berezin's The Lunar Option describes battles on the Moon between the American astronauts and the Soviet cosmonauts during the 60s, after the discovery of an alien artifact. Obviously, no one in the general public is aware of this.
  • Several of these in The Dresden Files, primarily among them the war between the White Council of Wizards and the Vampire Courts. There's also an even more secret war known as the Oblivion War, whereby a secret brotherhood known as the Venatori wage a conflict in order to eliminate all knowledge of certain monstrous entities, as knowledge of them possessed by mortals connects the entities to the real world.
  • The various Weird Wars in the Diogenes Club stories by Kim Newman. Every so often an evil Great Enchanter arises, and it's the Club's job to put him down again.
    If won, it would only be written of in the secret histories. If lost, there would be no more histories, secret or otherwise.
  • The war against the Yeerks in Animorphs. Until everything gets blown wide open in the end of the series.
  • The war between the Prophus and the Genjix in The Lives of Tao, raging from the Spanish Inquisition to the modern day. Secrecy goes out the window when the Genjix openly attack Washington D.C. at the end of the second book. and the Prophus agents who survive tear down the Masquerade in retaliation.
  • The conflict between Light and Dark Others in Lukyanenko's Night Watch (Series). Although it has become more of a cold war with the occasional black operation or two after the treaty that established both Watches and the Inquisition.
  • Several Cthulhu Mythos stories take this approach, drawing inspiration from The Shadow Over Innsmouth where the Marines were called in to clear out the Deep Ones after the events portrayed in the story. Subverted in Once More from the Top by A. Scott Glancy about some Men in Black interviewing one of the surviving members of that operation. He asks if they're winning the secret war that's obviously being fought — the MIB's tell him yes, not revealing that the politicians decided to bury the truth about Innsmouth rather than confront it, and the reason he's being interviewed is that all the files were destroyed and the war is hidden not only from the public, but the politicians as well, conducted with whatever resources they can beg, borrow or steal.
  • In The Laundry Files, The Laundry fights such a war on behalf of Britain. Other governments have their own secret magical agencies.
  • Fyodor Berezin's The Lunar Option details the discovery of an alien artifact on the Moon in The '70s, starting a secret space race between the two superpowers for its possession. The battles taking place in space and on the Moon involve many of the well-known astronauts and cosmonauts, including those who are officially listed as deceased.
  • In Armada, the governments of Earth, under the umbrella of the Earth Defense Alliance, have been at war with mysterious aliens from Europa for decades. While most of it has been preparations for the actual all-out war, there have been a number of alien attacks on both Earth and the Moon.
  • The Angaran Chronicles is mostly the efforts of Anargrin and his elite black ops team as they wage a secret war against the oppressive theocratic governments and the church of Jaroai in the continent of Angara.
  • The Toymaker's Apprentice: Christian reveals to Stefan that mice are a lot more intelligent than people give them credit for. In fact, clock makers have been waging a secret war against rodent-kind to keep them from rising up and overtaking humanity.
  • In Encryption Straffe, Overmind is an organization once dedicated to keeping insurgencies in NATO countries secret.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the Stargate-verse the US is involved in interstellar conflicts, and doesn't even tell the heads of other nations at first, never mind the world at large. In various alternate timelines where the Secret War becomes a Non-Secret War, things often start to go very badly (such as in the Stargate: Continuum movie, where Earth is full-on invaded by the Goa'uld). The fourth Stargate SG-1 movie was supposed to involve the reveal of the program to the general public, but Stargate Universe's cancellation put the kibosh on that.
  • The Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Assignment: Earth" was a Backdoor Pilot for a series that would've revolved around Gary Seven's secret battles with aliens. Fittingly, Seven was a protagonist in the Expanded Universe material mentioned in this page's Literature folder.
  • Get Smart has CONTROL vs KAOS.
  • A number of the UNIT stories in Doctor Who work this way, particularly in the classic series.
    • The Time War was secret because the species fighting it were so far advanced that the rest of the universe couldn't perceive it.
  • In War of the Worlds (1988), only a handful of military, intelligence and science personnel know about the alien invasion coming out of dormancy. In the second series, the new aliens appear more human and are able to operate openly, since it's become such a Crapsack World that to most people they're indistinguishable from the corrupt corporations and organized crime.
  • Alphas has the fight between the alpha terrorist organization Red Flag and the Department of Defense and their own alpha team. In the first season finale Rosen breaks the masquerade, realizing that this secrecy ensures conflict where it might be avoided, facilitates atrocities on both sides, and is exactly what the Big Bad alpha Stanton Parish wants.
  • In UFO (1970), humanity is in a low-key state of war with the aliens operating the UFOs, who are constantly trying to infiltrate the earth and kidnap humans. Since revealing this to the public would case wide-spread panic, a top-secret organization, SHADO, is responsible both for the actual fighting and for covering up all evidence of alien activity.
  • In The Librarians 2014, the Librarians have been at war with the Serpent Brotherhood for millennia over whether the Library's artifacts should be used to gain power (the Brotherhood wishes to use the artifacts, while the Librarians want to lock them away).
  • In Counterpart (2018), the central factional conflict in one universe spilling over into another is known only to a very few people in either universe.
  • A central concept for Sleepy Hollow is that while the American Revolution was going on, both the rebels and the British were covertly using supernatural forces against each other. Only a select few (including Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson) were aware of what was truly happening.

  • The Magnus Archives chronicles human encounters with aspects of Eldritch Abomination's that embody common fears. Those forces often conflict. A flame cult battles unearthly spiders to reclaim a manor house, and the primordial insect hive attacks the Archive because it is aligned with the Beholding (ie the fear of being watched and known).

    Tabletop Games 
  • BattleTech has had a few:
    • The so-called "Hidden Wars" of the Star League period saw low-level, below the radar fighting (in one case being essentially a series of ritualized duels) that was able to avoid triggering League retaliation;
    • The ComStar] War in the Second Succession War, which was kicked off by Charles Marik destroying the Oriente HPG Station. ComStar, though in possession of direct means of retaliation, decided instead to shut off all HPG communications, putting the Free Worlds League at a massive disadvantage to all the other Successor States. And the FWL Parliament decided to withhold funds, opening another front in the war. By the time the whole mess had ended, the Captain-General was forced to surrender and accept ComStar's terms note , all without ComStar having to fire a single hostile shot.
    • Operation HOLY SHROUD, another ComStar operation, a secret war of assassination against scientists and intellectuals meant to cripple any technological renaissance in the Successor States, so that ComStar could keep a monopoly on advanced tech.
  • Bureau 13, AKA Stalking the Night Fantastic. The title Bureau fights against supernatural monsters.
  • Call of Cthulhu:
    • Glozel Est Authentique: In the adventure "Secrets of the Kremlin'', the Nodens Brotherhood has long opposed a cult that worships Shub-Niggurath.
    • Delta Green: Delta Green versus MJ-12, with a second front against the Karotechia (who occasionally also conflicts with MJ-12) and the odd fight or two against a random Mythos cult.
  • Chill: S.A.V.E. (Societas Albae Viae Eterniata AKA The Eternal Society of the White Way) does battle with supernatural creatures from The Unknown.
  • Cthulhutech gets crazy with the strength of their Extra-Strength Masquerade. The shadow war between the Eldritch Society and the Chrysalis Corporation taking place within the arcologies and suburbs of the NEG-controlled areas is one thing, and the Chrysalis Corporation are very good at keeping things under wraps and discrediting or eating anyone who knows too much and might actually expose anything (plus, they have the leverage to have the government censor Dhohanoid-related reporting to prevent public panic). However, not only are Eldritch Abomination cults are alive and well, but one has formed a military force that has conquered China, under wraps, and the fact that the last Aeon War is still going on and the Migou are attacking again with a force equal to the one that nearly took Earth apart the last time. And the NEG can recruit people to fight on the China front without them knowing a thing about the war until they're already in too deep to back out.
  • In Colonial Gothic, one of the centerpoints of the game is that the War of Independence was (secretly) a Weird Historical War courtesy of the many monsters coming out of the woodwork to kill and eat all sides. A few of the game's adventures revolve around preventing the enemy from utilizing said monsters as a secret weapon.
  • Conspiracy X has a secret war involving reptilian aliens and other weirdness.
  • Feng Shui has a secret war that spans at least four different junctures in time, along with the Netherworld that connects these junctures, each with their own different factions vying for the power to remake human history in their image.
  • GURPS:
    • Black Ops: The PCs all work for "The Company", a secret organization with the twin objectives of 1) Kill all the aliens/psis/monsters trying to take over and 2) Don't let anyone outside The Company find out about the aliens/psis/monsters trying to take over.
    • Infinite Worlds: The default setting has the two factions of Centrum and the Infinity Patrol who oppose each other at every turn and vie for control and influence on low-tech worlds, all while trying not to be detected by the natives of that timeline and expose their own existence.
  • In Nomine is often described as a "secret cold war," with angels and demons fighting low-level conflicts behind the scenes of modern society, while waiting for the Apocalypse; Heaven is not starting that battle until God says so, while, as the Heaven and Hell supplement notes, "Lucifer has learned all he wants to know about attacking God before being completely sure of success". Even religions that do believe in Heaven and Hell rarely have more than the vaguest idea of what's really going on, and both sides have explicit orders to keep it that way.
  • Nephilim: The eons-old combat between the title characters and the secret societies hunting them.
  • Old World of Darkness is rife with secret war, going down between virtually every species of supernatural being, between different factions within the same species, and between supernaturals in general and those few groups of mortals who have been clued in to their existence.
  • Rocket Age: The Great Powers of Earth are currently fighting secret battles in the skies of Jupiter for the approval of the Europans.
  • Shadowrun has rival MegaCorps waging a covert war against each other, with the titular Shadowrunners being the deniable assets that the corps call upon to do their dirty work.
  • Unknown Armies: This is the default state of the Occult Underground. Being composed of very driven, obsessed and, a lot of times, outright insane people, the Underground in most cities is either in constant conflict between the different cabals, or is just at the tipping point of an all out war.
  • Warhammer 40,000: The Holy Orders of the Emperor's Inquisition fights a constant war against the forces of the alien, the mutant and the heretic, most of which is kept under wraps from the general public through intensive propaganda. Civilians or even military forces who might have been exposed to the evil simply by knowing about it are executed, even if it's an entire planet. Of course, even the secret war can at times be a front for what really happens, with Inquisitors fighting an even more secret war against each other.

    Video Games 
  • Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War: In the final act of the game, the Wardog squadron discovers that a secret organization comprised of Belkan radicals called the Grey Men, had instigated the war between Osea and Yuktobania in revenge for the fall of their homeland. After the Grey Men frame them as traitors for discovering their involvement, the Wardog squadron fakes their deaths, and engage in a hidden conflict with the Grey Men to put an end to the war.
  • In the Assassin's Creed series, there is an ongoing, secret war between the Assassins and the Templars, which has been waged since the beginning of the human species, ever since humanity first rebelled against Those Who Came Before.
  • Battlezone (1998) has the Cold War actually be hot between the US and Soviet Union over biometal deposits found scattered throughout the solar system. The opening screen has the Apollo 11 landing be shadowed by an entire NSDF base when the camera reaches a certain angle.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops takes place entirely from the perspective of SOG operatives during the Cold War, predominantly in Vietnam. In addition to taking part in openly historic events like the Tet Offensive, the player attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro (which fails), sabotage a Soviet space program (which succeeds), and uncover the truth behind a brainwashing scheme that he himself is victim to. The game even emphasizes its covert overtones by redacting the character, location, and date information displayed at the beginning of every mission.
    • Call of Duty: Black Ops II continues this trope before subverting it. Flashback missions show the previous game's protagonist unofficially fighting in African civil wars alongside Joseph Zavimbi and deposing/supporting foreign dictators (like Manuel Noriega), but his son, a Navy SEAL, fights off a VERY visible unmanned drone attack against Los Angeles thirty years later.
  • As the name implies Deus Ex: Invisible War focuses on a shadowy conflict between several clandestine groups over the future of humanity. The player can end up siding with any faction or even killing everyone.
    • The events of Deus Ex: Human Revolution fit the bill as well, perhaps more so. A character even comments that the term Invisible War is the best way to describe the events of Human Revolution.
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition reveals that the ancient elves fought among themselves long before the Tevinter Imperium invaded, and kept it a secret from the outside world. After losing knowledge of it and virtually everything else after the fall of their civilization the only people who know of it are the ancient elves guarding the temple of Mythal.
  • Genshin Impact: In Inazuma, after the Traveler convinces the Raiden Shogun/Ei to abolish the Vision Hunt Decree, the Shuumatsuban engage in one with the Fatui. The questline "The Very Special Fortune Slip" sees the Traveler get involved with the Shuumatsuban, to figure out what the remaining Fatui are planning after the death of their leader, Signora.
  • The war between the Forgotten and Abaddon's forces in Guild Wars: Nightfall qualifies. The Forgotten have spent the last thousand years fighting a slowly-losing war to keep Abaddon and his followers bound in the Realm of Torment. As of present, they maintain only scattered outposts in either dimension.
    • The Order of Whispers was founded to pursue such conflicts. They have watched over Palawa Joko's tomb, kept the existence of Abaddon and his demons from public knowledge, and a century before the game even interrogated and imprisoned a Titan.
  • One of the big reveals in The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure is the revelation of a major secret conflict that went on for years in Crossbell state between the intelligence agencies of the Erebonian Empire and the Calvard Republic. This counterintelligence war ended up getting a lot of civilians killed in its crossfire, which was always officially blamed on vague terrorists or criminal gangs, and serves as the Start of Darkness for the arc's major villains Ian Grimwood and Arios MacLaine due to losing family members as collateral damage in this dirty war.
  • The actual term is used in the section of The Secret World's website that deals with the three world-spanning conspiracies that are fighting against each other and the encroaching darkness that's threatening Earth. Preventing The End of the World as We Know It seems to be the only thing that the Templar, Illuminati and The Dragon agree on.
  • Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri: One of the books that Lady Deirdre quotes from is titled Our Secret War. From what we can tell it's a war mostly fought with probe teams and Mindworm attacks masquerading as Planet's normal activity.
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic: On Makeb, the Empire wages one against the Archon, the secret advisor to the Hutt Cartel all the while trying to keep their activities hidden from the Republic.
  • The XCOM games revolve around an alien invasion of the Earth, which XCOM, as a top-secret organization, is attempting to fight while calling as little attention to itself as possible. Eventually, though, the aliens will begin launching terror attacks, openly striking in population centers in an attempt to drive up fear and cause nations to withdraw from the XCOM project.
    • XCOM: Enemy Unknown zig-zags this trope in the base game. XCOM is actively fighting the aliens, but is never officially acknowledged, presumably as a matter of security, and probably because its strike teams can cause a lot of collateral damage, and can't respond to every alien terror attack. The most you'll see are headlines in the Situation Room where civilians report glimpses of mysterious soldiers fighting aliens with advanced weaponry, or performing superhuman feats on the battlefield. Then the Enemy Within expansion plays this trope straight when XCOM comes into conflict with EXALT, an Ancient Conspiracy trying to use the alien invasion as a means to seize power. EXALT's agents never let themselves be taken alive and the group presumably has the influence to stay off the radar, so that when you eventually find and assault their headquarters, in the aftermath you'll hear a news report about a tragic fire in a highrise.

    Visual Novels 
  • The Holy Grail War in the Fate series of visual novels, games, light novels, etc. Interestingly enough, even to most of the Mage's Association itself, the war is mostly something of a rumour, and only higherups or people who do their research are fully aware of it.

    Web Animation 

    Web Comics 

    Western Animation 
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the war is secret to the Earth King only. The Dai Li took pains to make sure it stayed that way to keep the people of Ba Sing Se from going into a panic and to limit the capital's involvement with the war that would screw up their way of living.
    • It's hinted that while the Earth King is kept from knowing to make him a puppet, many of the rest of the citizens don't know either. Brainwashing and control of information keep knowledge down, and constant fear makes those who do know too afraid to talk.
  • In Beast Wars, the Decepticon Megatron's message mentions the conflict between the Earthbound Transformers being a secret war. However, while it was the case in early issues of the comic, it was dropped in later issues, and in the cartoon, it's anything but covert in their interactions with humans (and Beast Wars is intentionally vague about which version is their past). While this could be an error, it's possible in this continuity, the conflict truly was a secret war, with only a few human allies (including the Witwickys) as Secret Keepers.
  • Transformers: Prime: The Autobot/Decepticon war is fought on Earth and ends without the public at large knowing, save for a few humans, some of which work for U.S. government.

    Real Life 
  • Real Life: CIA vs. KGB, CIA vs. Al-Qaeda, etc. The public only knows a very little about what really goes on behind the scenes.
    • It's at least a partial aversion, since it was public knowledge that the US intelligence community was working against enemies of the state. It's also subverted by the release of declassified documents that detail past black operations.
  • During the Vietnam War the CIA had a whole lot of things going on, including the Phoenix Program: a program of infiltration, capture, terrorism, and assassination. President Richard Nixon also authorized a series of massive bombing raids into Laos and Cambodia in an attempt to sever the supply lines from North Vietnam to the Vietcong, which somehow were kept secret despite the B-52s dropping more tons of explosives than had been dropped in the entirety of World War II.
  • The Laotian Civil War was termed the "Secret War", for much of the same reasons as the CIA's involvement in Vietnam.
  • The Great Game between Imperial Russia and Victorian Britain in the 19th Century, which was more or less a precursor to the Cold War. It was mostly fought through proxies in Central Asia, occasionally spilling into regional conflicts like the Anglo-Afghan Wars, but never into direct confrontation between the two empires.
  • Many conspiracy theories suggest this. Especially those involving occultism, because any occultist system is seen as a kind of transformation/ conversion tool, which is able to produce results in both directions, good and bad. Because of this, conspiracy theorists tend to suggest that there is a war between those who want to save mankind and those who essentially want to destroy the human mind.
  • There's nothing to see here, citizen. Move along.