Given NATO's present level of preparedness, Russia might win

On August 4, 1985 World War III begins. Before dawn Soviet tanks blitz across the West German frontier to confront the newly rearmed forces of NATO. Within three weeks both Birmingham, England and the Russian city of Minsk are in ruins from nuclear attack, the Soviet bloc is in rebellion, and the U.S.S.R. is itself disintegrating. The Western alliance has won—but narrowly.

This grim scenario, set forth in The Third World War: August 1985 (Macmillan, $12.95), is the work of a retired British officer, Gen. Sir John Hackett, 68, and it has stirred a lively controversy in England, since its publication a year ago, and in the U.S., where it has been near the top of the fiction best-seller list all summer. The drama of the book is not over which side prevailed (that's revealed in the prologue), but how. What's contentious about it is Hackett's conclusion: that if NATO is not substantially rearmed before 1985, "it might not survive."

Sir John, who until his retirement in 1968 was commander of NATO's Northern Army Group, was offered the job of plotting a future world conflict three years ago by a London publisher and grasped the assignment as "right up my street." Like any good commander, he recruited a staff of specialists, including an admiral, an air marshal, a diplomat and an economist. Combining their expertise, Sir John wrote a 30,000-word first version, which had West Germany annihilated by nukes and occupied by the Russians. But he decided to scrap that war because it was too demoralizing to the North Atlantic alliance—"the last thing I wanted." The final, limited nuclear war version, he says, is just "a cautionary tale."

Since he finished writing in 1978, events have made Hackett seem prescient. The book projected a woman prime minister of Britain—a Mrs. Plumber—long before Margaret Thatcher was elected to that post. There also was one important miscalculation: The Shah of Iran is still firmly in power in 1985. Yet Hackett's future history, written with what seem to be authoritative military reports, situation maps and five appendices, is disconcertingly plausible.

Sir John's credentials for concocting his war are impeccable: He is both a career soldier and a recognized scholar. The Hackett family is Norman-Irish, with roots in Tipperary that go back to the 12th century. The family fortunes were gambled away early in the 19th century, and in 1873 John's father, a distinguished academic, migrated to Australia, where he made his name in publishing and politics and won a knighthood for his work in education and as an architect of Australian federation. At 62 he took a 17-year-old bride. John was the fourth of their five children.

At his Australian prep school, Hackett was a boy wonder, excelling, he says, "if I may put it modestly, in whatever I tried." En route to Oxford at 18, he detoured through France long enough to learn French (he now speaks German, Italian, Arabic, Greek and Latin as well). At Oxford, he telescoped seven years of studies into four, and won two degrees with honors. After graduating, he opted for the army, in the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars, his great-grandfather's regiment in 1783. "My only two ambitions," says Sir John, "were to be a captain and to have two medals, so they would clink."

Hackett eventually won a chestful. In World War II he was wounded three times and captured by the Germans after parachuting into Holland, but escaped, an exploit recounted in his compelling previous book, I Was a Stranger. After retirement Hackett returned to academe, as principal of King's College, University of London, for seven years. He still lectures in classics there.

Home for Sir John and his Austrian-born wife, Margaret, 69, is 17 acres in England's Cotswolds. Their life includes trout fishing, theater, classical music, wine ("We drink a lot of the stuff") and medieval history (next May the Hacketts will be off to Rhodes and the coast of Turkey to retrace the travels of the crusading Order of St. John between 1402 and 1453). What he will not do is employ his obvious narrative gifts in best-selling potboilers. "That would be sheer self-indulgence," says the general. "I propose to spend the rest of my days in disciplined self-indulgence."