Reader’s Forum — Al Bell


2034: A Novel of the Next World War

A Review by Al Bell


“It is possible to read this book in increments as time permits. However, by the time you get to page 234 or so, good luck on that pace. I put the world on hold at that point and finished the book in one sitting.

Then I sat and thought for a very long time. That is the clue that I had just read something of considerable importance. It forced me to clarify what I had thought I understood.

As a novel, this is an attention grabbing tale of war. As a wake-up call, it is a world-class messenger.”

Let’s begin at the beginning. All the books we read and discuss together in our book club have to do with sustaining and improving the Great American Experiment. Like all experiments, it is vulnerable to influences we can control and those we can’t. It has been, and will always be, subject to threats small and large, internal and external. 2034: A Novel of the Next World War clearly fits into the “large” category. What we do because of it will have to match the gravity of the theme—or so the authors would hope.

Al Bell

If my genes permit, I will wake up on my 100th birthday to the terrifying world created by Admiral Stavridis and Mr. Ackerman. I’d rather not. Neither would they. So they use their imaginations to get our attention. Why? To engage enough minds about the possibility they describe that we might devote our energies to shaping a better path while that’s still an option.

At least, that is what I glean from the (hopefully fictional) narrative in 2034. I owe whoever reads this review a few disclosures, as well as admitting the perspectives that drive my observations. You can read them at the end of my review if you wish.

A major impact on my reaction to 2034 is provided by one of my heroes, the author and brilliant (my view) analyst, Andrew Bacevich. I was reading his latest book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, when I began 2034—which surely counts as a world transformed, alright. I alternated between them until finishing 2034 first. I urge readers of 2034 to also read the Bacevich book. In fact, for any reader who wants to think further about avoiding the 2034 option, Bacevich offers some challenging ideas to shape an agenda for a new calibre of leaders that we need to elect. Sounds like a job for Independents, doesn’t it?

Both books deserve to be read by anyone honestly interested in the fate of the world generally and the United States specifically. They offer thoughtful insights insulated from the noise defining what passes for information on our breathless news sources: the internet in its various guises, television, and even a large proportion of printed news media. Thoughtful matters.

It is possible to read this book in increments as time permits. However, by the time you get to page 234 or so, good luck on that pace. I put the world on hold at that point and finished the book in one sitting.

Then I sat and thought for a very long time. That is the clue that I had just read something of considerable importance. It forced me to clarify what I had thought I understood.

As a novel, this is an attention grabbing tale of war. As a wake-up call, it is a world-class messenger.

A definition of terms is probably in order. Merriam Webster defines war as:
1) a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations;
2) a period of such armed conflict.
Von Clausewitz, the renowned military theorist, described war as “politics by other means.”

I see it differently. Webster is too general to be useful. Von Clausewitz is talking about how war is used, not what it is. I offer this definition instead:

War is institutionally sponsored and conducted mass murder.

Why, when and how it is used varies considerably in scope, timing, duration, and intensity. “Institutions” can include nations, tribes, political states, religious communities, insurgent movements, confederations, or even privately structured forces (e.g., mafia). Defining it otherwise is like defining guns as devices for target practice.

The war described in 2034 requires no declaration. It requires only action and deceit, including self-deceit. This should come as no surprise. The combination occurs globally and has been for some time. The book reminds us of the price we could readily pay for such behavior.

We currently experience considerable—and appropriate—angst about the state of affairs globally and, certainly, within the United States. The authors of 2034 deliberately use a hypothetical extension of contemporary incompetence and myopia to devise a plausible (if not likely) catastrophe only thirteen years into the future.The priceless public service they offer is not to predict the future (they explicitly do not), but to stretch our imaginations so enough people to make a difference will be motivated to lean on the curve of history toward a different trajectory. There is no way that will be easy. And it will take way more than thirteen years.

The re-orientation of our Nation’s global role entails, among other things, seriously overhauling the nature of our military/congressional/industrial complex, partially described by President Eisenhower in his 1961 Farewell Address, and its heavy hand on our highly stressed public treasury. Push-back will be immense because vested interests are ubiquitous and deeply entrenched. So, we are way behind the curve. Still, getting seriously started is better than sleepwalking and is demanded by any true sense of patriotism. This is a multi-generational endeavor, as is the case for every serious issue we have ever confronted. Only this one is compounded by several parallel complications, not the least of which is the deterioration of America’s capability for self-governance, courtesy of toxic political party dysphoria and general civic ignorance on a massive scale.

A major requirement for any progress toward a better direction is to elect a different breed of decision makers to federal and state leadership positions. Absent that, reflection on how to deflect our path toward destruction with enough depth to implement an alternative is highly unlikely and may be impossible. Our organization’s focus on voting rights clearly applies.

One way to imagine the magnitude of public awareness shift that faces us is to contemplate our current coronavirus disconnect, in which the killing of over 600,000 Americans can’t even get us to the halfway mark of personal commitment to take preventative action—yet. That’s half the number of all Americans who have died in all of our wars. This is civic irresponsibility taken to the extreme. Had such a mentality prevailed in the generation before mine, we would be speaking German east of the Mississippi and Japanese west of it. Dialing back the level of excess spending on our war machine is a heavy lift almost as unimaginable as the nuclear game of chicken outlined in the novel.

We have been told that our failure to anticipate 9/11 was, at base, a failure of imagination. 2034 no longer lets us off the hook for a similar failure on a vastly magnified scale, with horrific outcomes to match. It might just behoove us to overcome our pervasive inattention. Or, more precisely, our inclination to devote attention to what doesn’t matter much and that, more often than not, is not our business anyway. Priorities do matter.

Self-interest and true belief in the Idea of America demand a reading of 2034. Such a commitment would properly be considered an act of patriotism. Becoming motivated to do something because of the images it portrays would be an act of survival.

DISCLOSURES

“In an earlier life, I was a Navy pilot. Our squadron’s primary function was anti-submarine warfare. I was also qualified to deliver nuclear weapons. Had I been ordered to do so, I would have. Several incidents involving Hiroshima, Japan during our deployment in 1959, changed my life. They inspired a fifty year exploration of the Nuclear Age and its impacts on civilization.”

This had nothing to do with any other part of my life. Twelve years ago, I donated over 9,000 items—books, periodicals, special reports—on the subject to the State of New Mexico Historical Library in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They call it the Al Bell Nuclear Age Collection. I mention this, not to assert that I am an expert on the subject (I am not), but, rather, to simply declare that the potential for nuclear war is an idea I have lived with for most of my life.

Al Bell

Just a mental aside: having experienced all of this, would I still follow that order? That’s a discussion for another day. The answer is anything but simple. Easy judgements do not apply.

This sequence of events convinced me that our relationships with the rest of the world and our own self-image had evolved in some unfortunate and increasingly damaging ways. This pattern has cost us and many others dearly. Here’s my conclusion.

The only way the United States can sustain a positive influence on global affairs as well as increase its potential as a democratic republic that does justice to “the Great American Experiment,” is to demonstrate that we are continually getting better at that experiment. Not enough Americans actively believe that. It is instructive that, according to many important metrics, the United States now punches far below its weight in comparison to other nations.

We will not get there primarily with military might. We will not do it by pretending that we rule the world and—even worse—are the sole nation deserving that role. We cannot continue to get away with fooling ourselves nor the world at large. We have been coasting on our undeniably deserving World War II reputation far too long and the world has noticed. Leading by example is the ultimate form of persuasion. Leading by arrogance and intimidation is self-destructive.

These are not really my ideas; they are gleaned from decades of messages delivered by numerous men and women far superior to me in their knowledge, wisdom, and dedication to the service of our Nation. People with a profound grasp of “the Idea of America” and a clear understanding of the demands that places on us, individually and collectively.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, my view does not embrace the notion that we can do without a strong military capability, any more than our society can get along without police departments. In both cases, however, clarity of purpose, informed scope, responsible behavior, and focused funding are essential. This reflects a life-long aversion to either/or thinking and embrace of a both/and perspective. Yes, there are either/or choices (e.g., whether or not to jump out of the way of an oncoming truck), but they rarely apply to complex situations.

We have been here before and recovered, for the most part. However, the powerful leverage of modern technologies on excess weaponry, mis-communication, information distortion, economic manipulation, gross financial usury, governmental ineptitude, and plain despotism on the part of small leaders in large positions, create an unprecedented vulnerability to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point.” We may not recognize when we have already passed it or, realizing it after the fact, be incapable of reversing direction.

I suspect that most of us are victims of some form of confirmation bias: seeking information that reinforces what we already think we know. The only antidote I know is to force open our minds by learning and listening. One of the most powerful is reading; listening to authors who have invested the time and made the effort to think deeply, share perspectives that challenge our biases, open our eyes to new perspectives, and force us to be more honest with ourselves. And then do something. Informed action is what brings improvement. Learning without doing, especially on pivotal matters, is just another form of serial self-indulgence.

It turns out that continuous learning and relentless engagement are essential, though far from painless.

That concludes my disclosures. For now.

Al Bell lives in Peoria, AZ and is an activist with Independent Voters for Arizona. Al served on Independent Voting’s Eyes on 2020 National Cabinet, working to get the 2020 presidential primaries open to independents across the country.

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Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

3 thoughts on “Reader’s Forum — Al Bell

  1. Partly Because of my 36 years in the military I’ve been asked to write a review of 2034.

    After reading Mr. Bells comments and observations I will simply briefly comment here.

    I read the book in two sittings and as I did so it was with a disturbing sense of
    YES, this can happen, largely because of arrogance, greed, and a rapidly increasing loss of a sense of leadership and understanding of the promise implicit in our imperfect but still world envied founding documents, a loss both Military and Civilian.

    LEADERSHIP

    Throughout history we have always had those “Political” creatures who “GO along to get along”

    In my view, after Vietnam it accelerated in the US Military .

    For my self my biggest “Take Away” from Mr. BELLS article is

    The question he poses,
    would I have “dropped the bomb” is something ever person who possess the tools of War, Military, law inforcement , civilian,
    Must ask.

    I highly recommend reading about the post WW 2 Nuremberg trials.

    Peace and Prosperity Through Responsibilities

  2. Outstanding post, Al. Thank you! I enjoyed 2034, too, and look forward to the discussion. I’m glad you mentioned Bacevich; I’ve read a couple of his books and plan to read this new one, as well.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Al. It gives us so much to think about. And thank you for providing us with greater insight into your life via your disclosures. Your life experience offers us so much.

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