Military leaders must take time to read. In his blog entry “With Rifle and Bibliography,” retired Marine General James Mattis explained that the “problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e., the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences.” There is no doubt that reading nonfiction and historical works can help leaders experience and understand through the tactical and strategic lessons others have learned. Yet these works—absent the unique emotional and human dynamics conveyed in literary fiction—often offer an incomplete picture.
Leadership-focused novels can approximate experience for the reader, strike a deeper chord of emotional resonance, and provide insight into the mercurial dynamic that exists between the leader and the led. Xenophon’s Anabasis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, serve to illustrate the importance of rhetoric and persuasion in democratic leadership. The Iliad, in its presentation of Achilles and Hector, contrasts a leader driven by personal glory with one urged forward by obligation. Herman Wouk’s naval classic The Caine Mutiny depicts the fragility of an erratic leader who has lost the trust of his subordinates, while Karl Marlantes’ masterful Vietnam War novel Matterhorn reveals the inner struggle of a leader who doubts both himself and his mission.
Leadership-focused literature, absent a larger historical context, may tend toward solipsism. Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle reinforces every young leader’s misconceptions about the evils of staff work, without acknowledging its importance to tactical, operational, and strategic success. Historical studies of global conflicts, such as Williamson Murray and Alan R. Millet’s A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, are occasionally so strategically comprehensive that the human element is overwhelmed in presentation.
When read in concert, history and literature are complementary. Historical study of the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II, for instance, can prepare leaders to understand the challenges of logistical supply along contested lines of communication and the terrible costs suffered by the Allied forces. These histories can even purvey the pervasive sense of terror and the exceptional bravery of the captains and crews of lightly armed naval vessels assigned convoy duty. Capturing the tension between the two emotions and their impact on the relationship between leaders and the led, however, resonate more deeply in Nicholas Monsarrat’s extraordinary novel The Cruel Sea. In approximating the emotional experience, works like Monsarrat’s may better prepare leaders to anticipate and influence the interpersonal dynamic of the men and women they call upon to overcome those challenges.
The U.S. military has a long history of using simulated warfare exercises to condition leaders to execute against an anticipated and threat-representative mission set. Staff rides of historical battlefields and an in-depth study of history help leaders understand patterns of conflict, anticipate problems, and exploit historical lessons learned. Yet all of these methods are oriented toward the problem. Literary fiction informs these studies because characters exist simultaneously as problem-solver and problem. Reading fiction builds emotional resiliency by conditioning the reader to anticipate and understand emotional responses to exceptional events.
Our military services apply very different approaches to developing leaders through reading. Both the Chief of Naval Operations and Air Force Chief of Staff’s reading lists are completely devoid of literature. Fiction fares hardly better on the Commandant of the Coast Guard and Army Chief of Staff’s lists, with each featuring one entry (P. W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet and Myrer’s Once an Eagle, respectively). Only the Marine Corps fully incorporates literary fiction into their reading list.
Marine Corps second and first lieutenants are directed to read and digest the toll taken by war in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, while junior enlisted Marines get a literary depiction of mission command in C. S. Forester’s Rifleman Dodd.5 Remarque’s novel conveys the space between the mission determined by senior leaders and its emotional resonance with the led while Forester’s short novel conveys a central tenet of the Marine Corps approach to warfighting more effectively than a historical study of mission command and its roots in the Prussian military. Both works serve as simulacrum for future experiences and an emotional understanding of human dynamics in war. By heavily featuring literary fiction, the Marine Corps’ expansive and unique approach to required reading presents a good model for other services.
Military leaders who neglect historical study do so at their peril. This study must include taking time to explore the unique interpersonal dynamics, emotions, and inner thoughts of leaders so prevalent throughout great works of fiction. We must enrich our nation’s profession of arms by answering General Mattis’ call to ensure future leaders go forward to war with “rifle and bibliography.” In compiling that bibliography, the services should make the short walk over from the history aisle and see what fiction has to offer.