An old Foreign Service buddy of mine recently turned me on to the book 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. Co-authored by writer Elliott Ackerman and retired Admiral James Stavridis, my friend tells me the novel is all the buzz inside the Beltway these days. In no small measure, this is because in every war game simulation run in recent years, the ChiComs wind up handing the U.S. its ass on a platter. A sobering thought, it was enough to make me want to read this book.
It’s no coincidence that I’m posting this review on August 6, on the 76th anniversary of the day the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. While it takes more than a book to remind us, the specter of nuclear war has not receded into the realm of the totally implausible despite all the changes that have occurred in the world in those intervening years since the Enola Gay (which I’ve actually seen and stood next to) released its payload over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. If anything, an increasingly multi-polar world may be making the world ever more dangerous.
First, from a literary point of view, the book is well written. At times the action is gripping, and it becomes difficult to put the book down (a tendency I confess to have resisted and wound up reading the book in several tranches). There is a fair amount of personal back story of various characters, which got me a bit impatient, though such things usually do when my focus is on the action.
The general premise of the book is that China coordinates with the Iranians and the Russians to goad the U.S. into a conflict in which the U.S. is from the outset at a technological disadvantage. A series of miscalculations and missteps set the world’s two leading powers into a pattern that winds up in a tit-for-tat nuclear exchange, one that, just barely, falls short of being an all-out nuclear blow out. In the end, the world balance of power has shifted, and somehow India winds up emerging as the world’s king maker. There are elements of nuclear porn, for those who seek such things, but the book doesn’t wind up being Apocryphal. If anything, I found the ending rather unsatisfactory, but we’ll get to that.
One of the premises of the book is that the Chinese have developed a technology that renders entire fleets of their ships invisible to detection. Clearly this gives them a huge strategic advantage, but I had to wonder how plausible this is. We have satellites circling the globe with visual surveillance capability, and it just didn’t make sense to me that actual ships on the waters could be hidden from that kind of visual identification.
As it turns out, I recently came across an article where this very issue is raised. Apparently GPS technology already is being intercepted and manipulated by unknown actors to show ships and fleets in locations where they are not. Obviously, this can lead to serious consequences if, for instance, a nation thinks it is about to be attacked by a phantom fleet, which it believes to be real, and retaliates. But, much as I suspected in reading the scenario painted in 2034, visual satellite imagery is used to confirm the actual location of the ships detected and to compare that location with the phantom location to demonstrate the reality. So until someone shows me some technology that completely obscures a vessel’s visual presence (as well as the role played by human intelligence), I have to conclude that this is a stretch too far.
There were other things in the book that didn’t compute to me. Early in the book an entire U.S. naval fleet is destroyed by the Chinese, and yet our retaliation is restrained and the course of events is stretched over several months. If China (or anyone) wipes out an entire fleet of our ships, would we slow-walk our response, as happens in the book? I seriously doubt it. In fact, the whole war seems like it is in slow motion. I understand we’re on entirely new ground here and we have never engaged in a full-scale war with a nuclear power before. We may or may not make a first nuclear strike, but would a nuclear China be as restrained if faced with a massive conventional response? I can’t answer that question, with what I know, but the pace of events just didn’t seem realistic, though it did help fill pages.
Another thing I didn’t understand was a key part where the Russians take out underwater Internet cables passing under the Arctic Sea, completely disrupting domestic U.S. communication. I had to wonder why Internet cables running under the Arctic Sea would be connecting domestic U.S. Internet nodes, and why destroying them would disrupt our internal Internet connectivity. I also looked up current undersea cables and there don’t appear to be any running under the Arctic Sea. But even if there were, I can see where they might disrupt connections to Europe or maybe Asia, but not between the East and West coasts of the U.S. This seemed to be an unanswered question even though it was a critical event in the book.
The cable thing also raised the question why one side or the other wouldn’t have used an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) attack on the other, which would have had far more widespread effects without the need to resort to nuclear ground attacks and frying whole cities.
I understand a certain degree of literary liberty, but when logic seems not to apply to major elements of the plot, without any explanation, I find it troubling as a reader and it makes me question how much I can suspend disbelief. Perhaps we’ve gotten to the point where we believe that all things are possible with technology, but until pigs fly without benefit of technology, I’m going to retain a level of skepticism.
There are some interesting themes that run through the book. One of them seemed to be, low tech meets high tech and low tech wins (usually, anyway). This has long been a kind of life principle of mine. Are we too dependent (and would be even more so in 13 years which, by the way, doesn’t seem that far off) on technology? Probably. Especially if proper safeguards and backstops aren’t built into it. But meanwhile we are engaged in a technological competition with the Chinese. To believe 2034, they may well be winning that competition. And there is reason to believe they are, aside from the book.
One lesson, early on and which sets the whole story in motion, is how not following proper procedure and going off on deviations can be a very bad idea. A U.S. naval commodore, heading a patrol in the South China Sea, decides to deviate from SOPs to go check out a Chinese merchant vessel that appears to be in trouble. In doing so, she walks right into a trap that had been set by the Chinese. It might not be as heroic or dramatic, but sometimes it’s better to stay with the program and not follow one’s gut feelings or curiosities.
I have long believed that if we get into a nuclear war it would most likely be by accident or miscalculation. We have come pretty close a couple of few times. In the book, a series of mishaps and miscalculations allows a U.S. Navy pilot to get through to nuke Shanghai despite attempts by his commander to call off the attack. And things just continue to snowball.
Parts of the books turned out to be nothingburgers. There is a whole section devoted to a battle for the Strait of Hormuz between the Iranians and the Russians which seemed superfluous and much to-do about not much. I was expecting more involvement by Russia leading to the U.S. being forced to fight a two-front war, and that just never developed.
While, as I said, much of the book is gripping, I found the ending unsatisfactory. It is made to seem that the U.S. had been reduced to some sort of second- or third-rate power, while India, of all countries, had risen to be the major world power. Both the reality and the logic of that eluded me. In the course of the book the Chinese nuke Galveston and San Diego, but in the end the country seems demoralized and a shadow of its former self. Somehow I don’t see how loss of those two cities would have such a major impact on the country as it does in the book. There are even people living in refugee camps, which also seemed superfluous and unlikely.
We’ve faced crises before, whether it was grouping and striking back after Pearl Harbor, or following 9-11. And a major hurricane, like Katrina, certainly devastated a big part of the country, and we dealt with it, if imperfectly. Maybe if New York and Los Angeles were taken out it might be more likely. But with Galveston and San Diego being the targets, I don’t see it. Of course, at the rate and in the direction the country currently is headed, we might be so wimped out and divided and chaotic by then, that we just slip into being a third-rate power.
We also never do find out how things are in China after the war (except they don’t mind putting a bullet in the back of the head of someone who is perceived to have screwed up), and we are left wondering the final disposition of Taiwan, which China has invaded in the course of the war.
My friend who turned me on to the book disagrees with me on the ending. He thinks it would be quite realistic to believe that the country could be so demoralized if even relatively minor cities were nuked that it might actually break up, and the country would face an existential crisis the likes of which we only experienced during the Civil War. In his view, states with extreme politics, like California and Oregon, might opt out of the Union and attempt to become independent entities. There also would be lots of openings, he says, for malicious external actors to support some people’s worst inclinations. I’m not prepared to say his analysis is wrong, again, especially with the current negative trends we’re seeing in the country. I do think it would not be unrealistic to think both the country and the world would be profoundly altered by a war between the superpowers, especially one with nuclear exchanges.
As I proceeded through the book, I was reminded of an argument I had with a friend 40-some years ago. I argued at the time that logic would mitigate against a nuclear confrontation, and the other party argued that it would in fact be logic that would lead to such a conflict. Reading this book and seeing the progression of events, I actually could see the validity of that argument and how that very logical progression of events led to the conflagration that ensues.
The Washington scenes frequently reminded me of the things I didn’t like about being in the Foreign Service and the reasons that caused me eventually to Ieave it: The boneheads running the show, the clash of egos, the internal politics, the too many chefs in the kitchen, the hubris, the suits and ties running the ship of state aground. There were little giveaways to when the book was written and the authors’ perspectives, such as a reference to the one-term presidency of Mike Pence, but those didn’t much matter in the overall scheme of things.
Of course I felt bad about all the millions of incinerated people, on both sides. I even felt bad for the ex-wife of one of the main characters who got nuked in Galveston (and I felt bad for the neat little B&B there at which I once stayed). But, think what you will, I felt worst about this squirrel that the main Iranian character squeezes to death in his hand, and for its mate as she watches him do it. That just seemed gratuitously cruel and it bothered me all through the rest of the book.
Perhaps the main value of 2034 is that it draws our attention to the biggest external threat facing the country and the world. China has made no secret of its designs for domination both regionally and on the larger world stage. Its impact has been felt in the past year and a half through a devastating virus that it allowed to be released across the globe and, to date, has faced virtually no consequences for what, at best, was its negligence. Neither has it faced consequences for its repressive internal policies, the genocide it is conducting against the Uighurs, its crushing of Hong Kong’s democracy, or its open threats against Taiwan and even Japan. While our focus and national resolve drift, China’s has intensified.
There are a range of issues the book brings attention to, from the role of technology, to war strategy, to civil preparedness, to hardening our communications, to effective diplomacy. And they are all worthy of attention. But what it fails to address, what fall outside its purview, are the internal divisions that tear at our national fabric, the diversion of both our civilian and military leadership from the big issues of national security to some sort of “woke” agenda that only further weakens us, and our growing loss of educational acuity as China surges ahead. It is the internal threat that, in the end, may pose the greater danger than the external one. The import of that threat is not lost on China nor our other adversaries.
Bottom line: Read 2034, pay more attention to what China is up to, and what is — or isn’t — going on in Washington, too.
2034: A Novel of the Next World War is by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis.
Elliot Ackerman is the author of the novels “Red Dress in Black and White,” “Waiting for Eden,” “Dark at the Crossing,” and “Green on Blue,” as well as the memoir “Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning.” His books have been nominated for the National Book Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. He is both a former White House Fellow and Marine, and served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.
Retired Adm. Jim Stavridis spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of four-star admiral. He was Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and previously commanded U.S. Southern Command, overseeing military operations through Latin America. At sea, he commanded a Navy destroyer, a destroyer squadron, and an aircraft carrier battle group in combat. He holds a Ph.D from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he recently served five years as dean. He has published eight previous books and hundreds of articles. Admiral Stavridis is chief international security and diplomacy analyst for NBC News, and a columnist at both Time magazine and Bloomberg Opinion. Based in Washington, D.C., he is an operating executive of the Carlyle Group, an international private equity firm, and chair of the board of counselors of McLarty Associates, an international consulting firm.