There’s A War Going On But No One Can See It: A real thriller

Spies, hacking and veiled threats. Trips to Red Square. Safehouses in Brazil. Windowless Belgian office buildings. You might think it’s the latest Dan Brown novel, but instead it’s an exploration of the digital underworld from one of the Netherland’s top investigative journalists. 

There’s A War Going On But No One Can See It (In Dutch: Het is oorlog maar niemand die het ziet) starts in 2015, when author Huib Modderkolk describes a meeting between prime minister Mark Rutte and his intelligence chiefs. Russian hackers have been attacking a server in Meppel, a small town in Drenthe.

From The Hague, Modderkolk travels to Brazil to take a look at the files Edward Snowden copied from the CIA. He meets a “tall, blonde” source at Schiphol. He travels to Russia to meet hackers. For the last decade, Modderkolk has investigated security issues for the Volkskrant and much of his book is based around that reporting.

The work is a chronological following of the major digital stories from the last ten years, from Wikileaks to drone attacks to the 2017 hack of the NHS. It takes the reader through how vulnerable we are, how aggressively governments are using digital methods to track citizens and how those same governments get caught flat footed by (sometimes) teenagers.

Ahead of its publication, the Dutch security service AVID sued Modderkolk to prevent information in the book from becoming public. He eventually won.

Published in 2019 in Dutch, the English version was published in 2021 and the translation leaves a lot to be desired. The sentences sometimes feel as though they’ve been literally translated, with clauses ending up in the wrong place. There’s some creative punctuation and word choices that don’t quite sound correct.

The book opens with an extended metaphor about subsidence. While disappearing land might be a useful analogy for the Dutch, the experience isn’t felt universally and most countries used the land they had rather than create land where it didn’t exist before. One online review asks “Is the whole of the Netherlands a sinkhole?”

Modderkolk has taken home all of the big prizes in Dutch journalism. He won De Tegel in 2017 for an interview with former PVV spokesperson Michael Heemels. In 2020, he won De Loep for a story about Russian influence in the MH17 investigation and in 2022, he was awarded the Nieuwspoort Prize for Free Word.

The subject matter is interesting and the writing is superb. Even the mediocre translation shouldn’t keep you from reading it.

You can get your copy of There’s A War Going On But No One Can See It at the American Book Center.

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