Small Wars Journal

Fiction and its Use in Military Realities

Fiction and its Use in Military Realities

Alexander Boroff and Austen Boroff

The Scenario

It is 1300 on Thursday before a long weekend. You walk into a dusty battalion conference room where attendance is mandatory for all officers. You have your read-ahead questions printed out, and partially filled with musings from your “sprint-read” or Google search from the hour before. As you settle in, you see other officers are beginning to enter the room, dutifully holding their copies of <enter current war story soon to be made into a major motion picture,> and you notice that the projector is displaying a map of <insert province in a recent counter-insurgency environment.> As you glance around the room, you see that some of your peers have books dog-eared and highlighted, while others seem to have barely broken the binding. Some seem to be scrolling on their phones. It is evident that not all leaders have prepared for this event and some think this is a waste of time. Does this set up for a unit-level leader professional development session seem familiar to you?  

This model, which leaves out both historical and fictional accounts of war, perhaps once appropriate in the age of predictable deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, can use a much-needed update. Yes, there is extraordinary merit to studying the lessons of the more recent past. This is especially true when emphasizing small unit culture and the importance of leader checks and standards in a deployed environment. This could also be used to encourage professionalism when no one is looking or potentially to prevent widespread unethical behavior. The leader professional development program for young soldiers is commonly codified by the remarkable stories of relevant and frequently heart-breaking accounts of the U.S. Army’s most recent battles. These accounts are not abstract. For most junior officers, the setting of contemporary war novels (although perhaps not directly experienced), is still palpable. Trying stories of tactical experience are invaluable to the developing officer—participants often ask themselves, “[W]hat would I have done in his or her shoes?” However, is a conversation of more recent tactical memory the only or best practice to professionally develop a large group of leaders? Rather, the fictional or historically removed war novel can change the way leaders think entirely by separating them from the more rehearsed answers of right and wrong.

“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking”

-- George S. Patton

This article does not intend to turn the monthly leader professional development session into an extended Literature 101 class. However, discussing fictional military books and historically relevant non-fiction instead of purposefully discussing techniques, tactics, and procedures or new military leadership conundrums can increase diversity of thought. Patton’s quote above recognizes this need for diverse mindsets, especially in a military setting. This is helpful for a variety of reasons. Two major justifications are the improvement of meaningful participation and separation from conventional military thinking. As a supplement to the modern war novel, a more abstract idea or experience removed from recent historical memory can change the groupthink that may rear its ugly head during a more modern leader professional development session.

Supplementing the Conventional Leader Professional Development Approach

The typical leader professional development session requires junior officers to spend additional hours focused on the stark realities of modern war. The usual crux of a current war non-fiction plot comes to a self-explanatory and infallible conclusion predetermined for the reader, and in turn, the group. Works of fiction or the less recent non-fiction past might still form thought to provoke discussion different from the continuation of the workday and business, as usual, emphasized by contemporary accounts of war. By focusing on what we know and have experienced, we fail to open our minds to potential topics that might expand young leaders’ minds. As leaders look to broaden the U.S. Army’s competencies back outside of counter-insurgency, to hybrid threat scenarios, conventional sustained readiness, and great power competition, the U.S. Army needs to change the way leaders think about armed conflict. Perhaps encouraging more abstract discussion or at least analysis framed outside of recent experience is required.

“Experience is the teacher of all things”

-- Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar’s words, “experience is the teacher of all things,” embody how the U.S. Army promotes its members through an experiential method. It requires officers and noncommissioned officers to develop themselves by a careful scaffolding of experience to advance their leadership competencies before attaining a further rank. As young officers and noncommissioned officers are told to read again topics that they have experience in, they may not be as willing to open their minds to the author’s discussion points. In contrast, today’s soldiers have not experienced anything akin to issues that the soldiers of yesteryear would have faced. The American Civil War and both World Wars have legions of articles and books written about them, yet 70% of the books on the U.S. Army Chief of Staff's reading list were published post-2000. Perhaps a discussion about an issue faced by a young leader during the Spanish American War is just as effective as discussing the difficulties of sustaining readiness during a period of protracted counter-insurgency conflict. Further, a brief examination of U.S. military history would show that it typically prepares for the last war it fought, and its leaders have had difficulty adjusting to new and changing circumstances. A broader and more diverse knowledge set could ameliorate this issue.

A book once prominently adopted on many U.S. Army senior leader reading lists, Starship Troopers, has now faded into science-fiction obscurity, a campy relic of a past age. Though fiction, it does bring up some thought-provoking quotations. Perhaps, it could engender the conversation between professionals that development sessions strive to produce. A leader, maintained within a military setting, but removed from the confines of standard military thought processes, is now asked how to build cohesive teams inside organizations constructed on slightly different values. Place a leader outside his or her familiar operating environment, whether that be in outer space, ancient history, or perhaps a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and ask what risk is prudent for a different set of environmental variables. Conceivably, in an environment utterly unknown to the leader, the conclusion could even be "how do I elicit the best ideas from those I lead?”

Enhancing Diversity of Thought

Instead of the sometimes drab, “this is how I did it during the invasion,” or “how did this leader survive in this terrible experience he or she had,” one can also ask participants to develop an opinion on a seemingly less tangible topic and defend it. Leaders need to examine an array of options when confronted with a problem or an opportunity. Such behavior will increase the likelihood of landing on the best course of action going forward. In turn, what is proposed here is that in a fictional or ambiguous setting leaders may be more apt to brainstorm and free-wheel ideas. If the intent is to force leaders to think outside of their comfort zones and express viewpoints that differ from mainstream conventional responses, place leaders in a military setting removed from modern military practices. There is merit to both processes. Diversity in traditional development of leader tools can only add to the quality of thought reciprocated in a leader professional development exercise. When military professionals expand their repertoire of tools in this fashion, it provides a relatively low-risk tactic to improve the way the U.S. Army develops leaders.

About the Author(s)

Austen Boroff is an active-duty captain in the U.S. Army. She is a Field Artillery officer currently assigned to 2nd Division Artillery, Joint Base Lewis-McChord. She was previously assigned as the branch proponent’s Field Artillery Engagement Officer and has held various operational assignments within the artillery. She is a candidate for an Masters of Science in Marketing at the University of Alabama.

Alexander Boroff is an active duty Army Captain serving as an Army Joint Chiefs of Staff Intern. An Armor Officer, CPT Boroff has commanded in both the generating and operational force. CPT Boroff commissioned through the United States Military Academy and holds a Masters in Systems Engineering from Johns Hopkins University. He is currently a student Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.