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How an admiral and a war vet-turned-novelist teamed up on a smart technothriller

Retired Adm. James Stavridis, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in May, 2017.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By MARK ATHITAKIS | Los Angeles Times | Published: March 4, 2021

(Tribune News Service) — Adm. James Stavridis had the kind of career for which the term "well-decorated" was coined.

Thirty-plus years in the U.S. Navy, including seven as a four-star admiral. Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. Grad-school dean. Bestselling author and TED conference speaker on seamanship and geopolitics. Vetted potential running mate for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

None of which, he conceded, qualified him to write fiction.

Stavridis, who retired from the Navy in 2013, has written a clutch of nonfiction books, but he's a serious reader of fiction as well — an admirer of Aravind Adiga, Hilary Mantel and Don DeLillo. So he'd been kicking around the idea for a novel inspired by "The Bedford Incident," a 1963 novel by Mark Rascovich (later a film starring Sidney Poitier). The book features a conflict at sea between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. that threatens to escalate into World War III. Stavridis wanted to write a similar cautionary tale set in the near-ish future involving the U.S. and China.

In the fall of 2018, the Admiral took the idea to his editor at Penguin Press, Scott Moyers, and got shut down fast. "He said, 'Stavridis, you're a great guy, but you're not a novelist,' " he recalls. " 'But I know a novelist.' "

Moyers was thinking of Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine officer who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan before channeling that experience into four artful novels, including 2017's "Dark at the Crossing," a National Book Award finalist. Thrillers don't get National Book Award nominations; Ackerman's style is elliptical and interior, concerned with emotional consequences of armed conflict. While Stavridis was game for a collaboration, Ackerman was hesitant; tales of seafaring and high-level brinksmanship weren't his thing. "I hadn't worked with anyone before," he says. "But I said, 'Let's see if we can write the first chapter.'"

Over the next year and a half, the two spun together "2034: A Novel of the Next World War," which imagines a Gulf of Tonkin-type incident between Chinese and U.S. naval ships in the South China Sea that quickly metastasizes into cyberwarfare, global internet outages and the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. (Sorry, San Diego.)

As in any speculative novel, the vision of the future is intended to speak to the present; Stavridis and Ackerman wanted to serve a warning about American hubris. A Chinese admiral observes that Americans' "moral certitude, their single-minded determination, their blithe optimism undermined them at this moment as they struggled to find a solution to a problem they didn't understand."

Stavridis and Ackerman shared some connections beyond an editor. They met when Stavridis was dean of Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Ackerman studied in the program. They were both briefly Angelenos: Ackerman spent his early childhood in West L.A. and Stavridis was stationed at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard in the late '80s and early '90s. And both are veterans, though that didn't guarantee consensus.

"There can't be two more different branches of the armed forces than the two that are represented on this Zoom call," Stavridis says. "The surface Navy is really traditional: Go to sea, sit down in the wardroom, white tablecloths — it's a very genteel part of the business. Elliott was a grunt, a lead-a-squad-of- Marines-into-combat kind of guy."

During our video chat, the men are comfortable in their assigned lanes: Stavridis tends to chat up the strategic implications of the novel's premise, while Ackerman stresses the psychological angle. That distinction played out on the page. Stavridis spitballed the Risk-board scenarios that would keep the plot in motion while Ackerman specialized in the novel's handful of lead characters, including U.S. and Chinese admirals, a Marine fighter pilot, an Iranian brigadier general and a U.S. national security advisor who works backchannels with India to keep the planet intact.

Ackerman wanted to exploit the flaws in each of those characters — the mistakes, the relationship stresses — to emphasize the connection between individual and global anxiety. "Politics is people at the end of the day," he says.

Both are quick to insist they haven't written a Tom Clancy/Brad Thor-style military technothriller, though it has the hallmarks of one: brisk plotting, clean prose, whiz-bang weaponry, scenes of Oval Office realpolitik. What makes "2034" distinct is that it scours out the airport thriller's easy patriotism, the notion that the United States' military might affords assured victory or moral certainty. In "2034," America has endured a one-term Pence presidency, climate change has reset the global power structure and an octogenarian Putin maintains his grip on Russia. Stavridis wanted the novel's mood to more closely resemble the dystopian novels he admires: "Station Eleven," "The Circle," "The Road."

Ackerman, meanwhile, wanted to highlight America as an empire in rapid decline. "In the 20th century, we fought in two world wars that we didn't begin but that we sure as hell finished," he says. "We showed up at the end, at relatively little cost for us, finished those wars and negotiated the peace. Early in the writing of this book, we knew we wanted to tell a story that had that thesis in it. We know who starts this war: America and China. Who finishes it?"

That's the novel's speculative-fiction question, but it's also a real-life conundrum. The United States and China have been engaged in low-boil cyberwarfare for a decade , which Stavridis says is likely to accelerate. "This shadow war in cyber is real," he says. " Russia is kind of a player, but not at the level of the U.S. or China. That'll be a big part of the next 15 years."

Stavridis might have sounded the alarm in another nonfiction book, an extension of his two professional memoirs and his authoritative history of sea power. But both writers agree it wouldn't have the same impact.

"Look at the great tragedies in American history," says Ackerman. " Pearl Harbor, what was it? A failure of imagination. One of the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission Report was that Sept. 11 was a failure of imagination on the part of intelligence agencies and law enforcement. You can argue that this pandemic we're going through is yet another failure of imagination. At a certain point, imagination does become a national-security imperative."

Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of "The New Midwest."

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