The Able Archers by Brian J. Morra. (Koehler Books, 2022, 296 pp.)
“In the fall of 1983, the world stood at the brink of nuclear annihilation–and almost no one knew it. Everyone learns in school that the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was the greatest single flash point of the Cold War, and it was–until the events of the fall of 1983. It is my firm view that 1983 was the most dangerous year in human history. The following pages dramatize how events unfolded in a gradually escalating crisis over the course of 1983, and how the actions of a few–the ‘Able Archers’–prevented global nuclear doomsday. This is a story of a global Armageddon that didn’t happen by the narrowest of margins.” Excerpt from Dr. Kevin Cattani’s Forward to The Able Archers, a future Director of National Intelligence and key player in the 1983 events.
Just how close did the 1983 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Able Archer command and control exercise come to culminating in nuclear war? As I dove deeper into this subject, I found many opinions, which intrigued me. To stretch my mind and reflect on the range of possible outcomes, I consumed Brian J. Morra’s newly released novel, The Able Archers. Based on actual events, this engrossing historical fiction novel was difficult to put down, especially as Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. I was struck by the number of disconcerting similarities between the 1983 exercise and the current Russia-Ukraine crisis.
The author, Brian Morra, was on-duty as an Air Force intelligence officer on September 1, 1983, when the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007, killing 269 civilians. This event amplified tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. It also kicked off the string of events retold in the book. Morra can infuse his personal experience during this period of heightened tensions directly into the story line, which gives the novel a high-level of credibility and uniqueness. The primary United States character, Captain Kevin Cattani, is actually loosely based on the author’s experience during this period. The author not only served through the real-world events but has also done extensive research using recently declassified documents.
The applicability of this book to the present-day Russia-Ukraine war is significant. I can see many of the themes woven into the storyline in the current crisis: strong leadership, differing narratives between great powers, escalating tension, fog and friction, and the importance of personal relationships. The relevance of these topics is in Secretary Gates’ praise for the book as “a powerful reminder of the value of human judgment–and the continuing peril posed by nuclear-armed powers.” Not to be outdone, former Secretary of Defense Cohen says that the book is “brilliant.”
I always appreciate background and contextual information up front, especially when the story is less well known. In this case, the author clearly identifies the characters and includes easy-to-read maps. The appendix includes a list of key factual events that correspond to the events in the story. This makes it easy to follow as the story develops.
The author frames the book around two primary characters, Captain Cattani, a U.S. intelligence officer and Colonel Ivan Levchenko, a Soviet Intelligence officer. Both characters are used to portraying how their own nations deal with heightened tensions from the tactical level up to the national level. After the author develops the characters and the story, the two primary characters work very hard and creatively to defuse the nuclear tension. As an example, they coordinate to ensure President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher do not participate in the final command and control portion of the Able Archer exercise that causes the Soviet Union so much angst. Even beyond this tall lift, high-stakes negotiations continue between the two nations right up to the end of the Able Archer exercise and the potential neutralization of the nuclear crisis.
Captain Kevin Cattani provides the following update near the end of the story to a Soviet Union colonel: “Yes, colonel. I don’t know the particulars, but General Palumbo told me before I left Ramstein that Mr. McFarlane–he’s the national security advisor–convinced President Reagan to stand down. President Reagan agreed immediately. He understood how provocative his participation in Able Archer might be.” The author includes this quote from President Reagan that provides credibility for the historical fiction account, “…the more experience I had with Soviet leaders… the more I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike.” The author considers a variety of perspectives to help drive the most likely scenario as showcased in the book.
The Able Archers was a fun, informative, engaging, thrilling, and also disconcerting book all wrapped up in an easy to read 296 pages. In the end, it is really hard to say how close the United States and Soviet Union came to all out nuclear war during the lead up to or during the 1983 NATO Able Archer exercise. Unless we can get into Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov’s mind, we will never fully know. My main takeaway from the book is reaffirmation of the critical role of military and intelligence professionals who serve daily to secure and protect the United States during all phases of crisis, especially when most are at stake.
Finally, if you would like to learn more about the author and his development of The Able Archers, I highly recommend you check out the Aerospace Advantage episode 69, the Mitchell Institute’s flagship podcast.
Col Christopher P. Mulder, USAF is an active-duty Air Force officer. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, an Air Force pilot, and engaged in national security and leadership topics.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the US government or other organization.