The end is nigh, again

It's 2006, another world war is raging, and the West is in deep, deep trouble. By John Davison
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The Independent Culture
`Death has climbed in through our windows and has entered our fortresses; it has cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the public squares ... the dead bodies of the men will lie like refuse on the open field, like cut corn behind the reaper, with no one to gather them," - Jeremiah, 9, xxi-xxii.

Such is the message prefacing the final chapter of a new book on the future of global warfare, Total War 2006. And as the title hints, reader, the news is not good.

By the end, nuclear weapons have been exchanged, Tehran and a number of other cities have been flattened, at least one country has effectively ceased to exist, and a Great Plague is stalking the earth after the release of biological weapons. Along the way armadas have been sunk, nations bombed and the entire military orthodoxy sent into terminal tail-spin. It's gloomy stuff - yet the man who wrote all this describes himself as an "eternal optimist".

He is Squadron Leader Simon Pearson, a former Tornado pilot who has given up a 20-year career in the RAF to get his message across. Far from the wild-eyed prophet of doom, he has the conventional pin-striped appearance and clipped delivery of the typical modern military man. "I sincerely hope that none of these things happens. Not a single one," he says. "But if just one were to happen, then people might look at the the others more seriously."

Following a similar pattern to that followed by General Sir John Hackett in his best-selling 1970s work The Third World War, Pearson constructs a political build-up to cataclysm from the current day - taking international tensions that are already in the headlines and moving them forward to possible logical, and inevitably gloomy, conclusions.

From North Korea, to Nato expansion, Northern Ireland and the Middle East, he weaves a frightening pattern of "what ifs", taking the reaction of the ascendant West to various developments as his viewpoint. His purpose, he says, is to highlight some of the "hidden warnings" that exist in all these situations and by doing so to question the current complacency that he sees in a lot of military and political thinking.

"We in the West hide under a comfortable security blanket that assumes that in the worst case the Americans will always be there with their air power, and that we will win," he says. "That the nice lives that you and I have will not be threatened."

But it ain't necessarily so. Pearson draws a parallel with the situation of 100 years ago, when the world also seemed to be a stable, balanced place after a period of war, revolution and upheaval. "When people were looking forward to the 20th century, if you had told them what would happen they would have thought you were barking mad. But this is the future. Anything could happen."

What Pearson suggests might happen is a series of revolutions across the Islamic world, starting in Algeria, which eventually give Muslims a concerted anti-western stance unified by a single charismatic leader. Russia, tired of the corruption it sees as springing from that country's lurch towards capitalism, has its own second revolution and also emerges strengthened militarily and anti-Nato.

He foretells another Korean war, sparked by North Korea posing a nuclear threat to its neighbours, from which America emerges more militant than ever in defence of its interests and apparently unchallengeable. While in Europe the federalist dream collapses and a series of right-wing governments harden their individual stances towards the rest of the world.

A clash of cultures, according to Pearson, then becomes inevitable. This is played out in exact military detail through the rest of the book, which goes a long way towards justifying the PR blurb of reading "like a thriller", and uses individual stories of those caught up in the various conflicts to give it a human dimension.

But why should we take any notice of this particular view of future shock? Anyone listening to the BBC's The World Tonight programme while reading it will get an eerie feeling that some of the moves predicted are already taking place. And Pearson's military theories have their basis in some serious academic study, in particular from the prize-winning thesis he wrote in 1995 after two years as a guest student at the German Staff college in Hamburg. In this he committed the near-heresy of questioning the overwhelming confidence placed in military air power.

Since the Gulf War of 1991, with its television pictures of precision "smart" bombing, pummelled Iraqi defences and resultant easy victory, the supremacy of air power has become a given among Western governments. It is now seen as a means of solving every international problem, with the added virtue that this can be done from the relative safety of medium or high altitude.

Notwithstanding the wobbles over the air campaign in Kosovo, the eventual capitulation of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosovic - with zero casualties for the allies - was seen to have vindicated the position. But Pearson thinks that some dangerously wrong messages have been picked up from the two conflicts.

The unique ability of air forces to carry out strategic bombing, he argues, has led to an overemphasis on such operations. "In my view, air power has forgotten its essential duty - which is controlling the air so that a ground war can be won. If you want to change the situation in a country you have to put people in on the ground: you can't do that with air power alone." Worse still, Pearson thinks that air power is not as invulnerable as it is claimed to be. "Air power is not everything," he says. "There are ways round it."

In the book Pearson shows how a determined enemy fighting an "asymmetric war" (that is, loosely, not playing by the same rules) could strike at the weakest points in the chain and hamstring a whole operation. It opens with an engagement he calls "The Second Pearl Harbor", in August 2006, when four US aircraft carriers are sunk by an alliance of Russians and Islamic revolutionaries.

It's perhaps not entirely surprising that the RAF was less than thrilled at the prospect of such a controversial book coming out under the name of a serving officer. So Pearson, 37, decided to leave a promising career that started two weeks after he had finished his A-levels. "A number of senior military people have been quite excited by the book, and I naively hoped that the Air Force would back it," he says. But a meeting last November, when it was made clear that this would not be the case, led him to examine his future. His decision was based around many considerations, including family life and the future education of his three sons. But as a born- again Christian, he also prayed about what he should do. "I got this overwhelming feeling of not belonging. For the first time I felt outside the system," he says. "The one thing certain is that God doesn't want me in the RAF any more." In the end, he felt he couldn't turn down the chance to try something else, "to have a book published and perhaps contribute towards warning people about our complacent view of security".

As for the rest of us, we can only hope, as Pearson himself does, that he has got it all badly wrong.

`Total War 2006' is published by Hodder and Staughton at pounds 18.99