You know that moment when you're filled with relief after watching a scary movie—only to find out in the end credits that it was “based on a true story"?
Enter Brian J. Morra's new historical thriller, The Able Archers, a fictionalized account of true events that took place in 1983 and which have only recently been de-classified for public consumption.
In the book, Morra, a former U.S. intelligence officer, retired senior aerospace executive and Sarasota resident, is sharing his experience with the 1983 nuclear crisis during the Cold War.
Morra grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, where he was fascinated by international affairs and eventually earned a B.A. in Russian and Asian history from William and Mary, as well as advanced degrees from the University of Oklahoma, Georgetown University and Harvard Business School.
During his career as an intelligence officer, Morra helped lead the American intelligence team in Japan to uncover the true story behind the Soviet Union’s shooting of Korean Airlines flight 007 in September 1983, which set off the nuclear crisis between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Morra retired at the end of 2016. After moving to Sarasota, he thought his military days were behind him. But after encouragement from family, friends and former co-workers, Morra finally decided to sit down and write about the covert operations and events that occurred that fateful autumn in 1983.
The book presents the story in a historical-fiction format with two main characters teaming up to stop the catastrophic event from happening. The catch? One is a U.S. Air Force captain named Kevin Cattani, while the other is a chief intelligence officer for the Soviet Union, Colonel Ivan Levchenko. The story unfolds through the eyes of two conflicting worldviews.
The 1983 crisis was classified until 2015, when documents about the events were released and the public became aware of it for the first time. Morra wanted to capitalize on that, he says.
“I wrote it to be a page-turner, a thriller about the near-nuclear annihilation of the planet,” explains Morra. “This 1983 crisis is one of the least-known events in history, and I think particularly with the Ukraine crisis and tensions with NATO and Russia, this story is still relevant to our time.”
Thanks to his participation in the events he writes about, Morra could have easily written an autobiography or a firsthand account. But, he says, his personal story doesn't give a well-rounded view for people learning about the crisis for the first time. Plus, he adds, there are already two nonfiction books about it on the market—so he decided to step out of his comfort zone and into the world of fiction.
“My literary agent asked me to try something new,” Morra says. “He said, ‘It will probably stink, but maybe it won’t!’”
Morra is the first to admit he wasn’t familiar with fiction-writing, but recounting his firsthand experiences with the 1983 nuclear crisis gave him a leg up in building the world of The Able Archers.
“I can put myself back in the room and hear the dialogue,” he says. “It’s really amazing what your mind can do with memory.”
Since The Able Archers details a military event that was kept secret for decades, it was required to go through a rigorous security review by the Pentagon and intelligence community. However, it came as a “pleasant surprise” to Morra when nothing was redacted or removed from the story, which then finally cleared the author to show his literary agent his work.
Morra chose the title, The Able Archers, as a nod to both his personal experience in intelligence and the brave men and women who served under the Able Archer 83 exercise given by NATO, which simulated a period of conflict escalation, culminating in a simulated DEFCON 1 coordinated nuclear attack.
“People in the national security business are very familiar with the title and find resonance with its historical meaning,” Morra explains. “But the main reason [I chose it] is to pay homage and honor to the group of individuals, the Able Archers, who came together to avert this nuclear crisis.”
As for the two main characters, Morra says they're both loosely based on actual people—one being himself. “Kevin Cattani is a character based on a mix of my and my co-workers’ experiences in order to provide a full perspective from the eyes of a U.S. intelligence officer,” says Morra. He adds that the name “Kevin” gave Morra a chance to represent his Celtic heritage while honoring a cousin of the same name who died.
The Col. Levchenko character, meanwhile, is loosely based on several different Soviet intelligence officers Morra worked with during the Cold War and the 1983 crisis.
Morra says his goal for The Able Archer is to humanize the 1983 events—while also raising awareness.
“Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, most Americans have put the potential for a nuclear war out of our minds,” Morra says. “Unfortunately, it’s not over. We’ve seen Putin with tactical nuclear weapons today, and China breaking out of its decades-long policy of nuclear sufficiency, so nuclear proliferation has changed from a concern in the '80s to a fact in today’s world."
If you've read the book and are interested in more from Morra, he says the novel is only the first of seven in a series. Able Archers fans can expect to see another book in early 2023, which Morra says will continue to follow these two characters throughout their careers. He's also in negotiations to bring the story to the big screen, so stay tuned.