“Trzecia wojna światowa trwa w naszych głowach, W naszych miastach, na ulicach, i w naszych domach! Trzecia wojna światowa – każdy przeciw każdemu! Stawaj w szeregu i nie pytaj czemu!” Click for translation
Some psychologists believe Humans Are Warriors and naturally predisposed towards violence. For almost the entire twentieth century it seemed like humanity was teetering on the brink of self-destruction: both World Wars, the Cold War, and then the threat of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and biological warfare – and all that after World War I was going to be “The War to End All Wars”. Luckily for humanity, World War III has been in Development Hell for more than half a century now – and long may it stay there (indeed, it’s not a sequel anyone is looking forward to, we hope). So it’s probably only natural that the next great global conflict is a popular subject in Speculative Fiction.
Weapons of Mass Destruction are probably going to get used, often recklessly, causing massive casualties.note A commonly-used Gallows Humor joke is about this war’s length; somewhere around an hour. If the destruction gets too out of hand it might result in The End of the World as We Know It, causing an After the End situation set on a Scavenger World. If not, the winner might set up a One World Order, in which our heroes fight against The Government in a dystopian Cyberpunk type environment. Of course, it’s entirely possible for the war to kill everybody, and have it center on the attendees to Humanity’s Wake. If the show was made before Christmas 1991, Communists are involved, even if the war is supposedly set years after 1991. A more modern take on WWIII is that it begins somewhere in the Middle East; Israel, Iran, India and Pakistan may be involved. Other times, it involves a resurgent Russia and more recently, North Korea. China also gets used when the work’s creator isn’t so worried about the consequences for that. Scenarios which have China, North Korea and/or Middle Eastern powers as the antagonists may actually involve Russia joining the Western side.
It’s rare to find a piece of fiction set 20 Minutes into the Future that could resist the temptation to slap a dunia war into the middle of the twenty minutes. Wiping out a third of humanity must just be too much for writers to resist. (Though since the end of the Cold War, this has lessened; writers wanting to do away with a third of humanity usually go for a plague or Global Warming-related chaos.) A common way to establish the otherness of a future or Alternate History setting is to have a throwaway remark about World War III having occurred in the past.
For numbers greater than III, see World War Whatever. For stories about stopping this from coming to pass, see Prevent the War. Compare and contrast to Avoiding the Great War.NATO vs. Warsaw Pact
There are some associated sub-tropes with this setup in particular: Gorbachev Must Die: Any scenario written after c. 1987 must find some way to remove Mikhail Gorbachev from the Soviet leadership. The 1991 coup attempt succeeding is a popular choice for this. Nukes, or No Nukes: In many fictional accounts, nuclear weapons are not employed straight off for political reasons. Sometimes they’re not used at all. This is based on NATO’s assumptions about probable Warsaw Pact actions during the Cold War. However, actual Warsaw Pact plans put on display after the end of the Cold War revealed that the Soviets were planning to open the war with a sizeable nuclear bombing campaign. Backfire Raid: a large-scale attack on a U.S. carrier class with Tu-22M “Backfire” and Tu-16 “Badger” bombers armed with conventional missiles, resulting in the group having to shoot down over 100 incoming missiles. This is basically a battle of awesome, with supersonic bombers and cruise missile launching subs on one side versus F-14s and a rapid-fire SAM system on the other. Macross Missile Massacre ensues. The Soviets Start It: Most scenarios have the USSR kicking things off, for various reasons. Even for the informed public and many governments, the byzantine internal politics of the USSR made it extremely hard for outside observers of the Soviet system and its policies to judge what they were thinking. This wasn’t helped by the way policies by different government departments tended to clash – something of a holdover from the Imperial Russian system, these clashes were the inevitable product of the epic three-way struggle between the Party, the Military, and the KGB. Third Battle of the North Atlantic: Attacks on convoys bringing troops and supplies from the U.S. to Europe by Soviet submarines, ships and aircraft. It will often include a Backfire Raid. Battle of Germany: Most scenarios pre-1989 will feature the Soviets invading West Germany – quite realistic, as the Soviet Army’s response to war (or NATO mobilisation for war) would be to execute its North German Plain Offensive Operation/Campaign to destroy as much of the ‘forward’ NATO forces as possible before NATO could fully mobilise. Alternatively, the Soviets may start the conventional war by invading West Germany, but NATO use tactical nuclear weapons against them to save a failing defense — and it escalates from there. (That was the scenario in The Day After). NATO initially intended on retaliating with nukes in the “Massive Retaliation” doctrine, but from the 1960s to the end of the Cold War “Flexible Response” dictated that nukes be used in case conventional defense failed. By the 1980s, NATO began to give their conventional options more viability by developing weapons to attack Warsaw Pact tank formations well before they were committed to battle in the Follow On Forces Attack (FOFA) plan. A once-classified Cold War-era wargame released by the Polish government in 2005 shows one nuclear-based contingency plan from the late 1970s, although it must be emphasized that the Soviets moved increasingly towards conventional warfare during the 1970s and ’80s. For much of the Cold War the Fulda Gap, where the U.S. incorrectly expected this invasion would take place (swallowing a longtime Soviet ruse), was one of the most highly militarized places on Earth. Warsaw Pact Rebellion: Members of the Warsaw Pact (often Poland or East Germany) rebel against the Soviets. Explored by Hackett and a few other authors. Status Quo Ante Peace Treaty:In many literary World War III stories, if it doesn’t end in a total nuclear exchange, it ends in a rough draw, with millions dead, but no real political changes, unlike every real European war on this scale. Instead, the Cold War then resumes. Classic Examples:
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Anime and Manga Apparently, L from Death Note stopped World War III when he was just a little boy. Also, Mello threatens the POTUS with this, saying he’ll write down the President’s name in the Death Note and cause him to launch nukes and start a world war if the President fails to comply with Mello’s demand to fund the Kira investigation. (It isn’t known if Mello TV really meant it, or if he was just bluffing.) Note that it likely would not have worked even if he had tried it, because one of the rules is that you cannot use a Death Note to kill someone indirectly. Part of the backstory of Ghost in the Shell includes WWIII in the mid-1990s, followed by WWIV in 2019. In Heat Guy J, humans appropriated the technology of the resident Superior Species (which sounds an awful lot like nuclear power the way it’s described). Originally, they used it for peaceful purposes like energy production, but eventually started using it as a weapon of war. Although the war is long since over by the time the series begins, most of humanity has been obliterated, except for seven city-states (with a few small villages/towns clustered around them). Some people still mistrust the Celestials and their technology, and/or mistrust other people. Red Eyes: The Third World War is fought against the USA after they managed to effectively conquer the world. The war starts when the US Kill Sat network are set to only intercept ICBMs and unable to attack strategic targets like cities.