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2034: A Novel of the Next World War

Review

2034: A Novel of the Next World War

The monument to General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg is on the edge of the battlefield, over by what is now (at least as of this week) called Confederate Avenue. The statutory Lee is on horseback, gazing towards Cemetery Ridge, where Pickett’s Virginians would make their famous charge. That is one way to view a battle, or a war, back behind the front lines. This is not exactly a safe place, you understand --- one errant Union cannonball could have unhorsed Lee --- but at least it’s away from the mud, the blood and the fixed bayonets.

This is not to say that Lee, or any other battlefield general, ought to have been front and center in the conflict. That is not often the job of the commanding general or admiral. It certainly can become part of the job, in desperate need, but their primary role is to plan and strategize and engage in top-tier decision-making. Lee’s troops understood this; there are more than a few stories of Confederate soldiers urging him to go to the rear during the heat of battle.

"2034 accomplishes what it seeks out to do. It sets up a serious strategic problem, explores how both sides attempt to resolve the conflict, raises important issues about how the battle could be fought and what the results could be, and tells its story from a high-level perspective."

2034 is a war story, but most of it takes place at a cool remove. Its primary character is in the White House national security office, half a world away from where the actual fighting is going on. There are other characters who are out on the point of the spear --- a Marine aviator and a Navy destroyer captain --- but most of the action is high-level. Since co-author James Stavridis is a Navy admiral, that’s understandable enough.

You can’t fault the book too much on a strategic level. The war centers just where you think it might, in the South China Sea, where the Chinese Communist leadership has had it up to here with American patrols encroaching into what they consider to be their oceanic territory. The novel starts out gratifyingly, with the Chinese leadership luring an American patrol into a no-win situation that precipitates the conflict. At the same time, the Iranians, using Chinese technology, manage to take control of the avionics of a next-generation American fighter plane, bringing it in for a soft landing on their territory.

However, from that point on, the story of the conflict becomes subsumed into two parallel subtexts. One of these is as old as military technology itself --- the idea that armed conflict was somehow better, purer and more interesting when there wasn’t all this technology involved. Robert Heinlein warned against complex battlefield technology, opining that any soldier who spent all his time studying his readouts would wind up with their head bashed in by a primitive with a stone ax. This is buttressed by the more modern concern about American reliance on electronics made in China backfiring at critical times. My home state of Texas recently failed a real-life stress test to its power grid caused by nothing more malicious than cold weather. Could the Chinese stress our military communications and capability to the breaking point just by flipping a switch? It’s certainly a concern, and it’s one that causes havoc for the Navy of 2034 as they try to contain the Chinese threat.

It’s because of the concern about the fragility of the command-and-control technology that 2034 may be labeled a “technothriller,” but that’s misleading. The attraction of the technothriller is that readers walk away feeling as though they have learned something --- whether it’s about the operation of nuclear submarines, the innards of nuclear weapons or the dangers of carrier landings. Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis don’t take the time to explain why the Chinese are able to black out naval communications or how it’s done. This leads to one of two conclusions: either the needed technology is far-future enough that it’s beyond our current imaginations, or the authors know how it could be done, but it’s too complicated to explain to their readership. Neither of these conclusions is particularly helpful.

It is always pointless --- and borderline ungrateful --- to wish that a book would be bigger than it is, to have a wider scope, to tell a different story. 2034 accomplishes what it seeks out to do. It sets up a serious strategic problem, explores how both sides attempt to resolve the conflict, raises important issues about how the battle could be fought and what the results could be, and tells its story from a high-level perspective. However, that perspective is as remote and bloodless as Lee on his horse at Gettysburg. The real action, the life-and-death struggle, is out there at the point of the spear. 2034 doesn’t find its way there.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on March 19, 2021

2034: A Novel of the Next World War
by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

  • Publication Date: March 9, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press
  • ISBN-10: 1984881256
  • ISBN-13: 9781984881250