Everyone these days is talking about 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, the latest work of fiction by the well known writer Elliot Ackerman and retired Admiral James Stavridis. It imagines a military confrontation between the US and China that escalates into a world war in the year of the title. Appearing in March, the novel almost instantly became a New York Times Bestseller, which is not surprising at a time of universal turmoil, when various regional and international conflicts could drive the world to the brink of a major confrontation that could spiral out of control, especially given the end of the Pax Americana, the post-World War II order (the term is modelled on Pax Romana and Pax Britannica) in which US economic and military pre-eminence provided for a period of relative international stability. The great political philosopher Francis Fukuyama, who authored the End of History theory, found the novel so compelling that he dedicated a lead article to it in the American Purpose magazine. He felt that, in many ways, the fictional scenario of the “next war” was more plausible than many political and strategic studies on World War III scenarios.
Ackerman, born in 1980, has many successful novels under his belt. One of the best known is Dark at the Crossing (2017) whose protagonist, Haris Abadi, an Arab American, embarks on a journey of self-discovery and a search for a purpose. This leads him to Turkey and an attempt to cross into Syria to join the fight against the Bashar Al-Assad regime. Ackerman’s next novel, Waiting for Eden (2018), follows US Marine Corporal Eden who lies in a hospital in the US as the result of lethal burns from a bomb during his second tour in Iraq. The story is a metaphor for the wounds the American sociopolitical body sustained as a result of that war.
Ackerman, the recipient of numerous literary prizes, epitomises a generation shaped by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq much as his parents’ generation was shaped by the Vietnam War. As a member of the armed forces, he served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, which helps explain the vivid detail with which he depicts combat and combatants in his fictional works.
The co-author, retired admiral James Stavridis, is also a naval historian and the recipient of numerous US and international decorations. Undoubtedly, he and Ackerman chose 2034 in the title to remind us of 1984, the famous dystopian novel by George Orwell, much as the title Waiting for Eden calls to mind Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
In 2034, China triggers the war with a series of cyberattacks that paralyse US forces in the Pacific and, simultaneously, it helps the Iranians take control of an American F-35, a multipurpose warplane whose electronic surveillance and tracking systems are among the technological assets that give whoever owns them tactical air superiority. After the Iranians force the plane to land and capture the pilot, and the Chinese sink three US warships in the South China Sea, which Beijing regards as territorial waters, the US president is forced to make a choice. Either she can retaliate or she can back down as president John Kennedy did during the Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union. But in 2034, the White House did not avert the showdown that Kennedy had avoided in 1962, and the consequence was a major debacle for the US, which lost a major part of its navy. Moreover, China carried out its threat, which we already hear today, to take Taiwan by force on the grounds that it is part of Chinese national territory. This changes that balance of powers in Southeast Asia. The US, having lost much of its conventional forces, resorts to tactical nuclear weapons.
Here may reside one of the most important points of the novel’s military scenario. It predicts that the next world war could bring into play nuclear weapons or at least the threat of recourse to such weapons. Nevertheless the dominant determinant is cyber technology which China deployed as the weapon that sparked the fictional war in 2034. We are left with the question as to whether China will truly achieve cyber warfare superiority over the US in the 13 years left until the fictional world war Ackerman and Stavridis relate in their novel.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly