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Ackerman, Elliott, and Stavridis, James, 234:A Novel of the Next World War. Penguin Press.

Imagine an acclaimed novelist teaming up with a high-ranking military officer of like status. Their task? Write a fictionalized version of what could happen if America (and the world) stays true to course militarily.

That’s what Elliot Ackerman (the novelist) and Admiral James Stavridis (Naval officer) do in their book, 2034. Aptly characterized as ‘speculative fiction with imaginative extrapolation,’ the scary thing is that it works. The storyline, escalation of events, and behaviors are plausible, if not predictable.

But there is a problem. Loaded with interesting characters and events, this well-told and -written story has great entertainment value. What’s needed, though, is to view 2034 as much more than an enjoyable read. It is a frightening depiction of what might be.

The more I got into the book, the more I began noting passages where ages-long mindsets—arrogance, hubris, and complacency, for example—get in the way of lucid thinking and statesperson-like resolve. The passages teach lessons that counter the notion of "American Exceptionalism," which, I believe, is the real culprit in 2034.

“The qualities (that he) had always admired in Americans—their moral certitude, their single-minded determination, their blithe optimism—undermined them at this moment as they struggled to find a solution to a solution they didn’t understand.” (p. 44)

The more I got into the book, the more I began noting passages where ages-long mindsets—arrogance, hubris, and complacency, for example—get in the way of lucid thinking and statesperson-like resolve.

“The Americans are incapable of behaving patiently. They change their government and their policies as often as the seasons. Their dysfunctional civil discourse is unable to deliver an international strategy that endures for more than a handful of years. They’re governed by their emotions, by their blithe morality and belief in their precious indispensability. That is a fine disposition for a nation known for making movies, but not for a nation to survive…. And where will America be after today? I believe in a thousand years it won’t even be remembered as a country. It will simply be remembered as a moment. A fleeting moment.” (p. 94)

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And my favorite passage describes how a primary character imagines himself teaching a class ….

Students would ask, “Why had it (a nation’s reign) ended?” His answer: “The end came—as it always does—from within.” …. “He would explain this patiently, like a father telling a beloved child that the Easter Bunny or another cherished tale didn’t exist, and while his students’ puzzled expressions fixed on him, he would tell them about the Spartans …Athens … Britain … Rome … and the empire always rots from within…. They would start back in disbelief or even hostility. Their assumption would always be that the time in which they lived could never be usurped; it was singular, as they believed themselves to be singular. Endemic dysfunction in America’s political life hardly mattered because America’s position in the world was inviolate. But a few of his students, their faces clear in his imagination, would return his star as if his understanding had become their own.” (p. 223)

For me, the takeaway message is clear: What can I do to reduce the prospect that “The Next World War” won’t happen? That seems like an enormous task, not only because it requires collective action but because of our political context, which is not only divided but also splintered. While activists are everywhere, they are spread across a thousand issues and initiatives. Not since the anti-war years of the ‘60s and ‘70s has America rallied behind an anti-war cause. But, like then, it is needed today.


The answer of what anybody can do is likely to be next door, down the street, or somewhere else in your community—with a church group, a peace and justice coalition, a United Nations organization, an anti-nuclear collaboration, I could on. The personal challenge is making the work a priority.

Indeed, we must. … or else.

Frank Fear

***You can meet the authors of 2034, Elliot Ackerman and James Savridis, on Thursday, August 12, 11a Pacific Time/2p Eastern time, when they are guests at the Politics for the People Book Club. A virtual event (via ZOOM) there is no cost to participate. CLICK HERE TO RSVP. Note: The Politics for the People Book Club is offered by