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Years Of Military Service Helped Inform '2034: A Novel Of The Next World War'


The month is March 2034, and two national security crises are playing out at once. U.S. warships have just been targeted and sunk by the Chinese navy. Hundreds of American sailors now lie at the bottom of the South China Sea. Meanwhile, a U.S. Marine Corps pilot testing stealth technology from the cockpit of his F-35 has just been captured in Iranian airspace. Iran and China, it emerges, are plotting together. The U.S. is plotting revenge.

And that is just the first few pages of the new military thriller titled "2034: A Novel Of The Next World War." It is fiction, but it is lent a pretty terrifying degree of authenticity and authority by the fact of who the two authors are, Elliot Ackerman, a Marine Corps veteran who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Jim Stavridis, retired four-star admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO. Welcome to you both.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Thank you for having us.

JIM STAVRIDIS: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: At the heart of this novel is a rising China and a declining America that no longer enjoys military superiority. It is not clear if there were to be an all-out war who would win it. Do you think that is where we will be 13 years from now in 2034?

STAVRIDIS: I do. And a subtext in all of this is to strike a warning bell about the rise of China and the propensity in human history going back 2,500 years almost any time a established power is challenged by a rising power, it leads to war. It's a dangerous moment. And 15 years from now, I think, will be a moment of maximum danger because China will have advanced in its military capability and technology. Therefore, our military deterrent will somewhat decline. We're standing in the danger, as we would say in the Navy.

KELLY: Eliot, you sign on to that?

ACKERMAN: I do. And we're not only sounding an alarm bell, but the book is also trying to situate where America is in this moment of 2034. And to understand that, we looked back in history. And I think we could say that the last hundred years have very much been an American century, but it was a century that was forged out of two global conflagrations, those being the first and the Second World Wars. And those were two wars that the United States did not start but the United States certainly finished. So one of the questions in the book is that it oftentimes does not benefit a nation to begin a war, but it certainly benefits a nation if they can finish a war. And so the question that undergirds much of "2034" is we have this war between China and the United States, but who finishes it? And I think that might be a surprise for some readers.

KELLY: I mentioned it's a military thriller, which it obviously is. It's very much also a cyber thriller. I mean, China is pulling all this off less through traditional warfare than through - they have totally figured out how to destroy the ability of the United States to communicate. There was a really interesting line where this is all happening, the U.S. is gearing up to hit back hard and retaliate. And you have one of your wiser characters, one of the American admirals, observe the way to defeat technology isn't with more technology, it is with no technology. Admiral, explain.

STAVRIDIS: Yeah. The word that I have used for this is primitivization (ph), in other words, making something primitive. When I graduated from Annapolis, we learned how to navigate our ships using sextants and charts. Over time, we became very reliant on the Global Positioning System, GPS. And now today, the Navy is stepping back and recognizing that those exquisite electronic systems are in fact penetrable. They're jammable. They can be destroyed. So we are primitivizating (ph), if you will, becoming extremely adept again at using our sextants and our paper charts. We need to expand that idea broadly. We need a Plan B in case our exquisite front-line systems can be defeated.

ACKERMAN: Mary Louise, I would only add, you know, I worked as a journalist as well and covered the war in Syria. And as I was speaking with this former jihadist, he said to me at one point, he said, Albert Einstein predicted everything that's going on right now, said, Einstein said that the third world war would be a nuclear war, that the fourth world war would be fought with sticks and stones. And this old jihadist looked at me and said, you know, that's how we beat you in Iraq - with sticks and stones. So I think it's also a just a growing awareness that technology and an overreliance on technology can make you complacent to war's true nature, which, as Clausewitz said, is slaughter. And in the book, it is not incidental that the first aircraft you see is a very high-tech, sleek F-35, and the last aircraft you see is a many-generations-old F-18 Hornet.

KELLY: This whole idea of defeating technology with no technology, it's making me think of many U.S. intelligence officials I've interviewed over the years who talk about the challenge of trying to figure out what Vladimir Putin is thinking, what his next move is going to be, and that it's really hard in part because he won't use a cellphone. And he doesn't email. And there's nothing to hack, nothing for the NSA to work with. I don't know if that remains true to this date, but it does...

STAVRIDIS: Well, it certainly remains true in the book because octogenarian Vladimir Putin makes an appearance in this book.

KELLY: (Laughter) That's where I was going.

STAVRIDIS: And he's still playing the same role. He's a...

KELLY: He's still the president of Russia in "2034," which is - it's perfect. Let me try to land us here. Admiral Stavridis, your favorite character to write was Lin Bao, a Chinese military officer. There's a chapter where he is musing about the end of empires and his view that America will be the author of its own destruction. He says, the end came, as it always does, from within. I guess I'm curious, given the many years of service to your country between the two of you, do you believe this, that America will be the author of its own destruction?

STAVRIDIS: I believe there are many in the world who do believe that. I personally do not because we're a young nation, because people still want to immigrate here. We have vast natural resources. We have an enviable geography. We still have a great deal of time on the meter, so to speak. But there are many in the world who believe our best days are somehow behind us. They would be miscalculating, in my view, to think that.

ACKERMAN: I would add I am by no way a believer in the decline of America. And I am very much committed to the idea of the American ideal. That being said, looking back throughout our entire history, the greatest threat is us turning inward and destroying that ideal. Lincoln himself said - I'm paraphrasing, but basically said that if America is going to destroy itself, we will be the author and the finisher. And I think he says, a nation of free men will live forever or die by suicide. And I don't think that's Lincoln being a declinist about the United States. But I think it's him recognizing that our divisiveness can oftentimes be the greatest threat and what leaves us the most unable to respond to challenges from outside the country.

KELLY: Elliot Ackerman and Admiral Jim Stavridis. Together, they wrote "2034: A Novel Of The Next World War." Thank you so much to you both.

ACKERMAN: Thanks, Mary Louise.

STAVRIDIS: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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