World at War
Cause

The motivation for the war is widely assumed to be the desire of the Fire Nation, or at least its leadership, for world domination.
Timing

The war began a hundred years ago when Fire Lord Sozin launched an attack on the other nations shortly after Aang’s disappearance. The timing was also heavily influenced by the appearance of "Sozin’s Comet.” The passage of this comet augmented the power of the firebenders and greatly aided in the Fire Nation’s initial assault.1
Early Moves

Though theories abound, the exact order in which the Fire Nation targeted its adversaries or, indeed, whether it was able to launch multiple simultaneous attacks is unclear. Regardless of the precise disposition of the original strike, the fact is that both the Southern and Northern Air Temples were destroyed very soon after Aang’s disappearance.2

It is also unclear whether or not this attack was a surprise to the other nations. The monks of the Southern Air Temple certainly were aware of the possibility of war as this was the primary reason they decided to tell Aang that he was the Avatar four years before the customary age.3 Even if the other nations had advance warning, however, the Fire Nation’s success indicates the knowledge did little good.
Recent History

The Fire Nation has been active in the Earth Kingdom at least since Zhao held the rank of Lieutenant when he served under General Shu.4 The most famous event of the war’s recent history, however, was General Iroh’s legendary 600 day siege of the Earth Kingdom capital, Ba-Sing-Se. This siege failed to reduce the city and so the war continued.
Current Situation

The Southern Water Tribe has been hit many times,5 perhaps even in the initial attack. Its remaining warriors left the South Pole two years ago to fight the Fire Nation in the eastern Earth Kingdom.6

Unlike the polar regions of the Water Tribes or even the mountain aeries of the Air Nomads, the Fire Nation has chosen to permanently occupy large portions of the Earth Kingdom.7 The mighty capital of the Earth Kingdom, Ba-Sing-Se, is now the chief military obstacle that stands between Fire Lord Ozai and total victory.

Sozin’s Comet is due to return by the end of the coming summer. Unless Aang and his friends can stop the Fire Lord before then, he will use the comet’s power to destroy Ba-Sing-Se and complete the Fire Nation’s conquest of the world.8
1. See "Avatar Roku, Winter Solstice Part II”, Act III, where Avatar Roku tells Aang, "One hundred years ago, Fire Lord Sozin used that comet to begin the war.”

2. Gyatso was already old when Aang ran away and he died defending the Southern Air Temple, providing direct evidence of the Southern Air Temple’s early destruction. The date of the destruction of the Northern Air Temple is less clear, but the frequent repetition by many characters in different episodes that "airbenders have been extinct for a hundred years” lends credibility to the assumption that the Northern Air Temple’s fall was contemporaneous with its southern counterpart.

3. See "The Storm,” Act II.

4. See Siege of the North, Part I, act I.

5. The derelict Fire Nation ship seen in episodes 101 and 102 had been there according to Katara "since Gran Gran was a little girl.” Additionally, Katara and Sokka’s mother was killed in an undated Fire Nation raid.

6. See "Bato of the Water Tribe”, Act I where Bato tells Katara "No, he and the other warriors should be in the eastern Earth Kingdom by now” when she asks if her father is with him. Further, the placement of the tokens on the map on the floor of the Fire Lord’s war chamber seen in "The Storm” indicates that much of the heavy fighting is around Ba-Sing-Se in the northeastern part of the continent.

7. For example, the village drowned by Jet, the Fire Nation town in "The Deserter” and Haru’s village in "Imprisoned.”

8. See "Avatar Roku, Winter Solstice Part II”, Act III.

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