How do nations sleepwalk into war? Often through lack of imagination.
That is the thesis that impelled Adm. James Stavridis, a former NATO supreme commander, and Elliot Ackerman, a prominent fiction writer and decorated Marine veteran, to write “2034: A Novel of the Next World War.”
The new novel envisions how the United States and China could blunder into a nuclear conflict, propelled by Chinese nationalism, American hubris, and a U.S. failure to grasp the extent of Chinese advances in cyberwarfare.
At a time when the world is changing with a rapidity few of us foresaw — including a pandemic and U.S. internal conflicts — it seems hard to predict what next year will look like.
Yet, as this novel makes clear, it’s never been more important for Americans to fully grasp the danger of deteriorating relations between a still powerful USA and a rapidly rising China — a reality often lost in our hyper partisan political debates.
I asked Ackerman, a National Book Award finalist, whose four previous novels draw on his five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, why he chose fiction to make this case.
“There’s this sense that the best way to avoid these conflicts is to imagine them, then see how horrible it would be,” he told me. “The last three [major] national security attacks on our country — Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and the pandemic — were all things we failed to imagine.”
It’s not that military and think-tank experts aren’t discussing potential military conflicts with China, but Americans haven’t thought through the consequences.
“One of the challenges of cyber is that we don’t see it,” Ackerman continued. “It is easy to fall into complacency because we predict the next war will be decided like the past. It is difficult to imagine a different framework.” Case in point: the recent discovery of the massive SolarWinds hack, allegedly by Russia, that penetrated private U.S. companies, the Departments of Treasury and Commerce, probably parts of the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security.
So Ackerman and Stavridis chose to write a character-driven novel that veers between the old American military ethos of the 20th century and the uncertainties of the present. The plot revolves around a female U.S. Navy commodore who miscalculates while conducting a freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea, and an American pilot who dreams of emulating the aces of World War II.
It also hones in on Chinese officials who underestimate the consequences of using powerful new cyberweapons to render U.S. ships and planes defenseless. Things escalate from there.
“U.S. dominance in conventional military power is unmatched,” Ackerman says. “But in the unseen sphere of cyberdefense and offense, the book tries to jolt the reader into the sphere where America is no longer the most dominant. Many Americans walk around with a sense of complacency that isn’t merited.”
For Stavridis, the book carries on the tradition of the cautionary fiction of post-WWII novels like “Fail Safe” and “On the Beach” that imagined nuclear war with the Soviet Union. But the difference between now and then is that Americans knew what the horrors of nuclear war looked like, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That impelled Moscow and Washington to design systems to prevent the next one.
That public awareness is missing when it comes to China, which dwarfs the former Soviet Union in population and power. Beijing is developing new technologies that will make it a peer competitor with the United States in coming decades.
So how to avoid the dire scenario of the novel?
Stavridis cautions: “We have already entered a Cold War setting, and the question is how to avoid a hot war. China thinks 50, 100 years ahead. We do high-fives when we think five years ahead.”
The United States needs a long-term strategy for China (including improved cyber capabilities), rather than dealing with Beijing episodically, adds Stavridis. Former President Donald Trump “was right to be concerned about China’s rise but used pure tactics geared toward electoral advantage.”
His advice to the Biden team: “Cooperate where we can, but confront where we must (in coordination with allies). Respect China’s place in the international system but don’t acquiesce in territorial claims or overrunning Taiwan.”
Ackerman, who was awarded the Silver Star and the Bronze Star for valor, has a more personal answer. “I’m drawing these characters from knowledge of the human cost of war,” he says. America still has not finished the “late empire wars” he fought in.
The biggest theme of the book, he says, is “We have to avoid this war [with China]. … We have anesthetized ourselves to war, thinking it won’t be that bad and will be over by Christmas. But maybe we don’t have the technological dominance.”
He hopes the novel will inspire an “act of imagination [that] is a good inoculation to what war would look like.”