ADM Jim Stavridis on the summer’s must-read book: “2034: A Novel of the Next War”

Want a really important (yet also entertaining) summer read?  I’d recommend 2034: A Novel of the Next War, a new bestseller penned by my war college classmate and retired NATO commander Admiral Jim Stavridis, along with Marine combat veteran Elliott Ackerman.  Frankly, this is a book that specifically intends its readers to find it seriously disturbing…but that’s exactly the reason it’s so important.  As unsettling as the book is, it’s one you really need to read.  

Though set in a high-tech future, it isn’t a techno-thriller of the sort many readers have come to expect from the genre.  Rather, it is a well written but sober page-turner intended to paint a very dark and horrifying picture of what a major, peer-competitor war would look like in the 21st century.  It’s an unmistakable warning flare about what could be a very grim future. 

ADM Stavridis

The tale is cleverly told mostly through several characters from the various countries who become enmeshed in the conflict.  It’s an approach I found to be a very effective way to discuss a variety of perspectives from across the globe – to include those of the adversary.  Of course, it also has its share of exciting combat scenes.

Mr. Ackerman

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but suffice to say it moves along with dispatch.  Although several individual characters demonstrate some competence and nobility, the U.S. military as a whole seems rather obtuse and short on imagination.  In terms of civil-military relations, most of the military’s civilian masters are hyper-partisan and not too militarily well-informed.  The enemy’s leaders fall short as well.  Don’t look for a happy ending to this one.

BTW, because I ‘read’ the book via audio, the obviously talented actors speaking the roles enhanced the experience, so I recommend that version.   It is just 320 pages, and is so clearly written it’s accessible to everyone – to include those who may not have any familiarity with the military.

The interview:

Admiral Stavridis graciously agreed to answer a few questions exclusively for Lawfire®:

Lawfire: The precipitating event that metastasizes into a the cataclysmic war originates in a Freedom of Navigation (FON) operation intended to assert and confirm international law in areas where China has made excessive claims.  Do you think FON operations ought to be discontinued as too vulnerable to dangerous confrontations? 

I support continuing FON operations globally where warranted, and especially in the South China Seas (SCS).  As this audience will know and appreciate, if territorial claims are not vigorously challenged by the international community, over time the become a kind of accepted customary law.  The SCS is vast – half the size of the continental USA – and far too important to walk away from FON activities.

Lawfire: Early in the book the Navy commander seems to depart from her orders so as to help a ship that seems to be in distress.  While that seems to be understandable, her later orders to ‘visit and search’ the vessel appear problematic from a law of sea perspective.  

I agree – and that is deliberate to show that decision-makers will make mistakes and misjudgments.  Many of the operators forward will be young and inexperienced.  Emotion and “intuition” will play a role.  The chances of a miscalculation are significant, and a miscalculation can lead to a skirmish, thence to battle, and ultimately a war. 

Lawfire:  The book repeatedly makes the point that over-reliance on technology is dangerous, yet a central element of the book is that China and other countries have surged past the U.S. in cyber capabilities leaving it virtually helpless.  Is there a way to reconcile these ‘mixed messages’ about technology? 

In terms of over-reliance, we need to consciously think about a Plan B in case our exquisite technologies are overcome by enemy offensive action or capable defense or even natural causes.  There is a reason Annapolis is back to teaching the sextant for navigation at sea.  Bottom line: exquisite technology is terrific – until it isn’t.  What’s the backup?

Lawfire:  One of the operations described in the book that some military experts might quibble about is an assault by thousands of paratroopers on a lightly-defended pair of islands far from the paratroopers’ home station.  Given the enormous air logistics challenge involved, why would not the attacker opt for an amphibious assault from the armada that was on the scene?  Or was this simply a matter of a little literary license to advance the plot? 

Into every thriller a little literary license must fall.

Lawfire:  In the book NATO seems to have degraded to a virtual irrelevancy.  Is that the way you see the future of the alliance?  Moreover, throughout the book the U.S. seems to be bereft of any allies.  Is one of the messages of the book that the U.S. ought not count on any other nation should it find itself in a major, peer-competitor/existential conflict?  Is this meant to be a permutation on Kissinger’s axiom that “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests” to the effect that other countries, regardless of words about being allies, will not see it in their interest to help the U.S. in the kind of conflict you describe in 2034?

I hope not.  But yes, the allies – NATO, Japan, Australia, South Korea and many others – are conspicuous by their absence.  If the four years of the Trump administration has shown us anything, it is that the garden of allies, partners, and friends can wither away if not tended.  Like Voltaire’s Candide, the message is that we must tend our garden – because, as Churchill said, the only thing worse than fighting a war alongside allies [with all the frustrations and miscommunication] is to fight a war without allies. 

Lawfire:  Judge advocates and other lawyers (and law students!) should find the book of interest as it gives the opportunity to think through potential issues that could arise in a future, peer-competitor war.  For example, a U.S. bombing operation appears to violate the law of war principle of distinction and proportionality, yet the military members still carry it out.  Your thoughts? 

Very fair point, and this was included to show that those norms can be overcome in times of high national emotion.  I keep a painting of the doomed battleship USS MAINE on the wall in my  office, to remind me how we went to war – with a highly disproportionate level of force – against Spain after we decided they blew up the MAINE with a clandestine mine in 1898, killing over 200 sailors.  We got both the facts (it was ultimately determined to be an internal explosion) and the international law (grossly disproportionate response) wrong.  And it was largely because of national emotion, inflamed by the so-called “yellow press.”  What we should do and actually do in times of national stress are all-too-often diverge.  That is why studying history and analyzing it is so important.  

Lawfire: Do you have additional thoughts about what could be the role of law and judge advocates (JAGs) and other lawyers in this kind of great-power conflict? 

Throughout my career, I’ve relied on the wise counsel of my JAG team, most notably as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.  As the saying goes, send “money, guns, and lawyers.”  When you go to war, you better have all three.

A few more notes:

I listened to the book – the audio version is terrific! – and it contains an added interview with ADM Stavridis afterwards.  Here are a couple of points I summarized  from it:

  • ADM Stavridis emphasizes the enormous impact of cyber, noting that today there are 40 billion cyber devices.  He’s concerned about the huge ‘threat surface’ this presents, and has three recommendations:
    1.  America needs a Cyber Force to go along with the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Space Force, and Coast Guard.  It doesn’t have to be large (10-15,000 members) but entirely focused on cyber.
    2.  We need better education, especially with respect to science, technology, engineering, and technology (STEM).
    3. There needs to be international negotiations and agreements to help mitigate the cyber threat.
  • ADM Stavridis also called for what I would characterize as a rejuvenation of the American spirit.  He offers three recommendations in this regard:
    1.  America needs to celebrate service.  The military is one form, but there are lots of ways to serve: as police, firefighters, health care providers, teachers and more.
    2. As already noted, America needs to invest in education, not just STEM, but also history and civics.
    3. Citizens need to look for political candidates who are genuinely willing to ‘reach across the aisle‘ and get things done.

There is more, so consider getting the audio version.  In any event, put 2034: A Novel of the Next War on your reading list.  Believe me, no serious student of the military, politics, and/or world affairs can afford to miss this one!

Still, remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: read the book, gather the facts, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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