WASHINGTON – Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said it. President Bush, too. So have various political commentators.

“World War Three.”

For years, the words have been used to describe chaos and animosity. They’ve been applied to sports rivalries, family spats, unkempt bedrooms and other situations full of drama or disagreement.

Now, with widespread fighting abroad and the threat of terrorism at home, they’re being used more literally. But there is no consensus on what makes a world war, much less on whether today’s upheaval qualifies.

“It’s not like there’s an official organization that labels wars,” said Caroline Cox, associate professor of history at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.

The term “generally is used to indicate a war – as in World Wars I and II – in which all of the major powers in the international system go to war with one another as a way to resolve their conflicts and to establish a new hierarchy of power,” said David Rowe, associate professor of political science at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

In the years before World War I broke out in 1914, Europe was a stew of political, territorial and economic rivalries, leading to military alliances among the various powers. The catalyst for war: the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian nationalist.

In the conflict that followed, the Allies – Britain, France, Italy, Russia and, starting in 1917, the United States – battled the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria.

It was known in its day as The Great War, and to those who marked its end on Armistice Day – Nov. 11, 1918 – this was the War to End All Wars. Those hopeful sentiments were dashed in just over two decades. World War I owes its name to its sequel.

During World War II, 1939 to 1945, the Allies, including the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union, fought to stop the aggression of the Axis Powers – Germany, Italy and Japan. The start of war: Germany’s invasion of Poland.

Both wars involved millions of troops and casualties, plus home front support and sacrifice.

“When people today talk about World War III, what they mean mainly is that there is a great threat or ideology that transcends national boundaries and brings nations together to fight it,” said Jennifer Delton, associate history professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “This was not present in World War I, but it was in World War II, when a large number of disparate countries allied to defeat not so much Germany as fascism.”

Today, the foes are militant Islamism and rogue states – North Korea key among them. But are we embarked upon World War III?

President Bush said in May that the passengers who seized control of the hijacked United Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, waged the “first counterattack of World War III.”

New York Daily News columnist Michael Goodwin took note of the summer’s headlines on July 9: “North Korea fires missiles, Iran talks of nukes again, Iraq carnage continues, Israel invades Gaza, England observes one-year anniversary of subway bombing. … World War III has begun.”

A week later, with Israel by then embroiled with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Gingrich created a media buzz with the same sentiment, calling recent attacks the “early stages” of World War III.

To Larry Schweikart, history professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, the term fits.

“What we’re seeing now is almost all of NATO is involved in Afghanistan; some 30 nations are involved in Iraq,” said Schweikart, author of “America’s Victories: Why the U.S. Wins Wars and Will Win the War on Terror.”

“On the other side,” he said, “we have these terrorists who are operating out of Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, the Afghanistan mountain areas, Chechnya … Palestine.”

But with actual fighting limited to certain parts of the world and with world powers involved to widely varying degrees, some say, it’s hard to classify the upheavals as a global conflict.

“We live in a world of war, rather than a world war,” said Donald Miller, history professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and author of three books on World War II. “But nothing’s connected. The world is so regionalized.”

Others question whether today can be compared to eras past. So much has changed.

Donald M. Goldstein, professor of public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, applies the phrase to what many call the “culture wars.”

“The third world war is a war not of nation-states,” Goldstein said, “it’s the rich against the poor; it’s men against women.”

Still others argue that we’re already one number past three.

“Some speak of World War IV, when they cite the Cold War as World War III, and the current war on terror as a worldwide effort that qualifies as the fourth,” said Richard Betts, director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University in New York City. “No one has ownership of the term “world war,’ so people use it as they wish.”


(Michele M. Melendez can be contacted at michele.melendez(at)newhouse.com)

AP-NY-07-25-06 1447EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.