Former-Secretary Mattis declared in his oft-quoted ‘re-alignment’ email, sent to a subordinate who claimed they were ‘too busy’ to read, that the fundamental issue with military leaders failing to read is that:
‘you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through other’s experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men’.
While his reference to ‘other’s experiences’ hints at the virtues of non-fictional accounts, I argue good fiction that concentrates on a military protagonist can be just as efficient a means for junior leaders to ‘learn through other’s experiences’ so long as one remains open-minded. The value presented by fictional characters in developing awareness of individual leadership strengths, weaknesses and areas for development is significant, especially when fiction’s greater accessibility (and readability) are accounted for. Fiction can be a great way to pick apart the pros and cons of a character’s approach to command.
Current vogue among military professionals is recognition of science fiction’s value in considering technical and security issues of the day, and rightly so. Prognostic titles like P.W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet support our understanding of complex national security challenges, particularly as they relate to emerging technologies. However, less well-understood is the ability for good, character-driven fiction (beyond SciFi) to deal with the profound truths of the military profession in ways that even celebrated biographies and historical accounts sometimes struggle to convey. At its best, military fiction has the capacity to inform, entertain and most importantly; grapple with important issues of ethics, morality, judgement, courage and the human condition.
I acknowledge that the suggestion imaginary heroes have relevance beyond pure entertainment may be cause for derision. However, the utility of fictional characters as part of the development of ethical professionals has been long recognised beyond the profession of arms. Virtuous ficitonal heroes can impact the real world. Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, from her Pulitzer Prize winning 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, has had a resounding impact on the legal profession—with some critics arguing that ‘no real-life lawyer has done more (than Atticus Finch) for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession’.
It is possible to remain aware that a fictional character’s shortcoming is just that—they are a fiction—while also learning by way of the invented experiences of a given character. Junior commanders can expand their leadership ‘toolbox’ without having to solely rely on dry tomes and historical accounts of past conflict. The reader can live the author’s account of real battles through the eyes of the protagonist, following not only the actions of the hero, but experiencing the character’s self-talk, doubts and ethical or leadership dilemmas.
Brigadier Allan Mallinson, whose Matthew Hervey series was (until this year) on the Chief of Army’s reading list for almost a decade, created his characters based on his own experiences as a junior cavalry commander—transposing his own dealings with superiors, subordinates (and most importantly his formative SNCO relationships) from the 1970s into the setting of the Napoleonic Wars of the 1800s. His protagonist, Cornet Hervey’s relationship with his first Troop Sergeant—in turn a reflection of Brigadier Mallinson’s own relationship with his first Troop Sergeant—resounded with me as a freshly-minted Lieutenant marching into my first unit.
Others such as CS Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower, Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin Series and Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe Series (along with literally hundreds, if not thousands, of others series) use historical conflicts as the backdrop to a young hero’s (or in the case of Harry Flashman and Alan Lewrie…anti-hero) command challenges and personal leadership journey. By blending strong characters faced with leadership and interpersonal challenges (with richly detailed vignettes of history’s great battles and campaigns), the opportunities presented by fiction for comparatively easy and relaxed personal and professional development are worth trying.
About the Author: Captain J is an Australian Army officer posted to Brisbane. He has commanded at the Troop and Platoon level for five years.