News | Oct. 14, 2021

2034: A Novel of the Next World War

By John A. Nagl Joint Force Quarterly 103

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2034: A Novel of the Next World War
2034: A Novel of the Next World War
By Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis
Photo By: Penguin Press
VIRIN: 211013-D-BD104-010

2034: A Novel of the Next World War
By Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis
Penguin Press, 2021
320 pp. $27.00
ISBN: 978-1984881250

Reviewed by John A. Nagl

Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl, USA (Ret.), Ph.D., is a Visiting Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Army War College.

After 20 years of grinding war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon is trying hard to turn away from counterinsurgency in the Middle East to focus on deterring conventional conflict with Russia and China. Into this situation, Marine combat veteran Elliot Ackerman and retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis have dropped—with impeccable timing—a novel that imagines what could go wrong if that pivot fails to deter America’s near-peer adversaries.

To say that 2034 is torn out of today’s headlines does not do it justice. This page-turner—I finished it in 24 hours—projects an America unable to recover from its current political divisions, leaving the Nation vulnerable to the more focused will of our authoritarian adversaries. The American President is not named, although we learn that the President is a woman as well as an independent, neither major party being able to unite enough of the country behind its candidate to win in 2032. We also know that she followed a single Michael Pence Presidential term. We also learn that Vladimir Putin is still in charge of an expanded Russia, well into his eighties.

None of that seems entirely implausible in light of the recent Colonial pipeline hack. Neither does the major plot point that renders America’s military vulnerable to attack through expanded cyber capabilities from our adversaries. Without giving away too much of the plot, a destroyer squadron Commodore in the South China Sea discovers something aboard a distressed Chinese fishing trawler that sets in motion a conflict that spans the globe. The downing of a Marine F-35 in Iranian airspace is a significant complicating factor, as is the Russian desire to cause problems for America wherever possible. The U.S. National Security Council has its hands full, and the Indian-American Deputy National Security Advisor relies on family connections to try to limit the damage.

This is a rip-roaring yarn that should be read by every officer in the U.S. military. It is a classic tale of hubris, overreliance on technology, failure to understand one’s adversary and think strategically, and the damage that those mistakes can inflict on a fragile international system. It is sadly plausible and hence an important warning for those entrusted with national security responsibilities.

The book is not perfect. It would benefit greatly from maps laying out the zones in which conflict happens, and a cast list to keep the characters’ names straight. The National Security Advisor plays a larger role in the plot than is strictly plausible, and it is unlikely that America’s cyber defenses would be as vulnerable to surprise attack as 2034 suggests. But these flaws do not distract from the novel’s importance at a time when defense budgets are likely to be substantially reduced—and not evenly across the Armed Forces.

The authors also steer closely toward their Service prerogatives. To my memory, the U.S. Army and Air Force are literally not mentioned in a book about a coming world war. Worse, in a book that features politicians and military officers from China, Russia, India, and Iran, the key villain is not just an American, but a former West Point football player. Apparently, the shutout in last year’s Army-Navy game left more of a mark than I had realized.

2034 is a good companion read to Unrestricted Warfare, written by People’s Liberation Army colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui in 1999. This book argues that the United States remains vulnerable to an indirect approach, including cyber and network attacks. MIT’s M. Taylor Fravel, whose recent book Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949 (Princeton University Press, 2019) would add additional depth to the discussion of the 2034 scenario.

Scenarios for war and operational art in an era of globalization are exactly the subjects that should be discussed in the Pentagon and in our institutions of professional military education. The beauty of 2034 is that it raises issues of such importance in a compulsively readable way that it makes a terrific book for an Officer Professional Development session. But bring your own maps. JFQ