2034: A Failure of Imagination

It’s all happening.

Weeks upon weeks of the MSM reporting on fires in Europe, Australia, California, and even the Arctic.  Fires brought by drought.  Fires brought on by ripping out mother trees and their forest floor moisturizing effect.  Hot domes on their way. A pandemic fighting back against the vaccine. Water shortages and skirmishes.  The oldest tree on the east coast (Millennia old) at risk of drowning by rising seas.  An insect apocalypse; locusts from sea to sea.  Reproducing robots.  The return of ‘spontaneous combustion’. Three year-old scientific reports saying we’ve got 20 years left, if we do nothing (we’ve done zilch).  And, old wizened Noam Chomsky adding to Climate Change the species-threatening onset of democracy’s demise and renewed threats of a nuclear winter. All combined, leaving us at Defcon 4 (scroll down) and 100 seconds to midnight on the Doomsday clock:


This is the rolling pearlharbors that we’ve been told to expect for awhile now, most recently by Admiral James Stavridis in a webinar at The Cipher Brief, where he explained to colleagues and journalists where he suddenly goes,

…news flash, there are going to be additional pandemics.

That would be bad enough, but he’d already spent many minutes owning that climate change is having its way with us, and that we might have an Ice Station Zebra situation — maybe literally — up in the Arctic as ice continues to melt and open up new oil fields to exploit, if the Russians can be moved off the ball.  Added to the future drama the Admiral envisages up North, he notes, “China has 16 significant icebreakers. They very much see themselves as an Arctic nation.” We look at each other confusedly, and I’m the only one in the room.

But this is a review of the Admiral’s new book, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. (He “co-wrote” it with Elliot Ackerman.) The players are the US, China, India and Iran.  On March 12 2034 (aka, 3-1-2-2-0-3-4), the John Paul Jones, and two other US warships, the Carl Levin and Chung-Hoon are on “freedom of navigation patrol,” i.e., a routine provocation-cruise through the waters off the Spratly Islands. The water is pacific and perfectly calm. The limited omniscient narrator (irony, right?) tells the reader:

Passing through the much-disputed Spratlys with her flotilla was 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. And the Chinese had been doing that for decades now, moving the fence a little further, a little further, and a little further still, until they would claim the entire South Pacific…So . . . time to donut drive their yard.

Even so, the donut drive is meant to be without incident. But the Chinese are armed and lying in wait for the American flotilla.

They spot Wén Rui, a Chinese trawler, on the starboard horizon engaged in fighting a fire. Ordinarily, protocol requires that the US call for assistance for the boat in distress and continue on their donut drive.  But the fleet Commodore Sarah Hunt, “affectionately known as the “Lion Queen’” suspects something’s not right. JPJ’s captain and commander, Jane Morris, “the only other female in command,” stands beside her and guides her, each smoking a now-legal Cuban cigar, talking about how the scene would have gone down had they been men instead. The implication is that a man in command would have observed protocol, but the ever-observant Hunt notes to an alarmed Morris,

“We’ve got a ship in duress that’s sailing without a flag and that hasn’t sent out a distress signal. Let’s take a closer look, Jane. And let’s go to full general quarters. Something doesn’t add up.”

And so, they move in, investigate. Board with resistance. “Arrest” the crew. And discover in a compartment at the stern of the trawler a gizmo with “racks of blinking miniature hard drives and plasma screens.”  Oh-oh.

The sailing protocol they have observed requires that they make their way through the straits as expeditiously as possible — the sailing through is the mission and the message. But, on this occasion, the arrest and ship search take time and lead to a Chinese fleet, headed by the carrier Zheng He, a ship “as formidable as anything in the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet,” being alerted and closing in. Hunt learns that the trawler originated from Quanzhou in the Taiwan Strait. The commander of the Zheng He (Zheng He was a wide-ranging mariner and eunuch during the Ming Dynasty), Rear Admiral Ma Qiang, demands that the Americans release Chinese sailors. Hunt refuses. Suddenly, we have an international incident. The Chinese can’t handle this ‘chaos’ in “their” waters. Mousy tongue roars at the Lady Lion, as it were.

Meanwhile, third generation pilot Major Chris “Wedge” Mitchell is flying an F-35, with all its new-fangled on-board navigation computer system, fifty nautical miles west of Bandar Abbas, the main regional Iranian naval base. He’s trialling  “a new electromagnetic disrupter” that acts as a stealth shield. He’s “bored” with the jet’s bling. He recalls buddies joshing with him. The narrator tells us, “That’s how he’d gotten his call sign, “Wedge”: the world’s first and simplest tool.” He’s a tool, alright.  He upsets command and Lockheed contractors when he switches from autopilot to manual — for the thrill of “it.”  He drifts into Iranian airspace and, when he tries to re-engage the auto, he finds that his plane controls have been lost. the result of a hack.  Suddenly, he’s a hostage to the South China Sea’s doings. The Iranians are in cahoots with the Chinese. Wedge is forced to land in Iran and is taken by the Revolutionary Guards, who laugh at his American impotence on the tarmac.

And this is the tension nexus.  Ma says, Cough up the Wén Rui. Hunt replies, Nuh-uh. Ma goes, Here comes a torpedo.  Hunt gulps and kinda wishes she had the attack submarine Michelle Obama there to protect her.  But she doesn’t. Boom! The Chinese take out the US fleet, and Hunt only survives because she’s on the Wén Rui, all agape when it happens.

Well, it gets worse from there. It escalates, if you can believe it.  Lin Bao, a Chinese diplomat in DC, imagines that it will stop when the US gets its pilot back, and the Chinese their trawler.  But, the limited omniscient narrator tells us,

The Americans wouldn’t understand, or at least not until it was too late, that what Lin Bao’s government wanted was simply the crisis itself, one that would allow them to strike in the South China Sea. What the Americans lacked—or lost somewhere along the way—was imagination. As it was said of the 9/11 attacks, it would also be said of the Wén Rui incident: it was not a failure of American intelligence, but rather a failure of American imagination.

That’s why they call it ‘limited omniscience’. Of course, the Admiral (or his ghost pal) lies when he refers to the 9/11 attacks as a failure of imagination: We knew something was coming and did nothing: That’s established. Must be a bullshit pitch to the Z generation.

So, there it is, Wén Rui was a honeypot, it seems, a phishing expedition that America bit on, because a girl was in charge.  An in-your-face Tonkin event to lure us in.  A pearl harbor.  And I have to laugh, because during a webinar last week, Admiral Stavridis referenced ex-NSA head James Clapper as the author of the ‘failure of imagination’ trope. Fuck, I’m thinking, even the way Clapper rubbed his head that time he lied to Congress was un-original and without imagination. I think chimpanzees invented that wheel, not Clapper Trapper. Clapper, now a security analyst for CNN, was said to be listening in on that webinar, so maybe the Admiral (or his ghost writer) was just flattering the old flatulant’s ego.

The escalation game begins, and surprisingly doesn’t seem to involve the US president (or any president) in any way. India enters the childish fray, and, in an effort to “de-escalate” the situation, unilaterally sinks the Chinese carrier Zheng He. US deputy national security advisor Sandeep “Sandy” Chowdhury is informed of these actions by his uncle Arnan Patel, a rear admiral in the Indian Navy, when they meet at a country club in India during a visit by Sandy. Chowdhury quotes Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Patel ain’t going for it: “But this isn’t Pearl Harbor. This is a very different situation…When empires overreach, that’s when they crumble. This club, with its fusty Britishness, is a monument to overreach.”

Chowdhury insists that all will be sorted out terribly when the US unleashes its tactical and strategic weapons on the Chinese. Again, his uncle ain’t chomping: “Listen to yourself. Tactical and strategic nukes. Do you hear what you’re saying? With those weapons, no one wins.” Always with the Pearl Harbor references, these guys. Anyway, the Indians arrange for a release of Wedge (just in time, before word arrives of Ma’s Yank-spanking in the South China Sea).

As a senior adviser to the US president, Chowdhury might have asked why he hadn’t been brought in on the sinking of the Zheng He, but, totally unbelievably, he lets the Indian decision pass. Instead, the ghost and Admiral Stavridis, take the opportunity to tease the reader with the godawful possibility that Injah possesses startling stealth technologies the West had no knowledge of (more failure of imagination? or a Carlyle wink?), allowing them to sneak up on the Chinese fleet in the South China Sea and show them what a spicy curry can do for a tough dumpling. BOOM!  Smiling Buddha beating the snot out of Miss Qiu. Party time in the jello pit of Tao and Zen. At least that’s what the Admiral seemed to be pushing. (Later dialogue between East and West will suggest that, metaphorically,  Machiavelli and Sun Tzu in a WWE caged grudge match where each tries to subdue the other without landing a blow — just out-knowing each other. Pass the opium pipe.)

Well, the long and short of it is, the Chinese up and nuke San Diego and Galveston. The Americans up the ante and target three Chinese cities, Sarah Hunt sending up nine old-fangled Hornets immune to being hacked, with only Wedge getting through to his target, Shanghai, population: 33 million. This ending has the feel of the finale to Fail Safe, when a lone pilot gets through and hits Moscow. As with Fail Safe, 2034 ends with New York being nuked. Counterintuitively, this results in the UN Headquarters being relocated to India after the signing of the New Delhi Peace Accords. Luckily, the world survives, and Admiral Stovridis and his ghost assure us that some of the survivors will gather new steam in the upcoming sequel, 2054. (A third book, 2074, completes the trilogy, and, the Admiral teasingly says it’s about “when Climate Change comes home to roost.”)  I wonder what the Indians have planned for that.

Oy.  I can’t begin to tell you how dumb I think this book is.  Let’s start with a positive, though. The actual writing seems to be the work of Ackerman, who has good command of the language and writes taut sentences, even if he must relinquish the narrative plan to an überordinate, the Admiral, who seems to have delivered notes to the ghostwriter to be churned into gold. But there are serious problems. In no particular order: It’s 2034, and given the quickening approach of Climate catastrophe (pick up any newspaper and note mentions of crazy fires somewhere), and yet, the premise of this co-written novel is that rattling sabers in the South China Sea will be just as important, if not more so, in 13 years, when we are burning up.  The authors even have a juvenile take on what they are doing with their mission — “driving donuts into your neighbor’s prized front lawn’ to repay their presumed encroachment. That’s really none of your business. America is no neighbor. And have you heard of ‘the law’?

Further, the precipitating event of the nuke exchanges-to-come is the arrest of the trawler’s crew — for what? They had a gizmo that is impossible to understand immediately and all Commodore Hunt has to justify forcibly boarding the ship is the lack of a flag and their resistance to being helped.  What the reader wants to know is by what authority do the Americans presume they have the right to search and seize a vessel in international waters? What makes this problem more irritating is knowing that the novel’s author is the former Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Sirrah, how would you teach this search and seizure to your young law students or burgeoning diplomats? Suddenly I’m thinking Fletcher — Mutiny on the Bounty, the handsome Byronic Errol Flynn not taking any thit.

While we’re on a roll, I couldn’t for the life of me understand how you could not address Climate Change — at all. No mention of how blowing up Shanghai might impact on the 2034 climate. I couldn’t fathom how you could introduce a new political party into the equation, without detail of what they stand for, and what happened in 13 years from now to have that party’s nominee, a woman, get elected president of the US of A.  Stranger still, what the fuck’s her name?  She’s repeatedly referred to as the president. That’s it.  Was it Jill Stein, who I voted for in 2016? Did Chelsea Manning get real political and lead the team to victory in ‘32? No, but, how could the CIC, the holder of the nuclear codes, in a time of war, not get thrown a bone of mention at least?  The shit goes down among delegated power types — admirals, vodka-drinking elite Soviet paratroopers who laugh with their Iranian captors when wind blows them off-course into the water and everyone is standing around embarrassed by the situation. You almost expect an Iranian to start whirling like a Dervish and for a soused Soviet (he forgot) hots on the Sufi.

There are really only 10 characters in the story: Two Indians, two Chinese, an Iranian, and five Americans (none of whom is the president). They’re cardboardish, speak mostly in ‘genre’ formulas and cliches. In fact, that’s another thing. There’s really very little dialogue in the novel. It’s like an old officer telling a tale about a campaign to another officer and subordinate soldiers don’t really matter, like when you play Risk and it’s just ‘tough guy’ versus ‘tough guy’ rolling the dice on the game board. Millions of people are evaporated in the war, but virtually no effort is put into caring.  It’s like the Admiral and his ghost prepped for the writing by re-reading Fail Safe, and took out all the deeper emotions, the terror of annihilation, the anguish of bad decisions…

Women. They started WW3, according to Stavridis’ take on the near future. Commodore Hunt breaks mission protocol and bites on the Chinese trap.  Somehow, she’s then reassigned to command the carrier from which Wedge will fly in his manually-driven plane (getting lots of pilot  “it” bliss), but, doh, neglects to ascertain there’s a call-back-to-ship fail safe mechanism in place to stop the ace from nuking Shanghai. Goodbye New York. In the next novel, what do they do for laughs put Hunt in charge of the Space Force? And the president says nothing. WTF? Nothing? What kind of third party is that — the atlas Shrugged Party?

When did the modern Indians get so feisty that they decide to bomb the world’s wild Cowboy and  Old Injun nations (if you believe those Bering Straits crossing stories) off the warpath by unilaterally arranging payback to each for breaching the global peace?  Why wouldn’t China and the US have turned on India and turned Mumbai into naan bread and dip?  The treatment of Indians in the novel suggests an underlying bigotry and suspiciousness of motives, as if we needed to keep an eye out for the doings of these sneaky ‘devils’. They’re not quite as ‘inscrutable’ as the Chinese are said to be by certain right wing nutjobs, but still, why take a chance?  Also, maybe it was a backdoor pot shot at Kamala Harris — who, wait for it,  is of Indian heritage and once jailed a Jew.

There are references that are patently — technological and historical.  10G networks (Is Carlyle hiding something?). Say what? In 13 years from now?  Stealth technology proliferation (isn’t the Deep State invisible enough?) — okay, but this is really bad news for a regime of nuke treaties managed with inspections and accountability. Stealth almost guarantees a first strike advantage, lots of Cold War-like paranoia, and, consequently, policy pursuit by the Big Boys. Plus, let’s not forget the UAPs are here now. Somewhere.

Iran: The character Brigadier General Qassem Farshad is written as a protege of Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force. The same one who Trump droned and which easily could have been seen by a toothy UN observer as an act of war.  Admiral Stavridis and his ghost describe Soleimani’s death as ‘a soldierly way to go’.  The reader is told, “Soleimani—[was] one of the great protectors of the Islamic Republic…Soleimani’s great adversary, the Americans, would grant him the most generous of gifts: a warrior’s death.” Well, hold on, he was taken out by a gimmick drone that used blades to cut through the roof of his car and dice him up with blades. Kinda like a flying IED.  Intercept journalist James Risen flat out called the event a murder — “Donald Trump Murdered Qassim Suleimani” — which flies in the face of a hero’s end.

And maybe it’s worth mentioning that Admiral Stavridis is a Managing Director of the global investment firm the Carlyle Group. They are heavy investors in military, weapons and security state technology. All of these technologies figure in the novel. They have investments in China, India and Saudi Arabia (Domino’s Pizza, of all things). Their investors and board members  have been and are made up of ex-presidents, ex-CIA officials, and other key political figures, like former secretary of defense and CIA deputy director Frank Carlucci, former secretary of state James Baker III, former President George H. W. Bush, former UK Prime Minister John Major, and former chairman of the SEC Arthur Levitt; and Osama Bin Laden’s estranged family was personally invested in the group until 2002. They have endured controversy, especially following the events of 9/11, and Michael Moore covers the Group succinctly in his film, Fahrenheit 9/11. Here’s an excerpt.

So, why read a book like 2034: A Novel of the Next World War when you anticipate the shortcomings of its literary value, beginning with the fact that it’s ghostwritten and is marketed as a franchise — with two more catastrophes to come, bringing the loyal reader to The End?  For one thing, you get a free listen-in to conservative thinking at a time of cataclysmic worry.  Such minds are likely to be in control of the ideas that shape our policies toward the rolling pearl harbors promised ahead. It’s relevant that Admiral Stavridis has such a cozy position in the midst of what Eisenhower called the Military-Industrial-Complex (we call it the Deep State today).  The Admiral, as a member of the Carlyle Group, stands to make a lot of money managing investments that don’t make the world a better place. The novel reinforces the notion that these people think catastrophes mean welcome opportunities, as is suggested by the Moore film excerpt above, and also that they really don’t care about people at all. What could have been an educated, enlightening narrative that provides nuance and meaning to the exceptionalist hegemony (hedge money, wot?) the globe has been forced to endure for at least 75 years, reads instead like an insider’s whispers of where to invest.

It was a mercifully short read. If you feel the need to read it, email me and I’ll send along my foam-dogged copy.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.