In ‘2034,’ an Admiral and a Marine Combat Veteran Imagine the Next World War

In military time, a dozen years is not a large leap into the future. Most active American ships and aircraft were already deploying 13 years ago, and will still be in service as many years hence.

So it’s not surprising that the world of “2034,” the apocalyptic new war novel from Elliot Ackerman and retired Adm. James Stavridis, feels so familiar. The U.S. Navy is still laboring to counter Chinese sovereignty claims in the South China Sea; Iran still looms as an unstable threat; and the Defense Department remains beset by cyber vulnerabilities ripe for exploitation.

But the great power competition over which military leaders have debated and strategized for decades ignites into global war by means of a truly unexpected catalyst.

Few may be more qualified to speculate through fiction on the next world war than this powerful duo of authors.

Stavridis was the first U.S. admiral to serve as NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and became dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University following his distinguished 37-year Navy career. His previous books include “Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans.”

Ackerman, a former Marine Corps special operations officer who was decorated for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, has in the last six years emerged as one of the generation’s most important writers on war and conflict, with four previous novels, a memoir and a thick portfolio of columns and journalistic reports on topics ranging from the military draft to former prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl.

“2034: A Novel of the Next World War” represents a venture into a new genre for both authors. But they prove they are up to the task, with vivid, lively scene-setting, deeply human and carefully developed characters and soul-twisting moments that drive home the desolate realities of war.

The following is a Military.com Q&A with Ackerman and Stavridis.

Military.com: Adm. Stavridis has written well-received nonfiction books on leadership, character, history and the oceans; Mr. Ackerman has written a number of literary and internal novels. This is a futuristic thriller, something different entirely. How did this partnership and project come about?

Elliot Ackerman: We’ve known one another for a number of years, the two of us being alumni of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where Jim later served as dean and where I was writer-in-residence for a semester during his tenure. We also share an editor at Penguin Press, Scott Moyers. When Jim first had the idea for this book, he brought it to Scott. Scott knew Jim and I were already friends and suggested we team up. The rest is history.

Adm. James Stavridis: I had written nine works of non-fiction by 2019, but of course — like all self-described and self-appointed “writers” — my real ambition was to write a novel. I kept pestering my editor at Penguin Press, the aforementioned Scott Moyers, and he kept politely bunting me off. I think he knew that I could bring a lot to such an effort, but it would need someone experienced in creating and sustaining fictional characters. As Elliot said, he and I have been good friends since 2013 when I got out of the military and met him at a Fletcher alumni event. We’ve had a marvelous time bringing the characters in the book to life and putting them in an impossible situation — all as a cautionary tale for the world. It’s been a rewarding partnership.

Military.com: Every partnership between authors has its own process and division of labor. What was yours?

EA: Our process came about pretty naturally. Before we got serious about the book, we wanted to see whether we could write well together and so outlined the first chapter, which is the “Wén Rui Incident,” an event like the Gulf of Tonkin that precipitated the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Creating that chapter turned out to be our method throughout the book. We would outline the story’s progression in detail, discussing what was going to occur among the five central characters who form the narrative arc of the book. We’d agree on the major muscle movements of what would happen, and then the writing would begin once that scaffolding was up.

Military.com: Comparison to Peter W. Singer and August Cole’s “Ghost Fleet” and “Burn-In” feel inevitable; this book has a similar emphasis on military futurism and even similar pacing. Is that likeness intentional? Did Singer and Cole’s work inform your own?

JS: Those are certainly readable techno-thrillers with a futurist angle, but I wouldn’t say they were in the foremost of my thoughts. We knew that we were writing into a genre of speculative fiction, and there were many books that influenced this project within that genre. Specifically, the frame I had in my mind as I crafted the idea was the old Cold War novel, “The Bedford Incident.” It is set entirely on a small destroyer in the pitching seas of the North Atlantic at the height of the clash between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. As the two adversaries, an American destroyer (the USS Bedford) and a Soviet sub play cat-and-mouse, the stakes for the world rise higher and higher. The outcome is purely character-driven, based on the personalities of the destroyer captain, a German commodore, and several other memorable people. I love that novel, but the frame is very tight, almost claustrophobic. So I played with the idea of expanding the size of the canvas to a conflict that may come to mirror that Cold War — today’s fraught relationship between the U.S. and China.

EA: I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read “Ghost Fleet” or “Burn-In,” although I’ve heard they’re excellent books. The goal for us was to imagine a complex, paradigm-shifting global war, but we wanted to do it in a way where the humanity of the individuals wrapped up in these seismic events isn’t lost. Even the most high-tech war is essentially a human contest of wills, its outcome decided by flawed and complex individuals, and we wanted to show these individuals — someone like Sarah Hunt, a senior female naval officer who presides over the first deployment of nuclear weapons since the Second World War; or Qassem Farshad, a hardened veteran of the Iranian military, who toward the end of his career finds himself a reluctant warrior. We wanted the reader not only to understand the geopolitical and technological complexities of the story, but to also inhabit the emotions and inner thoughts of those wrapped up in this war.

Military.com: What is significant about the year 2034 as the setting of this novel?

EA: In early drafts of the book, we set it further in the future. However, the more we imagined the world of “2034,” the more we realized that this story was situated on a near as opposed to a far horizon. The process of writing the book is what really imagined us to fix that specific date. The book is also a cautionary tale, so we wanted the atmosphere of the book to be one that the reader would be largely familiar with. We didn’t want a bunch of flying cars and cyborgs and other wazoo distractions littering the margins of the story. We wanted 2034 to feel a lot like right now, just a bit different.

JS: For some, it might seem a stretch to imagine such a dramatic redistribution of global power in just 13 years. However, it’s important to think how much has changed in our world in the past 13 years. Here’s just one example: Thirteen years ago, the iPhone didn’t exist. “2034” is a work of speculation as opposed to prediction.

Military.com: “Great Power Competition” has certainly become a cliche in the halls of the Pentagon but seldom discussed in its most terrifying potential form: an exchange of volleys that literally wipe megacities off the face of the Earth. What is the warning here — how do we avoid ending up in that scenario? Or do you see it as eventually inevitable?

JS: This nightmare scenario that “2034” imagines is, sadly, all too possible, but certainly not inevitable. One of the reasons that we wrote the book was because it is entirely avoidable. However, it’s only avoidable if we actively imagine it. Think of the Cold War, for example. One of the reasons the Cold War never turned into the nuclear apocalypse we all imagined was because we so thoroughly imagined it. Along with the Soviets, we knew what would happen if we ever crossed certain lines. And so, we imagined our way out of that potential catastrophe. Conversely, look at 9/11 — we just couldn’t imagine a low-tech group of terrorists could bring down the twin towers, strike the Pentagon, and tragically destroy four aircraft full of innocent travelers. [Sept. 11, 2001] and the events of “2034” reflect not only a failure of intelligence, but more strikingly a failure of imagination.

Military.com: This book has a number of memorable characters, particularly Navy Capt. Sarah Hunt, and the brave and defiant Marine F-35 pilot, Wedge. Were any of the characters in this book inspired by real people or interactions?

EA: Yes and no. None of the characters are based on specific individuals, but people I know certainly informed some of the attributes of the characters. Wedge, for instance, takes command of a Marine fighter squadron, VMFA-323, The Death Rattlers, and a dear friend of mine served as their commanding officer, so that was a little nod to him, although Wedge is very different than that friend. Brigadier Farshad — the Iranian commander and veteran of insurgency campaigns against the United States — is certainly informed by my understanding of the paramilitaries I fought against in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Sandeep Chowdhury, who works in a relatively anonymous government job and is a divorcee is someone that I could also relate to, having been divorced myself and spent a fair share of time working in anonymous government jobs. For each character, you find these access points, and then you begin to imagine them independent of your own experiences.

JS: There is a fair amount of my personal experience in the seagoing experiences and introspective character of Commodore Sarah Hunt, for example. And my own time at the National Security Council and attending the National Defense University inform some of the characters there, including Bunt. The immigrant experience at the end of the novel is drawn from some of the Greek-American families I have known. But as Elliot says, the characters are sui generis in that each is drawn to tell a key part of a big, international story.

Military.com: As with “Ghost Fleet” and “Burn-In,” U.S. cyber vulnerabilities play an outsized role in the crisis at the heart of this story. I feel there’s near-universal recognition in the defense community that this is a major concern, but also a feeling of fatalism about our ability to close the gaps and protect ourselves effectively. What is your assessment about how to get from where we are now to where we need to be regarding cyber defenses?

JS: Just as the coronavirus took us entirely by surprise, we should realize a massive cyber-attack could suddenly blind us. It is commonplace to talk about “black swans,” low-probability but high-impact events that we don’t see coming. I’d say both pandemics and cyber-attacks are “black elephants.” In retrospect, they were huge, brooding presences all along, but we didn’t open our eyes to see them. There is much we can do to be ready, and some of it is currently underway. But the shortfalls worry me deeply. Why don’t we have a Cyber Force as part of our national defense? Where is the very senior-level representation in the Cabinet of the United States reflecting cyber? We have a Department of Agriculture, but no Cabinet official singularly focused on cybersecurity. As a nation, are we producing enough STEM graduates, particularly with expertise in coding and cyber? How are we doing in the race for artificial intelligence and quantum computing? We have work to do, as both the huge SolarWinds hack and the small attack on a Florida water supply recently showed us.

Military.com: The book’s major crisis, a character notes, is also brought on by “a failure of American imagination.” How do you see that evidenced in U.S. defense strategy and response, and how should that failing be addressed?

EA: I’ll let Jim speak to the specifics of current defense strategy, but I think it’s worth touching on the divisiveness we’re seeing in the U.S. right now as well, and how that plays into a failure of American imagination. I’ve covered wars as a journalist and fought in them as a Marine, and one lesson I’ve taken from those experiences is that the division we’re witnessing at home is not that many degrees removed from the types of tribal, religious and sectarian divisions I’ve witnessed in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Division leaves any society vulnerable to myopic thinking. And in recent years, our leaders have certainly stoked animosity at home for political gain, but at the expense of turning our national attention toward the very real threats that face us abroad. If our singular focus remains on our internal squabbles, we’re not going to pay close enough attention to the threats simmering abroad.

JS: Exactly. The expression “playing with fire” doesn’t begin to get at the danger here. We are juggling chain saws, and it feels like one of them is going to cut us very deeply if we can’t slow down the pace of animosity rising in the nation today. It weakens us deeply, particularly in the face of rising competition from China, which is a much more aligned society than ours. There are historic and cultural reasons for that, and it’s a mistake to oversimplify the degree of Chinese unity, but in comparison to the U.S., their society runs far more smoothly. Exhibit A would be their extremely effective response to the virus, albeit using authoritarian tools we don’t have. The longer-term danger is if other nations see that as an advantage and begin to sheer away from democracy. Then we have problems not only at home, but in the world. Fortunately, I do believe Joe Biden has the right tool set in terms of personality, maturity (here age brings perspective), and style. Hopefully, having lanced the boil of the 2020 election, we can begin slowly to pull back together. Time will tell.

Military.com: I’m curious about the decision to use the author name “Admiral James Stavridis.” Particularly in light of Lloyd Austin’s confirmation as SecDef, there’s a very active discussion now about how to refer to retired general/flag officers and in what context their military titles should be used after they return to civilian life. So what was behind this particular decision?

JS: I’m very comfortable being referred to as “admiral.” I earned the title and spent 37 years in the Navy, plus four years at Annapolis. It is at the core of who I am, and especially in the context of this book, makes sense to let the reader know my background and credibility.

Military.com: My first, rather unsophisticated thought after putting the book down was, “War is hell, and nobody wins.” But what do you hope your readers will carry with them after they’ve finished “2034”?

EA: “War is hell and nobody wins” is — at least in my opinion — a very sophisticated thought. The book is, we hope, an entertaining, even fun read. But it sounds like you also got one of its key takeaways.

JS: You’ve got it just right — “2034″ is a cautionary tale, and my hope is that as a society we are scared straight, meaning we use diplomacy, economics and cultural connections alongside international organizations to avoid sleepwalking into a war.

“2034: A Novel of the Next World War” goes on sale March 9.

— Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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