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'The Third World War' was a book by General Sir John Hackett, first published in 1978 and reprinted several times over the next couple of years. It was an imaginary 'future history' of a third world war in August 1985; the book took the form of a retrospective written in 1987.

It was extremely popular in the UK, and rode the early waves of what would become a tidal wave of 80s nuclear angst. It started to depart from reality almost as quickly as it was released (both the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan happened in 1979, something which Hackett did not predict, although that hardly made a third world war less likely). The book had been forgotten by 1985, although it didn't really become irrelevant until 1989.

The book's strength is its prescient political motive for the war (Hackett essentially predicted the Soviet Union's eventual collapse, although he saw it happening much earlier, and resulting in war, not peace), and its meticulously-detailed outline of a likely NATO response. The war it depicts is generally fought with conventional forces, with a final, brief nuclear exchange, something which seems more plausible than the contemporary view that a third world war would inevitably be one of mutual nuclear armageddon.

Against it, the writing is extremely dry and undramatic, but this pales besides a much greater problem, one that doomed the book as surely as the eventual end of the cold war. In 1978 Hackett had just retired from a distinguished military career - he was wounded as a Brigadier at Arnhem (although he plays a relatively major role in the book of 'A Bridge Too Far' he isn't in the film), and eventually ended up as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in Germany. Consequently, the effectiveness of NATO forces seems implausibly overstated - despite overwhelming weight of numbers, the Russians do not advance past Germany in the book, and one gets the impression that Hackett was constrained by having to work out a third world war which involved no defeats on the part of NATO.

Because of his status as a military man, Hackett bangs the drum for increased military spending, and predicts a new wave of patriotism in the west to replace the dangerously apathetic left-wing political climate that dominated when he was writing the book; one suspects that the men behind Ronald Reagan had read the book.

As an interesting aside, Harold Coyle's 1987 novel 'Team Yankee' takes place in the same 'universe' as 'The Third World War', although from the perspective of a tank commander. There are subtle differences, however; the technology in General Hackett's book is an interesting cross-section of late-1970s hardware, with the XM1 prototype of the M1 Abrams, the Shillelagh missile-firing M60A2, and sundry Warsaw Pact Fagots and Fitters.

'The Third World War' is no longer in print, and it is unlikely to be so in the future. The third world war itself has not yet come to pass, at least not in a form that we recognise today.

At a large, wooden table sits a large sweaty man.
In front of him, spread out on the table is a large, dusty map of the world. One that still labels East and West Germany.
Spread out on the map, small green soldiers, standing proud on their plastic bases, bayonets at the ready.
Else where there are small green tanks, planes and boats, each placed with strategy and care.
The large sweaty man reaches into a box and pulls out a handful of little soldiers, these ones molded from a dark red plastic.
He places them in a lump on a country to the East of Asia, grouped all together, standing haphazardly, their bases overlapping.
He snickers.
He casts his beedy eyes over the table, the green soldiers far outnumbering the red, positioned across the States of America with small groups in allied countries.
The tanks and planes at the ready and the ships sitting in the waters mere inches from the group of red soldiers.
Again, he snickers.
I have the best army, everybody says so. He mutters to himself.
He lifts up a gold ingot from the table to his right, some loose confidential papers that were being held down by it, drift onto the floor.
With a firm grasp he lifts the ingot above his head, then slams the ingot down on top of the red soldiers, bending and breaking them, some scatter and fly off the table.
He laughs, collects himself and grins smugly.
His small hand reaches out and lifts the ingot, placing it back on the table to his right.
He then sweeps the little red soldiers off the map into a small waste bin, already filled with a hundred broken red soldiers.
Some of the green soldiers had fallen over, or shifted slightly from the attack. He readjusts them, snickers, then reaches into the box and grabs a handful of small red soldiers...

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