The recent rapprochement between Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump at their summit in June this year and the strange (and unsettling) declaration from Donald Trump that the two leaders ‘fell in love’ after Kim Jong-Un sent Trump ‘beautiful letters’, highlights one of the central planks of concern in the book group’s read for October – the difference between perception and reality and how this leads to poor decision making.
The central conceit of Jeffrey Lewis’ book, ‘The 2020 Commission Report on to the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States ‘ is that it is the official report of a commission of enquiry into how a devastating nuclear exchange, that kills 2.8 million people and seriously wounds 7.8 million more, occurred. With chilling simplicity Lewis unspools a chain of events that, were it not for the footnotes helpfully confirming the reality of what is being described, seem fantastical and stranger than any fiction. From a psychological operations campaign to keep the North Korean air defences destabilised (Scathe Jigsaw), a technical malfunction that causes an airliner to lose power to the cockpit, dodgy North Korean cell service to defecting North Korean embassy staff, everything Lewis describes is based on actual events or reported statements of the officials peopling Lewis’ novel. However, the mishaps and coincidences are the skeleton on which war is constructed, human limitations are the meat on the bones of this march to war.
The characters in the book are those we know well, from the Commander in Chief; petulant, self-obsessed, petty and mercurial to former Ambassador Haley, Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis and stand-ins for John F Kelly and John R Bolton. North Korea’s Kim Jung-Un and President Moon Jae-In of South Korea also play their part in the unfolding tragedy. Indeed, the central failures that lead to the cataclysm are tragically human. Lewis pulls no punches in his characterisation of a President capable of instigating ‘death by Twitter’ and an administration placed in the position of having to manage their President and his ‘Executive Time’. The greater failure however is the inability of either side to the conflict to accurately assess the intentions of the other or to imagine the world as the other side saw it, a failure that opens space for almost magical thinking in that perception becomes reality in the absence of facts.
Despite the grim march of events Lewis’ novel is not without humour, the image of Trump wrestling the aide holding the nuclear football and Trump taking charge of the golf cart at Mar-a-Lago to drive to shelter provide light relief in an increasingly bleak narrative. The narrative is made bleaker by Trump’s behaviour in leaving Mar-a-Lago on Airforce One without telling his staff to escape a nuclear bomb (telling them would have ensured their safety), such pettiness being wholly believable.
As the bombs fall the focus of the Commission shifts to testimony from the survivors and once again Jeffrey Lewis bases his ‘fictional’ narrative on the real accounts of survivors of tremendous tragedy, accounts from the 9/11 Twin Towers attack and the testimony of the Hibukasha-Japanese people who survived the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Such accounts are evocative and brutal in their simplicity. The link between the devastation inflicted on the lives of ordinary people and the coincidences, misconceptions, the space for human error within the system, the dangers of fixed thinking and the inability to adapt that lead to the tragedy, is terrifying. As the Commission hears such testimony and grapples with the scale of the aftermath of the conflict, the pace of the novel picks up and concludes with a statement by former President Donald Trump decrying the Commission as ‘a total Witch Hunt and just more Deep State FAKE NEWS’. It is however clear that Jeffrey Lewis believes that there are deep and endemic problems within the system which he is trying to highlight, problems which have nothing to do with the occupant of the White House.
At times it is easy to forget that this is a work of fiction and not a national security briefing, such is the level of factual input in the narrative. ‘The 2020 Commission’ is a novel and should be judged as such. As a work of fiction, it is workmanlike, you will find no high blown prose and maybe this is to the good. There are better written novels out there but none that provide as stark a warning as this one about the dangers inherent in the system and how events can spiral out of control. Indeed, the decision to write a novel rather than a nonfiction book is inspired, it brings the book and its concerns to a wider audience who might never have picked up a nonfiction alternative.
Book group members found the book easy to read and all too plausible. David and Adam each observed that it followed on quite logically from Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’.
Adam remarked that:
‘A big piece that stood out to me, other than Trump’s spot-on characterization, was the failure of government officials to accurately interpret Kim’s thought processes. This seems highly likely in real life.’
Matthew also highlighted:
‘the author’s focus on the important role perception would play on both sides, that we only see what’s been done and not what “could have been done”
The most frequent remarks from the group were plausible and depressing, although Del added his own twist:
‘the foreign-policy clown car is fuelled with C3H5N3O9 . . .
December’s book, which we have just started, is Madeline Albright’s ‘Fascism: A Warning’ [insert link], why not grab a copy via the link and join the conversation.
As usual the group have just picked their next book, their January 2019 read. There were a total of 14 book suggestions.
Two books went to the final vote:
The book chosen for our January read (by overwhelming consensus) is:
Purchase your copy via the link and be ready for 2019.
Also, a reminder that the thread for David Sanger’s ‘The Perfect Weapon’ is still current and open for thoughts and comments. I know plenty of the book group have read it, I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s posts.
Finally, as an added dimension to the group’s reading we now have an Instagram account (deepstateradiobook), a slightly mad idea to provide images to accompany our reading, Over the last two weeks, with the kind permission of jaytindall.asia, pierredepont and jwedholmphotography, I have been reposting their images of North Korea. I’d like to thank them and urge everyone to head over to their instafeeds for some fantastic images of North Korea and beyond.
Keep an eye on the Instagram account for more images to support our reading.
‘Til January, wishing everyone a peaceful and book filled Christmas and New Year.
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