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Book Review - 2034: A Novel of the Next World War

Cover of Book - 2034 A novel of the next World War

By Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

Penguin Press, 2021, 303pp

ISBN 9781984881267 - Paperback
ISBN 9781984881250 - Hardcover
ISBN 9781984881267 - Ebook
ISBN 9780593394748 - Audio

Reviewed by Dr Albert Palazzo


In 1978, the retired British general Sir John Hackett published an account of a fictional war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Reading it is a distant memory for me, but at the time it formed a part of my foundation as a scholar of war. The Cold War was ongoing and growing up in New York City nuclear annihilation was always a prospect, especially if the leaders of either country miscalculated the odds of any martial adventure. The Third World War: August 1985, as Hackett’s titled the book, saw the world go to the brink of nuclear destruction as conventional operations gave way to a limited exchange that resulted in the incineration of Birmingham and Minsk, and the Soviet Union’s collapse. Hackett wrote the book as a cautionary tale, as well as to encourage Western Europeans and Americans to strengthen their nations’ conventional force.

Forty-three years on I have the pleasure, and sorrow, to read another book on a future fictional war.  In 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis (Ret), consider a violent resolution to the escalating tension that exists between a stronger and more confident China and a still proud United States that is reluctant to accept, or even understand, that the world has changed. One does not need to have read Shakespeare to recognise that tragedy is the only outcome of such a combination of emotion with military power. Indeed, tragedy is what happens, particularly for the cities that are levelled as the combatants justify escalation across the nuclear threshold in a fool’s quest for victory.

Ackerman and Stavridis share with Hackett some motivations for writing their book. 2034 is a timely reminder that nuclear weapons cannot be used without risking the end of human civilisation. In present day security discussions, the limits imposed on war by the onset of the atomic age, that Bernard Brodie identified in the 1946 book The Absolute Weapon, seem to have been forgotten by military professionals and their civilian masters. The result is war drums beaten with increased fervour but diminished responsibility.

For the military practitioner, the take-aways from 2034 are not to be found amongst the tactics employed by the combatants. None would be of any surprise to contemporary students of war, although cyber does feature more centrally. Rather, what draws the authors’ attention is the timeless human values that sit at the heart of all conflict and which remain critical to the understanding and waging of war. The book’s value lies in the exploration of these themes, and the need to recognise and learn. Hubris and miscalculation are evident by both the United States and China, as are the need to make decisions in an environment of uncertainty, no matter the scope of the combatants’ enhanced sensor and data crunching capabilities. Personality and ambition also feature at key decision points, in the negative and positive sense. Lastly, Ackerman and Stavridis make clear the need for commanders and staffs to have a deep, penetrative understanding of their opponent’s culture, as well as their own, in order to anticipate an enemy’s actions and to mask their own.

As fiction, the authors are able to highlight traits that are difficult to express in works of history, such as the need for commanders to have imagination. It is not enough to follow doctrine and military planning processes when making your plans or attempting to anticipate your opponent’s intentions. Genius comes from the ability to imagine the possibilities that are outside the staff process; for it is here that decisive success lies.

For those whose job it is to wage war, fiction offers another path to professional fulfilment. Fiction’s usefulness should not be discounted and it has the benefit of being easier to master than On War. It has a part to play in the mix of one’s military reading and professional eduction. 2034 can admirably serve as a seminar for junior officers who may need motivation to accept the importance of self-education for the benefit of their careers, as well as the lives of those they command. Ackerman and Stavridis have written a useful, action packed book that is highly accessible and relevant. I recommend its inclusion on military reading lists.


The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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