World War IV: An American Perspective
The Fourth World War. It isn’t a conspiracy theory. This is an idea with noble origins, from an indigenous North American voice, and it deserves amplification and normalization. (I should note that I did not forget how to count, we’ll get to the Third World War in a bit.) The idea of the world being embroiled in its Fourth major war comes from Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation, EZLN). The EZLN is an indigenous resistance movement in Chiapas, Mexico. They began in response to the passage of NAFTA in 1994, declaring war on the Mexican government for endorsing the free trade agreement. Called “a pact made in Hell” by Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, NAFTA posed a threat to the self-determination of Mexico’s indigenous people, who for half a millennium had already suffered untermensch treatment under colonial rule, genocide, and land theft.
We have never had these rights — freedom of expression, the right to organize, the freedom to set prices of our produce. When we produce something, it is the buyer who sets the price of our product, and that is where the exploitation begins.
- Comandante Zebedeo, EZLN
The Fourth World War is perhaps best defined as a war of utter exploitation. Through their organizing, the EZLN have, for nearly a quarter century now, been under autonomous self-rule, controlling their own healthcare, education, justice, economic, and civic systems. By standing up for their own self-determination, the EZLN represent an example of municipal rule as a viable counter to imperialism.
If we’re in the Fourth World War, logically it goes to say that we have experienced World War Three already. Due to cultural expectations among citizens of the main superpowers of the time, namely that the Third World War would be a nuclear apocalypse lasting all of fifteen minutes, the West has turned a blind eye to a decades-long conflict that devastated nations, created refugees, and saw further advancements from the military-industrial complex like the assault rifle, napalm, and covert guerrilla operations funded with imperial budgets. Its horrors are minimized by the name given to this period by Western historians: the Cold War.
History as we were taught speaks of two World Wars, followed by a global conflict called the Cold War spanning from 1946–1989 and marked by bouts of diplomatic tension and a nuclear arms race. The United States had effectively raised (lowered?) the standard in modern warfare by deploying two atomic bombs, which today would be classified as weapons of mass destruction, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. This brutal checkmate move forced the Japanese to surrender, prompted the U.S./Soviet arms race, and left observers speculating the worst about what the next world war would look like. The pattern of technical one-upsmanship that came out of World War One spilled over into its sequel and stained postwar thought with an unofficial definition that World War Three be nuclear.
Known in its time as the Great War, dubbed the “war to end all wars,” the First World War took the innovative spirit of the Industrial Revolution and brought together the forces of military and industry into a hellish profiteering union that all but guaranteed the Great War would have a successor. With such inventions whose sole purpose is mass homicide — tanks, poison gas, and the machine gun — humanity outdid itself in finding the most horrific ways to kill one another during the years of conflict between 1914 and 1918. The disfigurement, maiming, and death caused by the hallmark of weapons of World War One would only be surpassed by the damage caused by a nuclear explosion: radiation poisoning for those not immediately incinerated, across an area the size of a city.
Albert Einstein said in 1949, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” This sentiment was shared with members of the U.S. military directly involved with nuclear tests, suggesting a widespread expectation for World War III to be an exchange of nuclear missile launches between superpowers. Promises and policies of “mutually assured destruction,” best explored in Dr. Strangelove (Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), kept worst-case scenarios fresh in the public mind throughout the United States and Europe; these nations experienced domestic prosperity in the postwar era, especially the U.S. (inequitable this prosperity was, it should be noted) as the whole of Europe put itself back together again.
The combined factors of capitalistic bliss at home, a lack of widespread violence domestically, and a global image as being responsible for taking down the evil empires of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito, served to act as blinders for the American public in recognizing the birth of a new empire: theirs. Power had simply been consolidated, a strategic line bisecting Berlin separating two competing ideologies: capitalism and socialism.
World War III saw the intervention of competing and allied superpowers — specifically, the United States, the People’s Republic of China, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the European Communities (pre-1993 name of the European Union) — in various civil wars, be they organic, coerced, or forced, across the world.
For the United States, this included military participation in the Korean War (1951 — 2018), the Vietnam War (1957 — 1975), various covert operations in Latin America and Southeast Asia, including the CIA’s role in the murder of Che Guevara, their backing of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, support for the murderous lunatic Pol Pot, destabilizing the Iranian government by imposing the Shah until the People’s Revolution of 1979, backing Pakistan against India under Nixon, arms deals with Osama bin Laden (to aid in fighting against the Soviets) and Saddam Hussein (to aid in fighting Iran) before they became our sworn enemies, military or monetary support for Israeli, Greek, Pakistani, and Turkish authoritarians, the list goes on.
The NATO countries and Warsaw Pact countries used these skirmishes and wars as testing grounds for their respective toys, most obviously the M-16 and AK-47, later the M-4 and AK-74, along with other methods of engagement. If the United States had sprayed Russia’s taiga forests with Agent Orange, the Kremlin response could have been catastrophic. But if the US sprayed Agent Orange on the North Vietnamese jungle, there was at least the possibility no one would notice.
The Third World War was a global clash between these two socioeconomic structures. Eventually, capitalism won, with the Soviet Union dissolving and Russia embracing the newly deregulated free market that came out of the Reagan years. The hyperactive capitalism that brought about the surplus and (disparately shared) economic boom in the West also brought us the Russian oligarchs, whose greatest offense beyond the exploitation of labor and resources has been their collective ability to best American cowboy capitalists at their own game.
Though it did not present as a shooting war on European soil, to deny the Cold War’s body count from prolonged conflicts across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America is to regard non-white, non-Anglo Saxon lives as inferior. To continue to see the Cold War as something less than a World War is a colonial justification for murder.
We are in the throes of the Fourth World War, underway since July 1997. Much has been written by Subcomandante Marcos on this subject. Our shadow wars have been replaced by overt and illegal interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, while we continue towards a war with Iran.
One thread linking these World Wars is that each conflict was a consolidation of power, which then set forth to fill every possible void in its purview. Subcomandante Marcos writes:
The ending of the third world war — meaning the cold war — in no sense means that the world has gone beyond the bipolar and found stability under the domination of a single victor. Because, while there was certainly a defeat (of the socialist camp), it is hard to say who won. The United States? The European Union? Japan? All three?
The defeat of the “evil empire” has opened up new markets, and the struggle over them is leading to a new world war — the fourth.
To think some still don’t recognize Western imperialism.
Why July 6, 1997, and not a little later? Marcos selected this date in light of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) losing its majority in the Mexican Chamber of Deputies, prompting the EZLN to retreat to the jungles of rural Chiapas. In the original article, the event is described as a “political earthquake.” This was during the reign of Bill Clinton’s destructive, racist administration, the heady pre-Monica days where a hillbilly law & order arms dealer and his power-hungry spouse presented to the public a neoliberal response to Ronnie and Nancy. Clinton hid his true self behind an “aw shucks” façade and being the closest we’ll ever come to seeing Elvis Presley elected President (another white man who profited so much from the exploitation of black labor, specifically blues musicians. At least he didn’t kick-start the prison-industrial complex, he just wanted Nixon to ban The Beatles.)
Some may look to the Battle of Seattle protests of 1999 or 9/11/01, but I respect Subcomandante Marcos’ chosen date of July 6, 1997. Consider the prescience of his observation at this point in time, years before 9/11 and the War on Terror, a dozen years before Obama and Biden championed automated warfare through drone strikes, and nearly two decades before the rise of Trumpism:
In the post-cold war period we see the emergence of a new planetary scenario in which the principal conflictual elements are the growing importance of no-man’s-lands (arising out of the collapse of the Eastern bloc countries), the expansion of a number of major powers (the United States, the European Union and Japan), a world economic crisis and a new technical revolution based on information technology.
This is a top-down conflict pitting the ruling class against the ruled. With the planet at a tipping point owing to man made sources of climate destabilization (the far less sexy but much more accurate term for “global warming”) stemming from industry, profits are taking precedent over the needs of humanity. At the same time, the police state has cameras on every corner and their own militarized arsenal, ready to quash any movement that threatens the status quo. Anti-Fascists are considered terrorists. Blocking a highway can get you run over (with protections on the side of the driver) as easily as it can get you federal charges. How much longer until environmentalists are considered a threat to the state?
What was once a two-sided conflict has again expanded into a multilateral chess game among unlikely bedfellows and bitter enemies. The players include the United States, an oil-rich Canada, a Brexiting U.K., the 27 states of the European Union, Russia, India, Brazil (another country descending into chaos these past few years), Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Japan, North Korea, South Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, and China. If it seems like it’s getting crowded, it’s only because leadership in so many of these countries has been compromised by the intrusion authoritarian regimes. Witness Donald Trump, Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, Rodrigo Duterte, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Benjamin Netanyahu, Bashar al-Assad, Mamnoon Hussain, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Vladimir Putin.
How many of these people have access to nuclear weapons? To chemical or biological weapons?
It hasn’t all been doom and gloom. The Arab Spring and its Western counterpart, the Occupy Movement, however short-lived those moments were, reminded the world and showed our leaders what happens when the people come together. Americans who just three years earlier were voting for a literal poster boy candidate were openly discussing the end of capitalism, and anti-capitalist streams of thought like socialism, communism, and anarchism were no longer taboo. Even support for Palestine and the move to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel and Saudi Arabia, at one point heretical movements, gained more mainstream support.
Both Occupy and the Arab Spring showed the power of people, and how the global village brought into existence by the Internet broke down barriers among citizens across the world. Suddenly, we were all aware of one another’s oppression. Global revolution seemed possible in the early 2010’s, with the Information Age making it possible for us to organize and fight for a better future in international solidarity.
Unfortunately, the same powers that allowed the construction of the global village are also those who ultimately control it. Infiltration by agitators, malicious parties, and state agencies ensured a tight rein over these freedom movements. The livestream of the Zuccotti Park raid, ending the Occupy movement, serves as a snuff film for the revolution.
The corporate influence of the #Resistance has already dampened the wild flames that fueled anti-Trump fervor. Neo-Fascism has made America an ugly place to be. People have already become complacent, willing to compromise humanity for the illusory concept of security. White America is captivated by Trump’s dalliances and personnel changes within his own Cabinet to give a damn about ICE raids, rollbacks of environmental regulation, pledges to extract fossil fuels, or the eminent threat of mass incarceration. White America marched for “our” lives while those fighting for black, immigrant, and Muslim lives continue to face oppression, arrest, and even violence for believing White lives matter too much.
For the Americans who are ready to push for change, as our nation stands on the verge of entering a wartime economy, replete with its nationalist attacks on dissent, we must be ready to fight for our lives. The real Resistance is not going to form online. Anyone planning the revolution on social media is doomed to fail. The EZLN planned their uprising in private, shocking the world as a result. Our only way is forward.