|Pope Francis, Redipuglia Cemetery, Italy|
Dennis Showalter, professor of history at the Colorado College in Denver, said current ideological and armed conflicts, as well as terrorist attacks worldwide, constitute a major global crisis equivalent to a world war.
“One never wishes to overuse this world-war trope, but certainly we are dealing with a comprehensive crisis with a global dimension," said Showalter. "Its scope far exceeds the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and the question of Muslim acculturation in Europe. I think it’s comprehensive and I think it’s something that has deep historical roots.”
Showalter said that global war on terror actually has more characteristics of a world war than the first two world wars, which he likens to civil wars.
“Both World War I and World War II were essentially civil wars within Western civilization; World War I obviously. I mean, this was a case of states in societies with a very broad spectrum of common values, tearing each other apart.”
According to Showalter, one important characteristic of a world war is that it has an ideological dimension. He noted, for example, that the Nazis, the Communists, the Christian Democrats and others all fought for their worldviews. In that respect, he said, World War II was more of a global conflict than World War I.
“And I would say that the key to a true world war is global, universal involvement. And that involves communications technology. It involves transport technology and it involves what our French friends call mentalité. And I think in that context, this thing we are in now is at least as much of a global war as World War II.”
Michael Ledeen, author of the book, The War Against the Terror Masters, defined the campaign against global terrorism as World War IV.
“I call it [World War] Four because we had the two hot world wars and than we had the Cold War, which was also a world war. So that would be World War III for me. And this is the fourth [world war] because our Western civilization is under attack from violent jihadists all over the world: from South America to Asia, Indonesia and, of course, Western Europe and the Middle East, and the United States. So you can’t get much more global than that.”
But some scholars have rejected comparisons between world wars and war on terror. Alex Roland, a professor of military history at Duke University in North Carolina, said the two world wars were exceptional events, peculiar to the first half of the 20th century. One of their characteristics was the ability to determine the future of nations.
“Nazi Germany and the imperial Japan –- that is, Japan under the absolute control of the emperor -- their future was at stake and they both disappeared in the same way, for example, that in World War I, (Ottoman) Turkey disappeared," said Roland.
"So the fate of nations was at stake. It’s not at stake now in the so-called war on terrorism. This is just the most recent in a whole series of terroristic campaigns that have been made against advanced industrialized states in the 19th and 20th centuries and it is not to dismiss them as unimportant. Each one has been significant in its own way, but they don’t come any place near being world war.”
Roland said another characteristic of world wars is the unprecedented number of casualties – tens of millions of people. The Cold War, he says, was actually waged to prevent another world war.
“And the Cold War never resulted in a direct major exchange of weapons between the United States and the Soviet Union, but rather a whole series of proxy wars among their satellite states. But even those wars didn’t add up to anything like the scale of the world wars.”
Roland said a world conflict of that scale is not likely to happen in any foreseeable future. He notes that Americans often use the word “war” as a way to emphasize the gravity of an issue.
“We’ve had a war on cancer. We’ve had a war on poverty. It is part of the rhetoric of the United States in the 20th century to declare war on things. Franklin Roosevelt back in the depression, even before World War II, declared war on the depression and used explicitly military combatant language to indicate the height of the priority that he was giving to this as a national issue. And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. But it’s all rhetoric.”
Meanwhile, Islamic State insurgents have taken large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria as they seek to carve their own state. The fate of at least two nations depends on whether they succeed in keeping the occupied territories or not.
Russia's annexation of Crimea and its involvement in eastern Ukraine has de facto changed Ukraine's border, and its continued involvement in eastern Ukraine may affect the country's ultimate fate.
The death toll and destruction these and other conflicts are leaving in their wake, and the massive displacements of local populations bring to mind world war disasters. New conflicts cropping up while the old ones have not been solved do make the whole world seem to be at war.
Scholars and political analysts may not have a unified definition for the current conflicts in the world, but at least as far as terrorism, all agree it is a serious threat to humanity that must be defeated.