Friday, 23 November 2012

The Future As It Used To Be...

This leapt off the shelf in a second hand bookshop last weekend. I last read it when it was published - I was 15 and the world hadn't experienced Thatcherism and Reagonomics, Iran was still under the Shah, the Soviets hadn't invaded Afghanistan, the Internet wasn't even thought of (or maybe not - after all it was a network designed to survive a nuclear attack so perhaps it had been dreamt up by then).

At the time this book made quite an impression on me. I swallowed the argument about Soviet expansionism, although I didn't fully understand the subtlety of it. Later on, while studying Russian history, I could put the thesis in some sort of historical context and it still appeared compelling.

Of course, we know much more about the challenges the Soviets faced in the late eighties and early eighties now. I assume the people who wrote this book were amongst all those experts that failed to predict the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc and final collapse of the Soviet Union.

Re-reading this, with the obvious benefit of hindsight, it's apparent that the authors were sincere but ever so slightly barking mad.

The Third World War breaks out in Europe with a massive Soviet conventional offensive on 4th August 1985, the 71st anniversary of Britain's entry into World War One, and is effectively over three weeks later with the Warsaw Pact forces stopped in their tracks and a tit for tat nuclear exchange in which Birmingham and Minsk are incinerated before the Soviet Union collapses. Oh, and the boys are home for Christmas...

Of course, the book was a polemic designed to persuade the policy makers to ramp up defence spending and lend weight to the deterrent in the hope this very thing would never happen. So, as the imagined future unfolds, the West spends up large on armaments and increases the size of its armed forces, not enough to deter the Soviets, but enough to give them a drubbing after some initial successes.

Their are some setbacks for NATO, but everything goes pretty much according to the script of an exercise. Nothing (of substance) unpredicted happens.

Even without the benefit of knowledge unavailable to the authors at the time, I think a more plausible account of war in Europe in the mid-eighties would have featured far more chaos than this neat and tidy narrative. Look at just about any modern war and the outstanding feature is that it didn't play out as planned and predicted by the General Staffs.

From the perspective of my wargaming interests I found the chapters that touched on  Southern Africa  fascinating. Namibia is liberated (although the authors describe this as a 'loss') in 1980 by combined SWAPO-Cuban-Nigerian-Angolan forces who defeat a 50,000 strong South African army equipped with modern weapons,  and by the summer of 1985 the Boers are facing a four pronged invasion from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.

Given that War for Slow Readers has reached early 1976 and the MPLA are seeking to consolidate their newly acquired power in Angola there is scope to play out a timeline very different from the so called 'Border War' that eventuated. Anyone on for a massive invasion of Namibia once UNITA has been contained?

The accounts of fighting on the Central Front in West Germany and beyond are pretty bland. The authors avoid naming formations below corps level, and whilst there are some fictionalised eye witness accounts, they're unconvincing by the standards of the real thing. Read just about anything by Anthony Beever and my point should be clear. Ralph Peters 'Red Army' is much better written and far more convincing, in my view.

That's not to say this isn't a valuable resource for anyone wanting to play out the war that was never fought. I doubt I'll ever get round to that although I find accounts written by gamers who are doing it very absorbing. For me, one of the real plusses of this book is comparing the performance of the British in the Falklands with how they fare in 'The Third World War'. Looking at the imagined events of 1985 through the prism of the lessons learnt in the South Atlantic has made me realise what a shock the Falklands must have been for the British and for NATO. Probably for the Soviets too.The effect of Exocets on naval strategy and tactics, the high quality of the British infantry, unforced errors by both sides and the impact of logistics on all aspects of the war make for interesting speculation.

I don't know enough of the aftermath of the fight for the Malvinas to make any sort of judgement about whether the lessons were heeded by NATO and the Warsaw Pact but I'm curious.

I'll finish with this quotation from a review written at the time of publication:

'Towards the end The Third World War degenerates into pure fantasy, the pipe-dream of Cold Warrior too old to stay on the front line but too fevered to give up the good fight. China and Japan have formed a "co-prosperity sphere" in Hackett's rosy future, and play no part in the war. Valiant Afrikaaners defend their homeland from the incompetent assaults of Soviet-supplied Namibians and Zimbabwians. As the Soviet drive into West Germany falters, Soviet satellites rebel, soldiers stop fighting, and a high-level coup in the Kremlin leads to a break-up of the entire Soviet Union--the internal contradictions of Marxism-Leninism, y'know? '

Says it all really...except of course the Soviet Union did break up just over a decade later...


  1. I remember reading that... and I think there was a sequel, or prequel of sorts too.

    I always preferred the 'Zone' novels, which had most of Western Germany as a sort of no-mans land, containing chemical and nuclear hot spots, through which the respective broken armies of the protagonists would attempt futile offensives. It was kind of like WW1 without trenches.

    There were rogue units set up as the troops of local warlords and much of the action involved 'spoiling attacks' to break up the forces massing for offensives. Really far-fetched, but somehow more valid than Hackett's "If we can hold them long enough, they'll collapse from the inside" theory.

    It is funny how our fears and beliefs didn't hold out. The South African nightmare of a invasion from newly liberated states, being the main one... along with a settlement of the Northern Island question via a grass-roots revolution!

  2. The prequel/sequel is 'The Third World War: The Untold Story' - I think the commercial success of the original volume prompted the publication of the follow up. The latter seems more readily available on the interweb.

    I'll have to track down the 'Zone' novels - 'WW1 without trenches' certainly sounds more plausible than Hackett.

  3. Rather like Eric Morcambe's "all the right notes—but not necessarily in the right order", this book had at least a claim to accuracy in part. As a young cold war warrior serving in Germany, I thought the break up of the Soviet Union the least likely part of the book. Turns out that I was wrong about that!

    The whole question of whether the USSR were ever actively seeking to invade Western Europe, or were primarily concerned with keeping buffer states as a defence is a moot point, but one for another day.

    Kind regards, Chris

  4. Internet has been around in some form since the sixties. At the time I got the book the web was still almost a decade away. I got the book because I'd just read a book on Arnhem, where Hackett featured. Only impact all these years later - image of brave TOW firing blue forces being swamped by a red tide.