War, conventional or nuclear, is probably the least likely scenario in Europe. But if it came, war in Europe would be unimaginably more terrible than any previous war, even if by some fluke it never went nuclear. ''Conventional'' is far too bland a word to convey what the next war would be like. It is an utter misnomer.
One multiple rocket launcher today packs as much destruction as an entire battalion 40 years ago. The nonnuclear air-fuel explosive produces as much blast as an atomic bomb.
If the relatively primitive World War I killed 10 million and the somewhat less primitive World War II killed 45 million, the much more sophisticated World War III would threaten many more deaths, in a far shorter time - along with annihilation of the social order needed to care for the survivors.
Perversely, it is this existential terror - and the clear understanding that any challenge to the vital interests of either East or West in Europe would unleash this terror - that has kept today's ''postwar'' Europe at peace for longer than ever before in this century, policymakers believe.
Given this context, some readers may find it obscene to analyze rationally - as this article seeks to do - what could only be the irrational, moral insanity of a European war. This is, however, an exercise that governments feel compelled to perform, precisely to impress on themselves and their adversaries the horror of recourse to war. By this acute awareness they hope to continue to avert war altogether.
This article will not paint in grim detail the agonies of potential chemical warfare, of diabolically perfected antipersonnel fragmentation bomblets or delayed-action plastic bombs that could remain hidden and defy discovery for generations after a war had ended. It will not describe the hordes of refugees or the charnel house of Europe in a war in which missiles and planes would make the military ''front line'' a very elastic concept.
These must always form the context, however, for considering the potential course of war.