How to Write About World War III

Can fiction help prevent another conflict between great powers?

A Chinese ship steams through the southern Indian Ocean. (Greg Wood / Reuters)

One of us first fought World War III from the backseat of a station wagon headed toward Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. For the other, it was at an island cabin on the Puget Sound waters of Washington state.

We wouldn’t meet for another couple decades, but like millions of other readers that summer of 1986, we were captivated by Tom Clancy’s book Red Storm Rising. We both recall being so enthralled by his exploration of what would happen if the Cold War ever turned hot that we stayed inside for the first few days of vacation to finish it.

It wasn’t just the plot or characters that defined the new techno-thriller genre that Clancy helped shape (which, at the time, The New York Times described as “at its best … the verbal equivalent of a high-tech videogame”). The war and tools employed in it were almost characters themselves. The plot hopped across oceans and continents, from one battle zone to the next, while revealing military tidbits and technical details along the way—from the towed sonar arrays used to hunt for Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic to the way in which drivers babied their Abrams tank engines before setting out to battle in the Fulda Gap of what was then West Germany.

Indeed, in this hunt for realism (of technology if not characters, who could be a bit wooden), it even seemed at the time that Clancy might be revealing classified government secrets. This was reportedly a worry of senior members of the Reagan administration. They loved Clancy’s writing, even inviting him to a White House book club, but feared he was piling on too much detail. For example, one of the turning points in Clancy’s fictional war involves the appearance of an oddly shaped “stealth” fighter nearly invisible to radar, even though there was no such publicly acknowledged plane in the U.S. inventory yet. The Pentagon, which hoped the real-world version of the U.S. Air Force’s stealthy F-117 Nighthawk would spring the same kind of surprise on the Soviets if war did come, denied the existence of the rumored plane for another two years after the novel’s release. (The F-117 would never take out the Red Army as in the book, but it would fight against Iraq’s Soviet-made weaponry during the 1991 Gulf War, in much the way Clancy envisioned.)

The two of us went on to become a policy analyst and defense journalist, respectively. Yet that shared experience stuck with us. So some three decades after NATO and Warsaw Pact countries went to war in Tom Clancy’s mind, we similarly set out to explore the unthinkable with our first foray into fiction, a new novel about what the next world war might look like called Ghost Fleet—and to do our best to create what might be called “useful fiction.”

For all of the focus among today’s policymakers on terrorism and insurgencies in the Middle East—a focus that also dominates the fiction section of the thriller genre—we believe the geopolitics of the 21st century will be shaped by a brewing cold war between the United States and an ascendant China along with its junior partner (who doesn’t yet realize it), Russia. If these great powers were to go to war, one of the key ways it would differ from past conflicts is that it wouldn’t just take place in the waters of the Pacific (which would be different enough, given that the U.S. Navy hasn’t fought a major battle at sea for almost 70 years, and the Chinese Navy hasn’t done so since, well, the last time it was a great power hundreds of years ago). It would also occur in the skies above, extending to two places that have never witnessed major battles before: space and cyberspace. The expectation of a contained conflict, which is behind much Chinese and U.S. military planning today, could very quickly unravel.

That armed conflict might erupt between these countries is by no means inevitable (although it is important to note that since 1500, according to a study by Harvard’s Graham Allison, war has ensued in 11 of the 15 cases in which a rising power has confronted a ruling power). But it is a possibility and thus worth exploring, especially if it is to be avoided.

So how exactly do you write about a war that hasn’t been fought, and might never be? Ghost Fleet combines two genres: the techno-thriller and nonfiction current-affairs book. We spent years gathering information on everything from the next generation of Chinese drones to the ways in which certain U.S. weapons systems have already been hacked (building off a story August had reported on a breach of a Pentagon fighter-jet program and work Peter had done on how new vulnerabilities could be baked into microchips). Sometimes the information is in the open—say, tucked into announcements of government contracts such as the one involving electromagnetic railguns, a cannon that can sling a dart-like projectile over 100 miles using magnetic forces rather than gunpowder. Other times you have to play the role of an intelligence analyst. To gather details about the next generation of Chinese aircraft carriers, we scoured U.S. and Chinese military reports, online forums, and even leaked photos on Chinese social-media sites of ships under construction. You can then take those pictures and cross-reference them against Google Earth satellite photos and objects of known dimension, which in turn reveals the size of the ship and even what size and type of planes it may carry. The result of all this is something rather new: a novel, but with nearly 400 endnotes.

A U.S. Army specialist remotely operates a robot in search of an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. (Umit Bektas / Reuters)

We also met with those who might wage World War III, ranging from figures you might expect—such as U.S. Navy Destroyer captains and Chinese generals—to a more unlikely breed of players who weren’t around the last time the great powers fought. Detroit was America’s Arsenal of Democracy during World War II, but today venture-capital firms in Silicon Valley and multinational companies headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas (the home of Walmart) serve as the hubs of American industry. Corporations have also moved from supplying the goods of war to performing on the services side too through the emergence of private military contractors like the Blackwaters of the world. The nervous systems of modern militaries and economies run through the Internet now. This space will be contested not only by soldiers in the U.S. military’s Cyber Command and China’s equivalent Third Department, but also by Chinese university students organized into cyber militias and hacktivist collectives like Anonymous.

An Air Force pilot talked us through what a 21st-century dogfight might be like—not just which moves he might use to get a fifth-generation jet fighter off his tail, but the conflicted feelings he would have if a robotic drone was flying alongside him as a wingman. Sound too sci-fi? In fact, it’s the U.S. Air Force’s plan. U.S. Special Operations troops passed along tricks they had learned the hard way from the Taliban in Afghanistan—tricks they might use if they had to fight as insurgents themselves. We were looking for more than battle tips.We paid attention to the way a Marine officer defined herself by her profession first, gender second, or the worldview revealed by the historic reference points a Chinese general cited.

Other times the fiction led our efforts, and the nonfiction followed. One of the characters in the book is a murderer who conceals herself within the chaos of battle—a character inspired by the John Steinbeck novel The Moon is Down, the Dexter TV series, and the “Iraqtica” season from the TV series Battlestar Galactica, combined with social-science research on serial killers. But when we explained the conceit to an Army officer, he was convinced we had gotten the idea from an Iraqi insurgent leader whom U.S. intelligence officials had considered a criminal psychopath, exploiting war to kill people with electric drills and concrete blocks.

Some of our projections are already coming true, from the geopolitical (with the proxy war in Ukraine and the U.S.-China standoff in the South China Sea indicating that a new era of great-power competition is a real risk) to the technical (what the next generation of naval weaponry, including the U.S. Navy’s new unmanned sub-hunter program, will look like). And some of our forecasts have proven uncomfortable to share with others—try briefing a group of intelligence officials and mentioning that your upcoming novel will explain how to hack the very building you’re standing in.

But while Ghost Fleet is anchored in real-world trends and technologies, it is ultimately a work of fiction, not prediction. The fact that this work of fiction is now being passed around in the Pentagon suggests that the book could be more than a summer read for a generation that has never experienced world war or the fear of it. By deploying fiction to wrestle with the patterns, challenges, and vulnerabilities in today’s military strategy and technology that risk tomorrow’s great-power conflict, it may help prevent such a confrontation from straying from the novel to the actual battlefield.