White Light on the Horizon

By Cameron Menchel

Growing up, matters of war and peace did not often come under discussion in the American public schools I attended. As a rule, foreign affairs ranked awfully far behind subjects like sports, gossip, and the vagaries of college admissions. On the rare occasions when such matters did arise, however, it was not uncommon to encounter a sort of playground hawkishness. What I recall hearing—often from the mouths of rough kids and spoken with arresting confidence—was “nuke ‘em.” That “‘em” being shorthand for our supposed global nemeses. We were children in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of the world. Many of us (maybe most, or even all of us) had internalized this sense of power. None of us had internalized its moral obligations.

Of course, the “nuke ‘em” mindset is, painfully and obviously, not confined to the playground. Those kids grow up and some fail to acquire anything resembling a conscience. There are well-credentialed people at the highest levels of government—people who observe a maniacal fidelity to their own advancement—who don’t hesitate to propound the same appalling remedy whenever we find ourselves in a tense situation with another country.

These people, above all, might constitute the ideal audience for Eliot Ackerman and Admiral James G. Stavridis’ new novel, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. The book contemplates a United States, crippled by tribalism and overreliance on technology, which goes to war with China. As the title suggests, many of the world’s other countries, including Russia, Iran, and India, are drawn into the hostilities.

The trouble begins when the Chinese government decides to take a stand against an American flotilla in the Spratly Islands, located in the South China Sea—waters over which China claims sovereignty. Commodore Sarah Hunt (one of the first female SEALs, we learn) is overseeing this “freedom of navigation patrol” which goes badly wrong, culminating in the deaths of thousands of sailors and the destruction of over thirty warships. Meanwhile, we meet Major Chris “Wedge” Mitchell, a pilot whose heedless pursuit of “the sensation of flying by the seat of your pants on pure instinct alone” is his defining characteristic. His plane’s technology is mysteriously disabled during a flight over Iran and he is taken prisoner. This development ushers in Brigadier General Qassem Farshad, a scarred warrior whose trajectory over the course of the novel has a distinctively nineteenth-century quality due to the way he oscillates between various theaters of war and a country house not far from Isfahan, where he avails himself of all the arcadian comforts (not the least of which is solitude) and struggles to write his memoirs.

The story’s ensemble also includes Admiral Lin Bao, whose ascendance in the Chinese military has been aided by his nuanced understanding of America’s weaknesses, and Dr. Sandeep “Sandy” Chowdhury, the Deputy National Security Advisor, who supplies us with a view of the inner workings of the White House throughout each crisis. Though all of the point-of-view characters are conventionally sympathetic, Hunt, Bao, and Chowdhury form something like the moral center of the book; their initial ambivalence and mounting disquiet nimbly underscore the tragedy of this vertiginous escalation. Bao and Chowdhury are also both parents—a fact which arguably gives them a unique stake in the futures of their respective countries.

It would be a disservice to say much more about the plot of 2034 than the jacket copy gives away. Some stories are less about what happens than how they happen; this pointedly isn’t one of them. Suffice it to say that the Chinese government is able to take advantage of America’s “disaggregated online infrastructure” and America—governed by an unnamed, female, politically independent President who hovers vaguely at the periphery—responds with considerable force. Tactical nuclear weapons are deployed with horrifying speed. If the passive construction of the previous sentence strikes you as cagey, that’s simply because I’ve arrived at the outskirts of spoiler-dom and opt to proceed no further.

Since I do, however, abhor the caginess that afflicts so many reviews, I’ll aim to answer the questions a prospective 2034 reader might have before I get to matters of style, and mention some of the book’s “predictions” for the interstice between 2021 and the eponymous year. Yes, the book is gripping and harrowing and all of those other words that have been flogged nearly to death since the advent of the blurb. I read first with fascination and then with horror. No, I mostly did not guess what would happen for the bulk of the book, though—to throw a contentious and unverifiable statistic at you—my predictive average is approximately .500. My surprise may, therefore, carry less weight. Yes, the book is, in spite of the devastation it portrays, fun. For the hours you spend reading it, 2034 situates you in the middle of global events and offers you a dramatic tutorial in how decisions made in conference rooms can ripple throughout human civilization, bringing it to obliteration’s heady brink.

There is much to admire about Ackerman and Stavridis’ writing. They incorporate vast amounts of information—concerning weaponry, geopolitics, the internal machinery of opaque bureaucracies—without deluging the reader or overwhelming the narrative. The sinewy, workmanlike style of the prose is fitting for a thriller; the sentences are lean, unfussy, and propulsive. Ackerman and Stavridis persuasively conjure each main character’s interiority. Here, for instance, is Sarah Hunt musing about that “freedom of navigation patrol,” a term which she despises:

 

Like so much in military life it was designed to belie the truth of their mission, which was a provocation, plain and simple…the legal equivalent of driving donuts into your neighbor’s prized front lawn after he moves his fence a little too far onto your property.

 

This is illustrative of how much of 2034 works, animating its characters through accessible and orienting analogies. Such explanatory asides may, admittedly, be creaky to the already initiated—though not being among their ranks, this is guesswork on my part. Certain felicities shine through, to be sure; a glancing reference to “the mundane ferocity of time passing,” a description of “parachutes dispersed across…open water like so many lily pads coating a pond.” I might have liked to see more such moments. Those impressionistic touches aren’t mere festoonery—they whisk the novel into a more resonant register, one that’s profoundly apt for this near-apocalyptic context.

A few highlights from 2034’s future: there has been a “one-term Pence presidency.” Iran and China have joined together in a "'Belt and Road' global development initiative to prevent financial collapse after the coronavirus pandemic.” The Golan Heights have traded hands. Ellen DeGeneres’ reputation has not wholly recovered.

The likelihood of any of these particular events is very much beside the point (though I like DeGeneres’ electoral odds more than I do Pence’s). I am no forecaster but it seems plausible that the future might rhyme with at least some of what is depicted here. Which is why there is something essentially noble about Ackerman and Stavridis’ fictive enterprise; it is a reminder of the evil of war and of the lack of empathy and ingenuity which can engender that evil. This should be required reading for leaders and policymakers around the world (perhaps in concert with Robert Dallek’s writing on the Cuban Missile Crisis—a case study in catastrophe averted). The best I can hope for this thoroughly imagined and riveting book is that time will ultimately make it irrelevant. I do not doubt that peace—with all its complications and inconsistencies and confusions—will, itself, demand a new literature. My wish for my generation, and all others at work, is that we will be present to supply it.

Cameron Menchel grew up in Vienna, VA. He holds a Bachelor’s in English from The College of William and Mary and studies Fiction at Columbia University, where he is a co-teacher in CA/T’s Columbia Veterans Workshop. He is currently at work on his first novel.

ELliot Ackerman is the author of the novels Red Dress in Black and WhiteWaiting for EdenDark at the Crossing, and Green on Blue, as well as the memoir Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning. His books have been nominated for the National Book Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. He is both a former White House Fellow and Marine, and served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.