RogerBW's Blog

The Third World War: The Untold Story, General Sir John Hackett 06 June 2014

Some time in the 1980s, the USSR invades Europe.

This is the 1982 sequel to the author's earlier The Third World War: August 1985, published in 1978; it covers much of the same material but attempts to give a wider perspective rather than only dealing with the land war in Europe.

If the thesis of Red Storm Rising was that the Atlantic bridge must be maintaned, the thesis of this book is very much si vis pacem, para bellum: you can't trust those darn Commies, pacifists are at best useful idiots and at worse traitors, trade unionists are worse, Europe needs a unified military, BUY MORE TANKS!

Well, up to a point, Sir John. The fact that he needs to tweak so many things to make his scenario work, from a unified European foreign policy, via Israel suddenly detaching itself from the American teat to no benefit to itself in order to make American policy in the Middle East a bit more sane, to Ireland abandoning its more offensive laws based on Catholic doctrine, tends rather to undermine his argument even on the basis on which he was writing in the 1980s. Well, yes, if we'd militarised Europe and built a conventional force that could withstand Soviet attack, then if a Soviet attack had come we could have had a better chance of doing so. But we didn't waste all that money on buying more and more military hardware and taking people out of the workforce to train them as soldiers-in-waiting, and we still did all right.

On the other hand, with the Middle East and Irish problems wiped out with the stroke of a pen, why can't the Soviet problem be wiped out the same way? By the time the clock rolls round to the outbreak of war in 1985, the Western combatants are almost unrecognisably altered, but the Soviets are exactly as they were being predicted to be.

Look, I'm a wargamer. I enjoy doing accurate simulations, working out tactical and strategic problems, and so on. I can even fantasise about what the Royal Navy would have done with an unlimited budget. But that doesn't mean, as the accusation has sometimes been made, that I want the real thing! Quite the opposite: my experience and that of most wargamers I've talked to is that once you've fought realistically over the world a few times and seen how much damage has been done in your wake, you are likely to find yourself (like most actual soldiers) increasingly determined to make sure it doesn't happen. So when I see Hackett advocating in real life measures that would seem likely significantly to have increased the probability of war (by making it easier for NATO to attack the USSR, and thus provoking the latter to attack before those measures were ready); when I see the way that in this book the war is used to make all sorts of international situations better, to the extent that it's regarded in the end as basically a good thing; I get annoyed. When I'm gaming, I can casually wipe away a problem because I'm explicitly building an alternative history; Hackett's talking about what he thinks ought to happen in real life.

Anyway. Sorry about that. Hackett was a general, not a politician.

But apart from that, how was the book? Well, it's pretty dry stuff. That's fine, at least for me, but it makes the small excursions into actual character moments feel somewhat out of place.

Projections of the effectiveness of weapons (including on the NATO side now-forgotten failures like the Assault Breaker project and even Nimrod AEW, and on the Soviet side the MiG-25 and Yak-38) are wildly optimistic. There's not a huge amount of new equipment (except for one or two items that were under development in 1978 when the first version of the book was written), but the Soviets have made unprecedented (and hugely expensive) improvements to their military tactics. Even so, NATO gets all the luck, while the Soviets go horribly wrong as soon as they deviate from The Plan, and various of their pilots and naval captains defect nearly before the war has started, with land forces following not long afterwards; meanwhile their Eastern European allies simply flee from the fight.

If your military's problem is that it doesn't have the money to recruit more people, allowing women to be recruited does not help.

I, even I who have happily played in wargaming settings that included the Welsh Star Empire, find this book perverse: the prospect of war seems to be something the author actively welcomes (if sufficient armament is readied beforehand), because only thus can the Soviet menace be defeated and (nearly) everything become puppies and rainbows thereafter.

No. Sorry. This one leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 10:44am on 06 June 2014

    I do recall saying to Dave Langford after the collapse of the Soviet Union that he ought to apologise to the General for saying that the ending of the book (where the Warsaw Pact just goes away after the nuking of Kiev in retaliation for the nuking of Birmingham) was a little unrealistic.

    The bit that I find unrealistic in retrospect (being more interested in the political than the technical) is the idea that the Warsaw Pact could ever have been brought to the starting line in the first place. Herding cats would not have been in it and that ought to have been obvious at the time. I once owned (but never played) a copy of SPI's THE NEXT WAR and looking back I can't believe that we ever thought such a scenario likely. 1979 and all that was a very different proposition from 1939 and all that.

    When someone invents parachronic travel to alternate time lines I will probably be proved wrong. Again.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:53am on 06 June 2014

    Criticism with hindsight is something I'm mostly trying to avoid. Yes, in practice, we know much more now about the state of the Soviet armed forces in the 1980s than Hackett did at the time, and some of his assumptions (e.g. that the mass of Soviet armour actually had enough of a fuel and ammunition supply to reach the Atlantic) were reasonable at the time even if they later turned out to have been false. The strange thing to me is that, given his starting state of knowledge, he still pushed all sorts of things in different directions (making the Soviets much more technically competent than was generally assumed, but also beefing up NATO). It ends up feeling like not "what a war might be like if it started tomorrow" but "what a war should be like if you do what I say".

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 02:41pm on 06 June 2014

    Someone should do an analysis of the degree to which the professional military and espionage apparatus 'talked up' the Soviet threat to justify their own budgets. I will admit a prejudice in the other direction. The work should start now, while the memories are fresh and people can still give personal testaments, though I doubt it will achieve any sort of balanced final result until we are all long dead and it is the 'judgement of history'.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 02:49pm on 06 June 2014

    And the politicians too. As with the completely invented media image of the monolithic Al-Qaeda with total control over its members, there's lots of political benefit in being able to say "there's a scary enemy over there, so we need to restrict things to keep you safe from them".

  5. Posted by Michael Cule at 05:19pm on 06 June 2014

    Ayup. You'll get no argument from me on that point.

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