“The skies over the Korean Peninsula on March 21, 2020, were clear and blue.” So begins this sobering report on the findings of the Commission on the Nuclear Attacks against the United States, established by law by Congress and President Donald J. Trump to investigate the horrific events of the next three days. An independent, bipartisan panel led by nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis, the commission was charged with finding and reporting the relevant facts, investigating how the nuclear war began, and determining whether our government was adequately prepared for combating a nuclear adversary and safeguarding U.S. citizens. Did President Trump and his advisers understand North Korean views about nuclear weapons? Did they appreciate the dangers of provoking the country’s ruler with social media posts and military exercises? Or did America’s leaders have the opportunity to avert the greatest calamity in the history of our nation?
Be rest assured going into this book, Lewis knows what he’s talking about. He’s a nonproliferation expert specializing in North Korea, has previously worked for the Department of Defense, and hosts the Arms Control Wonk podcast. He puts all that knowledge, from big picture to minute detail, to use here.
- It reads like what it is – a government report. It felt slightly dry in the beginning but as things picked up the understated tone was an excellent contrast to the big and often scary things happening. There are small bits of transcripts and maps, but not enough to call it epistolary by any stretch.
- Everything that occurs before August 2018 is real, and that’s something to keep in mind as you read. I’d see something off the wall and think, “No. Really?” but a quick google search or look at the extensive end notes will assure you yes, it’s real.
- Because of that it’s astounding how much of this speculative novel is straight up fact. It makes you realize how many pieces are in play that could contribute to a real life nuclear war.
- A not small part of this is the current US president and his staff. Lewis uses many people you know and is artful when adding his own characters. For example, when relations with North Korea start to sour the president fires an entire department of his staff by tweet. Not only is it (sadly) believable, but it lets Lewis bring in fictional characters in key roles. That way there’s no second guessing (‘Bolton would never do that!’) and no predicting how someone will act.
- The actions and psychology ring true and show how the way the president is ‘handled’ could back fire.
“It was weird,” one aide explained. “Normally we just didn’t correct him, especially not when it was an excuse not to do something crazy. But now, all of a sudden, all this stuff was working against us. And we didn’t know how to push back.”
- Much thought and effort was put into sections dealing with South Korea and Japan and it shows. I usually have a nitpick about the representation of Japanese life in novels but not here – well done.
- Lewis’ specialty is policy so the plot is almost completely about the lead up to and strategies of the war. It’s through and well-paced once you get over a small lump of set up at the beginning.
- The acknowledgements slayed me with the care and respect Lewis shows. You’ll see it when you get there.
- Details of the aftermath are thin and not particularly well thought out, especially when compared to Warday. There is zero mention of fallout, which I thought odd, and lots of stuff is glossed over.
- There is no mention of how those from bombed cities are treated, or how such massive damage could threaten to fracture the country along regional lines as well as political ones.
- I had a couple of issues with medical content, but I doubt many people will be tempted to shout ‘perimortem c-section!’ at the page like I was.
- While perfect for this exact moment I’m not sure it will hold up over time as real events eclipse the time span covered.
All in all it’s a quick read full of fascinating what-ifs that have a non-zero chance of happening. If it sounds interesting you may want to pick it up sooner rather than later to enjoy the full effect.