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How Long Will The Next Global Conflict Last?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
The World Wars were two of the most devastating and pivotal periods in 20th century history. And, after 1945 it was widely said that we'd never see another war like it. We can only hope that that's true, and that total war never happens again! But, what if global conflict did strike up once more? What if the fighting between armies and militaries all over the world caused all-new war zones all over the planet? How long could we withstand World War 3?

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How Long Would World War III Last?

The term “World War III” has been thrown around since as early as 1941, only two years into the outbreak of World War II. Since then, the globe has seen war after war, and the creation of ever deadlier technologies. Arguably, the closest we’ve actually come to a Third World War was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and the “war scare” of 1983. But with regional tensions constantly escalating, it’s not surprising to see the phrase “World War III” cropping up more often on social media and in the tabloids. The belief that humanity is nearing its doom is far from an uncommon one.

First, let’s look at the phrase “world war”. Do we mean a conflict in which much of the world is at war, or a war that otherwise affects the whole world? Historically, there’s a link between the scale of the previous world wars and colonialism. Many countries fought on behalf of the empires of Great Britain and France because they were promised independence. Today, we don’t have colonial alliances on this scale, and a war involving that many nations might be unrealistic. However, if we choose not to define a “world war” as a war that would affect the whole world, the prospect of a third becomes sickeningly plausible – mainly because of nuclear weapons.

In the decades since the US’ Trinity test was deemed successful in 1945, and the tragic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nine countries have developed nuclear weapons. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that there are around 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. The existence of these devastating warheads has led to widespread speculation and fear that a Third World War is destined to also be a nuclear one, and also the downfall of mankind.

It’s often argued that this nightmarish prospect has deterred global conflict; but the proliferation of nuclear weapons also make such a war much easier to initiate. All it would take would be one megalomaniac to order the first strike, and the counter-strikes and resultant fallout, environmental disasters, and economic crash, could be the last nail in the coffin of our species.

The biggest nuclear weapon in history was the Tsar Bomba, an unrealistically huge Soviet device designed almost entirely as a publicity stunt. Despite the impossibility of actually using it in war, when the Tsar Bomba was detonated in 1961 the mushroom cloud it created was 35 miles high. It had a nuclear yield of 50 megatons, or 50,000,000 tons; for comparison, Fat Man, the device dropped on Nagasaki, had a yield of only 21 kilotons, or 21,000 tons.

But the question of how long a Third World War, if it were to be a nuclear war, would last is both simple and not-so-simple. From the moment the first bomb is dropped, life as we know it could be eradicated in a matter of hours, assuming that other nations responded in kind. In that case, civilisation would be decimated, and the extreme nuclear fallout and radiation would spread across the globe, bringing about the ruination of humanity no matter how many countries tried to steer clear of the conflict. If we also categorise the long aftermath and recovery period as part of the war, well, it would take centuries or more for the world to bounce from a nuclear apocalypse, and the chances of our survival are very small.

Fortunately, bans on nuclear tests, and treaties on non-proliferation, suggest that nuclear weapons aren’t something that most of the world actually wants to see used. There’s always the possibility that the anti-war protestors will succeed, and the planet’s powerhouses will actually disarm – after all, the USSR and USA have both dabbled in nuclear disarmament in the past, while disarmament dominates peace talks between North and South Korea.

This means that, for all the talk of nuclear apocalypse, there’s at least a possibility that another World War might not resort to nuclear weapons. If this is the case, our prospective estimate for the conflict’s duration begins to steadily extend. Without the potential for enormous weapons of mass destruction, any global war would become a huge quagmire. Historically, wars are only getting longer and longer; World War I was four years, World War II six. But the Vietnam War, characterised by its brutal and unconventional guerrilla warfare, lasted for two decades, while the “War on Terror” – which has itself been dubbed World War III on occasion – has been steadily continuing since 2001. The Third World War is bound to be highly complex, with multiple contributing causes, and these complexities will serve to make it longer and more drawn out – more so if countries are relying on conventional fighting.

Even with the involvement of an advanced military of a country like the United States, which has the largest and most powerful non-nuclear arsenal of weapons, a global conflict could still last for decades; again, guerrillas in Vietnam were severely outmatched by US marines, but ultimately forced the US to withdraw. But this doesn’t mean that a war on this scale, even using conventional weaponry, doesn’t have the potential to be just as deadly; it might just take more time to reach an equivalent death toll.

A conventional war would also be exacerbated by the sheer volume of resources consumed by modern warfare, and the fact that during a worldwide conflict it would be next to impossible to continue to manufacture supplies. Soldiers, weapons, food and medicine would all begin to dwindle sickeningly quickly by regular, ballistic attacks.

With all of this in mind, the answer to the question, “how long would World War III last?” becomes horribly clear: for mere hours, in the case of a nuclear war, and for decades in the case of a conventional one. Of course, this is still only speculative; we can only hope we never find out how long a Third World War will last, because regardless of what kinds of weapons are used or how many countries are involved, widespread destruction and tragedy are the only real certainties.

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