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God forbid it ever comes to this

God forbid it ever comes to this

Every once in a while, a book gives me the willies. 

“2034: A Novel of the Next World War” did more than that. It scared the hell out of me.

Here novelist Elliot Ackerman and Retired Admiral James Stavridis, who commanded ships in combat and who along with R. Manning Ancell wrote “The Leader’s Bookshelf,” which I enjoyed and reviewed a few years ago, look a decade into the future where a war between China and the United States erupts. As that conflict escalates to the use of tactical nuclear weapons, other countries — Russia, Iran, India — also become involved, each pursuing their own national interests.

Ackerman and Stavridis tell their terrifying story through the eyes of individuals: Navy Capt. Sarah Hunt, Sandeep “Sandy” Chowdhury, a U.S. deputy national security adviser with ties to India, Marine Corps pilot Chris “Wedge” Mitchell, Chinese admiral Lin Bao, and Iranian Brigadier General Qassem Farshad. Through them we meet their families, allies and enemies, military and intelligence experts, and politicians.

The co-authors not only do a fine job of fleshing out these personalities, but they also depict a face of war so often forgotten. As veterans of the battlefield know, fighting and tactics can become an unholy mess, a swamp of communications breakdowns, unforeseen possibilities, vicious disagreements among commanders serving on the same side, and brutal repercussions when mistakes are made. In the opening scenes of the book, for instance, when Chinese military forces assault U.S. ships in the South China Sea, our commanders and politicians are stunned when the Chinese rip that flotilla to shreds. They do so not by superior seamanship, but by using cyber-attacks to disable the electronics systems of the American vessels. 

Ackerman and Stavridis also capture the differences between the Communist Chinese Party and American democracy in their approaches to politics and strategic planning. Free from the constraints and disruptions in policy by elections, the CCP takes a longer and more patient view of strategy than do the Americans. The Americans walk an altogether different path. “Those qualities Lin Bao had always admired in the Americans — their moral certitude, their single-minded determination, their blithe optimism — undermined them at this moment as they struggled to find a solution to a problem they didn’t understand.”

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Without giving away too much of the diplomatic maneuvering and the movement toward the use of nuclear weapons, we also see the horrific tit-for-tat approach of two super-powers at war. The philosophy goes like this: You take out one of my cities, I will take out two of yours. We watch this madness play out in the book, baffled that the adherents of any ideology could condemn millions to die for some nebulous and even ridiculous national ambition. Some readers may even say to themselves, “This could never happen.”

Maybe. Maybe not. 

In fact, however, a war of sorts is already underway, only a lot of us don’t know it. A description of this global conflict is so subtly tucked away in 2034 that careless readers may miss it. 

In a chapter titled “The Tandava,” which references a dance by Shiva, god of creation and destruction, Lin Bao fantasizes about becoming a professor, far away from the halls of power and death. He imagines teaching a class to American college students about the wars fought by the Ancient Athenians and how their Golden Age had ended. When a student asks him how that fall had occurred, “If the Persians couldn’t do it, who did?” Lin Bao replies, “The end came — as it always does — from within …. Look over the ages,” he would assert, “from Britain, to Rome, to Greece the empire always rots from within.”

And on the final pages of the novel, Chowdhury, who is on his way back to the United States from India after the war has ended to help repair a devastated America, recollects part of a speech by a young Abraham Lincoln, words worth quoting in full here: “All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years…. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be the author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.” 

“2034” is a warning to the world that in our age of globalism, high tech, and ever deadlier weapons future wars, somewhat like that waged right now between Ukraine and Russia, might blow out of control. More specifically, though subtly, it is a warning to the West and particularly to the United States that China now has the Navy and the technological know-how to fight a war against America and possibly win, particularly a war fought near its own shores. Google “can the U.S. win a war with China?” and you’ll see all sorts of data, mixed results, and a variety of predictions. 

But as 2034 should make clear, the interests of both countries and certainly the world at large surely mitigate against such a conflict. If sanity has any say at all, a war employing nuclear weapons should be unthinkable. 

This grim novel is also a reminder to be on guard against forces, foreign or domestic, intent on undermining our republic, to repair and rebuild the bridges between our citizens rather than destroying them. 

(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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