Recently, I reviewed the forthcoming book by Brian J. Morra entitled The Able Archers.
The novel (which I highly recommend) is about the nuclear war crisis of 1983 which brought us closer to the brink of nuclear war than the much more well discussed and well known Cuban missiles crisis.
As I wrote in that review: “The story places the reader in the midst of the crisis initiated by the Soviet shoot-down of KAL 007 in September 1983. Morra places us inside a fictionalized account of how the various policy elephants interpreted the event and how the conflicts inside the intelligence community made it challenging to shape a narrative whereby those policy elephants could put themselves in the Soviet policy makers and bureaucrats understanding of events.
“To get conflict resolution, it is important to put yourself inside the shoes of the other guy to understand what his real objectives might be and how to protect or promote your own objectives in a way whereby a crisis can be managed without triggering a major war.
“The book puts you inside both the Soviet and American sides of the crisis and allows you to understand the complexity of managing your side while you try to sort through how to deal with the other side.”
I had a chance to discuss the book and the Able Archer crisis further with Morra recently. Our chat focused on the whole challenge of crisis management, notably when dealing with nuclear armed adversaries. Putin’s current actions in Europe have taken this topic from the domain of the abstract to that of contemporary reality.
Laird: “One of the themes of the book is that it puts the reader into crisis situations that could lead to nuclear war. And the current generation of leaders – military and civilian – need to understand that any of the confrontations with our nuclear armed peer competitors, whether over Ukraine or Taiwan, could trigger much wider consequences very rapidly and take us to a nuclear threshold. This is something that has been largely ignored in the twenty years of land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Morra: “I think that’s right. One of my intentions in writing this book was to describe how a major crisis begins and unfolds. I admit that, in the wake of the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, I’m increasingly alarmed about the apparent inability of the United States and its allies to navigate our way through a major crisis, especially one which could escalate into a nuclear conflict. I think that our ability to manage such crises has eroded since the 1980s.
“I think that enabling the reader to put themselves in the shoes of the protagonists is crucial. The reader sees events through the eyes of the American (Captain Cattani) and the Soviet (Colonel Levchenko) protagonists. The human element is an important device to use to help illuminate how a crisis unfolds.
“I want to make each crisis in the book ‘personal.” I hope readers see the crises in a way that delivers a visceral reading experience. I think it’s tougher to elicit that reaction from readers if the writer is taking an academic, nonfiction approach.”
Laird: “A key theme of the book is the challenge on the intelligence side to arrive at some judgment about what’s going on, and then to communicate that judgment to the policy side, which to be very clear, are two very different rhythms. And the two heroes of your book, the American intelligence officer and the Soviet intelligence officer, were operating within a context where they were hardly leading the pack. It really required someone with some military authority or bureaucratic authority to believe that these particular intelligence officers actually were speaking realistically about the situation.
“In other words, there had to have been somebody in a bureaucracy high enough to reach down to a lower ranking officer, or the lower ranking officer had to find a way to persuade his bureaucratic superiors that he had something to say different from the political authoritarians that demanded to be acted upon.
“And then the next problem, which is totally different, is at the policy level. The Reaganites and the Andropovites each held deep political biases and misunderstood the other side in fundamental ways. Trying to convince them that their own biases were leading to global nuclear war was quite a challenge.
“And then how does one generate an intelligence and policy narrative that convinces the political leadership to change their approach? It’s an enormous challenge. How do you get the political leaders to see how the two adversaries were misunderstanding each other and how political actions could trigger a conflict neither side desired? How do intelligence officers get policy makers to understand that their own actions are leading unwittingly to a crisis spiral and not to crisis resolution?”
Morra: “I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with all those observations. As difficult as it was in the bipolar world of 1983 to keep a lid on events, today we’re in an even more complicated geopolitical situation. We’re playing three-dimensional chess now with many different nuclear actors, including wildcards like the North Koreans.
“I like the way that you characterize the challenge of these relatively junior intelligence officers, because even though the Soviet GRU officer – Levchenko – is a full colonel, he’s still pretty far down in the pecking order. A common characteristic of both Cattani and Levchenko is that each man is genuinely groping for the truth. Despite their different perspectives, each works hard to maintain an open mind in an attempt to cut through ambiguity and the grey mist of the intelligence process.
“I was reading a piece in The Washington Post recently about the situation in Ukraine. And there was a statement made by the reporter that intelligence is rarely about prediction; it is only about presenting the facts on the ground. That’s exactly half-wrong.
“Intelligence is about both. It’s about presenting the facts on the ground as accurately as one can, but it’s also about predicting what an adversary is likely to do. Intelligence is not just about discerning ground truth, it’s also about developing scenarios that may play out in the future.
“Intelligence is not only a forensic science. It is also a predictive art. The two intelligence officers in the novel are each in their own way not only assessing ground truth, but they’re also trying to predict what’s likely to happen and find ways to present those judgements to policy makers. Each is reporting to decision makers who are way above their pay grades. They must report in such a way that their analysis is convincing and not easily dismissed.
“And I think in Captain Cattani’s case, he has a mixed record in this regard. When he briefs Secretary of Defense Weinberger about the Korean Airliner shootdown, the secretary’s predetermined position simply won’t permit him to believe what the American intelligence officer reports. I think that intelligence officers, no matter what era they’re in, face key challenges when dealing with what are sometimes immovable political positions among policymakers.
“And what I see playing out in the Ukraine crisis is concerning. The United States State Department’s official statements completely discount Putin’s historical view of NATO’s expansion. The State Department and the White House claim that Putin has the historical facts wrong, therefore, we can just ignore what he’s saying – in effect. Such an attitude is not likely to yield an objective assessment and useful understanding of what Putin might do next.”
Laird: The advantage of the novel as well is that non-professionals can read it and get to the heart of how challenging crisis management is and how dangerous it is.
Morra: “Readers who have not been involved in the national security business in any way like the book. They often tell me that what’s most alarming about the book is that the system didn’t work well to solve the various crises. It was the individual action of people who were relatively far down the food chain in terms of seniority, who de-escalated the crises, often despite the machinery of bureaucracies on both sides.
“One other reaction I’ve gotten from readers has been: ‘My God, what does this mean for today? Are we any better prepared? Are we less prepared? This is really frightening.’
“Do the mechanisms exist to ensure that policy makers really are being furnished with the deep analysis that they need to think through crises? Especially, where there are several authoritarian nuclear powers in play? I hope so.”
Morra added that in the book he highlighted how the two sides looked at the same events from very different and divergent perspectives.
“This approach runs all the way through The Able Archers. I am hoping by walking a mile in the shoes of the Soviet and American characters, the reader will come to identify with them as human beings – not as caricatures.”
Again, you can pre-order The Able Archers now at the Amazon and Barnes and Noble links at the beginning of the article or from Brian’s website.