Lead with the best version of yourself.

Where’s the Fiction? The Case for More Fiction on Military Reading Lists

When Books Went to War cover.

This post first appeared on the Art of Future Warfare Blog on Friday, October 13, 2015.

Ever since my developmental switch “flipped” a few years ago and the pursuit of knowledge became a critical aspect of my professional identity as a U.S. Army officer, I’ve devoured the books on the various reading lists I’ve come across. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize I was doing myself a disservice. My reading was akin to an unbalanced diet too rich in protein. I was consuming a lot of nonfiction, while fiction was absent from my plate – a very valuable source of professional growth.

I believe that my unbalanced approach to self-development is reflective of a larger institutional bias toward non-fiction, which typically includes biographies, military history or leadership books. With the exception of the Marine Corps, you will find only two books in the fiction column on the remaining Service Chiefs’ reading lists: A Message to Garcia and Once an Eagle. The absence of this genre could be the result of an organizational barrier that views fiction as entertainment. If folks are taking the time to read, a common sentiment is that it should be spent on the standard nonfiction canon that exists on almost every reading list.

During a decade of service, I had only read two fiction books for development: Gates of Fire and Once an Eagle. Things changed late last year, when Colonel (ret) Jim Greer, a mentor, recommended that I start reading fiction for professional growth. He wrote, “You’ll find as you go forward that the problems you confront and the things you are asked to do require an education and understanding that is more broad than deep.”

He’s not the only one who has adopted this outlook on fiction’s importance in professional development. As General Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, writes in his forward to War Stories from the Future, a science-fiction anthology published by the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project:

By provoking us to free our minds of constraint and convention, worthy science fiction allows us to create a mental laboratory of sorts. In this place, we can consider new problems we might soon face or contemplate novel ways to address old problems. It sparks the imagination, engenders flexible thinking, and invites us to explore challenges and opportunities we might otherwise overlook. 

Admiral (ret) Jim Stavridis, another senior leader worth emulating, said that reading fiction helped him throughout his career to better understand the human condition. In fact, his literary intake is 80% fiction and 20% nonfiction. His June 2015 article in Foreign Policy argues that we can learn more about Putin’s mindset from Russian fiction more so than intel reports or other non-fiction sources. It was his presentation at the Naval War College that introduced me to Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War and The Circle, two of the best books I’ve read this year.

Picking up a piece of classic literature, historical fiction, or science fiction is an exciting way to introduce ourselves to new and abstract concepts. My friend Diane Maye even suggests that reading fiction can help us better understand decision-making from multiple perspectives in chaotic situations. Reading George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones may help generate a different perspective on geopolitics in Europe or the Middle East. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers might shape our thoughts on national service. James Webb’s Fields of Fire can teach us about small-unit leadership. And John Hershey’s A Bell for Adano gives us insight into the problems of soldiers taking on governance in post-conflict operations.

Reading fiction helps us better retain what we learn. A good story causes our brains to produce imagery and emotion that aide in the “stickiness” of the lessons. In their book, Made to Stick, the Heath Brothers, argue that stories are like flight simulators for the brain. When we read stories, are minds simulate the events that unfold on the pages of the book. We empathize with the characters; we feel anger, sadness, and joy-emotions, which attach themselves to the lessons we glean, helping us to recall them later. I can still vividly remember one of the key battles in Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, and the speech Leonidas gave to his Spartans when the dust settled. It was an emotional scene and the lessons I pulled from it remain with me a decade later. His words shaped how I make the transition from husband and father to Soldier and back again during deployments and homecomings.

Even if our officially published professional military reading lists continue to exclude fiction, I encourage leaders to expand their professional libraries to encompass not just books on Pericles, George Patton, or Hal Moore, but also Achilles (Illiad), Robert Jordan (For Whom the Bell Tolls), and Ivy Xiao (Seveneves).

In the end, war is a human problem and there is no better reflection of the human condition than the stories we tell.

Below is a list of fiction that should be considered for professional reading:

The Classics:

The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

1984 by George Orwell

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Modern Fiction:

A Bell for Adano by John Hersey

Fields of Fire by James Webb

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (with What it is Like to Go to War, non-fiction)

Song of Ice and Fire (series) by George R.R. Martin

The Circle by Dave Eggers

I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them by Jesse Goolsby

Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman

Science Fiction:

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

The Peripheral by William Gibson

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by Singer and Cole

War Stories from the Future by the Atlantic Council Art of Future Warfare Project

The Profession by Steven Pressfield

Three-body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Player of Games by Ian M. Banks

Dune by Frank Herbert

Historic Fiction:

Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield

If you’re interested in reading more about how fiction is a critical aspect to the Profession, I encourage you to check out Men at War: What Fiction Tells Us About, From the Iliad to Catch-22 by Christopher Coker.  You can also track your progress on this reading list via Goodreads- Click here!



16 thoughts on “Where’s the Fiction? The Case for More Fiction on Military Reading Lists”

  1. Joe, once again, you have put to words what I often take for granted and articulated it in a superb manner. I, too, am a Stavridis follower and tear through his yearly reading lists having learned from The Circle and many other great recommendations he has made. I’m proud to have already knocked out many on your suggested reading list and am now motivated to keep pushing for more. Steve

  2. Although I am no longer in the military, I would suggest one additional fiction title for the list you suggest “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” by Robert A. Heinlein.

    Sam Hobbs

  3. Fiction: Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien.
    Nonfiction: Fire in the Lake, by Francis FitzGerald. De Re Militari, by Renatus (early 5th c. work).
    And a must for context of current events: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon.

  4. As you know, Heart of Darkness is the inspiration for Apocalypse Now, but gives a much clearer message on the human factor in warfare. I also like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, but maybe that is best for the (much depleted) ranks of HUMINT folks.

  5. Joe-

    As a teacher of history, though no military services, I agree with the premise that an increase in reading, particularly fiction, is essential for all leaders.

    The lack of any real diversity of experience with respect to the authors raised a few questions for me. Wouldn’t the world view of this imagined reader be enhanced and challenged if their reading list more accurately reflected the world as it is?

    This semester I have six Chinese students in my foreign policy class. Their perspective on America and China profoundly shapes our cladd discussion and the manner in which I think about my lessons.

    Just a thought from the outside. Appreciate your blog and your thinking on this matter.


    Matthew Plunkett

    • I would encourage you to take a look at “My Father’s Son” by Andy Symonds. It’s a novel about the son of a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan, and focuses on the sacrifices the families of warfighters make. I am the author and grew up in a military family, on bases throughout the world. A retired SEAL consulted during the writing of the book, and since several Special Operations fighters from both the Navy and Army have given their endorsement as to the accuracy of the portrayal of the military and Spec Ops. Check it out on Amazon – you can read the first few chapters for free, and read the reviews (still all 5 stars.) If you’re looking for accurate military fiction, “My Father’s Son” is a great start.

    • Matthew,

      Are you suggesting we should read more fiction from various cultures? If so, I agree. If you click on the hyperlink to the Stavridis article in foreign policy he argues that in order to better understand Russia, we need to read the fiction that comes from their culture. He provides a great list of books to get leaders started.

      I believe my list is rather short on “world view”, however I think Homer reflects the timelessness of the human condition, Tolstoy reflects Russian thinking, and Cixin is influenced by his experiences growing up in China. Not good enough, but a start!

      Thank you for reading my post and taking the time to respond,


  6. Ah how lovely! Thank you so much! Especially for the Admiral!
    Now about the problems.
    Why did you decide that Tolstoy reflects Russian culture? Earl died in the early twentieth century.
    This was followed:
    – Revolution, the destruction of the class to which he belonged.
    – Communist experiments extends during the reign of Stalin – “sex is like drinking a glass of water,” to “marry only a virgin.”
    – Khrushchev and Brezhnev’s attempts to keep the Communists promise for a good life.
    – Perestroika.
    – Dunking people in the shit in the 90s.
    – Stability and a decent standard of living under Putin.
    “Heart of a Dog” by Bulgakov, give you ten times as much understanding of modern Russia than Tolstoy. 🙂

    When I saw mention of “The Brothers Karamazov” in relation to Putin, I did not know – to cry or to laugh.
    Admiral is very intelligent man. He says correctly. But he forgot one problem. He reads a sample from Russian literature, not its entirety. Moreover, a selection does not himself.
    Handed a list of Russia:
    – Recommended, must-read “western” military literature, the military journalist Ilya Plekhanov

    Military novels in Russian, which the West does not dare to translate into English.
    1. A.Zagortsev “City” – the storming of Grozny, the eyes of the SF group leader. Three years ago there was a S F colonel, now rumored to be a general. Fictionalized memoirs .

    2. A.Skver “ZabVO – Forget come back” – the young officer’s life, in the “democratic” reforms and decomposition of of the army the mid-90s.

    Dirt and blood in both novels is not less than the Babchenko. But the authors do not work in “Novaya Gazeta” 🙂

    3. I.Parshikov “Notes company commander” – the author of senior warrant officer, retired after 33 years of service, the company commander (!). It can be used as instruction for any company commander.
    etc., including memories of his service, one of the soldiers.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.