Fiction and the Strategist

“The King’s library at Buckingham House” from The History of Royal Residences
by William Henry Pines (1819), plate No. 48

Image Source: Wikimedia

When the moment of decision arrives the time for study and reflection has ended. Decisions made under pressure often rely on heuristics, assumptions, and interpretive frames formed long before crisis arrives. Some of these are created through personal experience; others are gifts of genetic inheritance. But a large part of our inner model of the world and its workings comes from what we have read. This is why the strategist should read. Books allow strategists to learn the painful lessons of defeat without the sort of destruction that usually attends it, provide the conceptual tools needed to make sense of a complex world, and helps strategists spot patterns and trends that they might be able to leverage to their own benefit. But–and this is an important but–this is only true if the lessons, ideas, and narratives incorporated into their model of the world are themselves accurate depictions of reality. The fruits of false assumptions about human motivation, war, or politics incorporated in the worldview of the strategist are disaster.

The implication of all this is that one should choose carefully what one reads. This is especially true with works of fiction, whose events and characters are decided by the demands of narrative art, not the connections between cause and effect operative in the real world. The strategist must act in the world of the living, and there is no guarantee that interpretive frames built upon fictions will do him or her any good in it. In many contexts fiction is wonderful–but in the realm of strategy, fiction is far less wonderful than it is dangerous.

My thoughts on this topic were inspired by a short post written by Lt. Col Aaron Bazin, who currently works for the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. First published at the Strategy Bridge, Bazin’s post is a book list titled “What Successful Strategist Read.” The ‘successful strategists’ there referenced are the other officers and civilians who work for the Command and are bookish enough to gather together regularly as a reading group. The list is their creation, and together with the input gathered from a broader circle of professionals in the field, they were able to create a list of 100 or so titles. You can find the full list submitted for the project on this Google Doc page, but Bazin also aggregated the submissions to produce a “top ten” list of the works most commonly suggested:

“Books Critical to Read For Success as a Strategist,”

Source: Aaron Bazin,  “What Successful Strategists Read,” Strategy Bridge (12 June 2015)

This list created a large buzz on the social networks I’m a part of, most of which centered on the choices of the fiction side of the list. The high ranking of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game was particularly controversial–controversy I helped stoke by linking to and referencing the essay I wrote a few years back on why Ender’s Game did not deserve its place on the official Marine Corps Commandant reading list. I encourage curious readers to read my entire critique, but to summarize the main points in a paragraph: Ender’s Game is not a realistic depiction of politics and war. It was never designed to be. This is because its subject is not strategy, but ethics. Orson Scott Card believes that morality is not found in consequences of our actions, but in the intentions that lead us to act in the first place. [And SPOILER NOTE] Ender’s Game is a well written thought experiment designed from its first page to prove this point–in essence, it is an especially elaborate and compelling example from extreme cases that moral philosophers use when they write about ethics and morality. Card takes the most heinous and horrible crime of the 20th century–genocide–and imagines a situation where this crime could be committed innocently. To accomplish this Card needs to write a series implausible and improbable events into the plot of Ender’s Game that push the boundaries of credulity. As the narrative’s main purpose is to set up Card’s grand thought experiment, this isn’t a real problem. It simply means looking to Ender’s Game for meaningful lessons about how conflict, diplomacy, or politicking work in the real world is a fool’s errand. If anything, the novel’s central lesson is something a strategist should never internalize. Card’s ethics could be right in a philosophical sense, but they have little application on the battlefield. In warfare intentions mean nothing and consequence means everything. In our world there is no Commander Graff to whisk the strategist away when the consequences of his or her decisions lead to death or disaster. [/END SPOILERS]

That is my case against Ender’s Game in a nut-shell, though I can understand why some of its other themes might make it popular with professional strategists. This is particularly true for the folks who first read the book shortly after it was first published. In a culture enamored with “disruptive innovation” and obsessed with “thinking outside of the box” it is easy to forget that these concepts are relatively new ideas. Ender’s “the enemy gate is down” preceded both by two decades. A strategist should have something of a maverick mentality, and Ender’s Game seems like a perfect case study in the art.

The problem is that it is nothing of the sort.

I was not aware of this until a few days ago, when a friend participating in this discussion forwarded an essay by Elizier Yudowsky on how to write good fiction that uses Ender’s Game as a central case study. Yudoswky poses the following question: how does an author create a believable character who is smarter than himself? After all, if a writer was actually smart enough to create a fool-proof plan for his character to use to conquer the world or rob Fort Knox, why hasn’t he used it already? He doesn’t because he can’t. The author is not actually a genius, and the stratagems of his novels only appear brilliant because authors uses a series of literary devices designed to fool the audience into thinking the characters they read about are true master strategists.  As Yudowsky explains:

Consider the dilemma faced by Orson Scott Card in writing Ender’s Game (the book, not the movie). Card can tell us that Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a military genius and great at commanding ships, but this is merely telling. We cannot actually be shown how Ender Wiggin has arranged a set of ships into a 3D pattern, and see for ourselves that this is a more powerfully attacking 3D pattern than we’d have invented. (Especially in the book, as opposed to the movie!)  In order to show Ender being smart, Card had to put Ender in a situation that we as readers could understand was threateningly difficult, and then show Ender’s solution, which would be something we could understand, and see for ourselves was good or clever.
So Card establishes early in the book that when the enemy’s army is all frozen, the winning commander has four un-frozen soldiers open the enemy’s gate to ceremonialize the victory, after which the lights come on and the game is over. Card shows you this happening several times, so that it is there in your memory as a well-established fact. Then Card puts Ender up against two armies at once, odds that not even Ender can beat, gives the dilemma some time to establish plot tension… whereupon Ender gives up on playing by the rules, and just bulls through with five soldiers and opens the enemy’s gate immediately. It doesn’t have to be explained to you how this works. There’s no slowdown for exposition at the moment of climax. All the mechanical rules operating to declare Ender’s victory are already known to you; the story has already shown the ceremony several times so that it’ll be there in your literary memory at the critical moment when you’re shown Ender’s good idea and Card wants you to understand it immediately, without pausing in the story.
When you, as an author, have written similar scenes a few times yourself, it will occur to you that the only reason why this rule exists in the Enderverse – the real reason that a battle in Battle School ends with four soldiers pressing their helmets to the enemy’s gate – is because Card wanted to put Ender in an impossible fight, decided that Ender would fight two armies, asked himself “Now how the heck can Ender win?”, invented the victory condition, asked himself why commanders wouldn’t just vigorously defend their gates, and then decided to write (into the earlier parts of the story) that this was considered a ceremonial final move.

Is this cheating? Yes, but cut Orson Scott Card some slack! He can’t actually show us Ender being a great tactical genius the way a real-life version of Ender would be, because we’re not tactical geniuses. [1] (emphasis added)

It is important to remember here the reason Card needs Ender to be a tactical genius is not because he wants to teach us enduring lessons about zero gravity combat tactics, but because the premise of his novel calls for an innocent but unparalleled genius to be its protagonist. The Battle School does not exist to teach readers universal principles of strategy, politics, or leadership, but to demonstrate the in-universe brilliance of Ender Wiggin. This point can be generalized to all of the ideas, events, and characters of the novel–indeed, to all novels. Storylines are created by the author to manipulate the emotions and perceptions of the audience. This is true for even simple plot points like Ender’s maverick tag-line, “the enemy’s gate is down”:

For a more organic example of cleverness, think of Ender’s slogan, “The enemy’s gate is down!” In zero gravity, Ender tells his troops, you should think of the enemy as being below you, so that you orient yourself with your legs toward them. This presents a more narrow profile, and means that the enemy’s laser guns (which Card has previously shown you!) will freeze your legs (according to rules we’re now already familiar with!) rather than your arms. This doesn’t have the literary artifice of the way Ender wins his battle against two armies; it’s a natural idea for fighting in zero gravity with laser-tag guns. In this case I expect that Orson Scott Card spent a day thinking about how to fight in zero gravity—-or maybe just a few seconds, depending on how smart he was—-and then came up with something that seemed to him like an actual good idea. And then, perhaps, he discarded it, and generated another good idea, continuing until he had the best idea he could give to Ender….
Orson Scott Card does get to specify as a story outcome that Ender’s idea actually works and Ender’s soldiers win their battles. This too is ‘cheating’ in the sense that it makes the story-Ender more intelligent than the actual cognitive work that Orson Scott Card expended to invent the “orient downward” idea. As a reader, you were probably thinking of “The enemy’s gate is down” as that awesome idea Ender had which worked great (because that’s what you’ve been shown), rather than one of twenty possible suggestions for how to fight in zero gravity, none of which have ever been tested.
But at least it’s not a pretentious or an obvious idea that the story shows us as working great. It’s not like Ender said “Try pulling the trigger twice in a row!” and nobody in-story had ever thought of that before. It’s not like Ender tried some ridiculously complicated plot (that is, any plot relying on more than three separate events happening without superintelligent or precognitive guidance) which worked by sheer authorial fiat, a la Death Note. Again, have some sympathy for Orson Scott Card: he can’t actually build a Battle School and test his ideas. It’s at least plausible that if you actually built a Battle School in zero gravity and had the kids fight, they’d do better by thinking of the enemy’s gate as being downward.
Remember the purpose of Ender’s Game is not to prove that Card is smart, any more than Card was trying to prove, by writing Ender, that he himself was a seven-year-old killer.  Ender exists as a tactical genius in-universe; the literary challenge faced by Card is how he can put that fact into text….

Closely related is the second sneaky artifice of only presenting the character with problems that they can solve. Orson Scott Card didn’t put Ender Wiggin in a battle chamber stark naked and alone, because Ender Wiggin couldn’t have won that challenge, so Card elected not to have that be what happened. Maybe Card considered several different challenges for Ender, besides the final battle against two armies, and only picked one that Card could figure out how to have Ender solve. Again, this is a way of creating an in-universe character who is apparently smarter, in-universe, than the outer cognitive work you put in; the author is solving one of many possible challenges, but the in-universe character is demonstrating their ability to handle whatever reality throws at them. [2] (emphasis added)

The problem with using Ender’s Battle Room scenes to teach or inspire the “think outside of the box” attitude real strategists might need is that Ender’s Game does not provide a realistic model for how maverick solutions are actually created or implemented. Card’s model is designed to convince readers that Ender is a strategic prodigy, not demonstrate how prodigious strategy is actually created and used. The events and characters of the novel are literary devices and expedients whose purpose is compelling narrative. It is dangerous to try and pull out of such obvious artifice patterns or lessons that explain the workings of the real world. 

I have been picking on Ender’s Game, but it should be obvious that this critique extends to fictional stories generally. Part of what makes the current obsession with Game of Thrones so nauseating, for example, is the insistence of many fans that it is a “realistic” depiction of intrigue or power politics.  An honest look at its storyline reveals that this is simply not true. Most of what happens in the show occurs because the writers wish to elicit a specific set of emotions from the audience, and the plot follows a predictable literary strategy that successfully does just that. The problem comes when viewers internalize plot lines designed for their emotional effect and use them as the frame through which they understand politics and power in the world outside of the show

 John Boyd’s OODA Loop, diagram originally drawn by John Boyd, recreated by Patrick Moran (2008).

Image Source: Wikimedia

Readers familiar with the work of strategic theorist John Boyd (which should include the “successful strategists” who inspired this post, for he made it into their top-ten nonfiction list) will understand why this is a matter of such concern. Strategic theory is in essence a theory of decision making. What Boyd understood is that decisions are made in reference to the knowledge we have about the world and the narratives we use to make this knowledge cohere. A strategic actor oriented around incorrect narratives or ideas (or a strategic actor which cannot update these ideas to match changing conditions) faces a severe disadvantage in competitive environments like international relations or war. My concern is that too many of the models and ideas we use to orient ourselves are complete fictions.

Some genres are worse in this regard than others. Fantasy and science fiction (“speculative fiction”) seem to be the worse offenders here, for they are the genres least tethered to reality. In these genres the presentation of politics and historical change have no restraints outside of the whims of the authors and tastes of the audience. In such novels the flow of politics and war are slaves to narrative art, and their role in the story is to manipulate the perceptions and emotions of the audience so that the author can make his or her selected themes resonate as powerfully as possible. These books are usually entertaining, often thought provoking, and occasionally are even edifying, but they are suspect sources for understanding how and why strategic actors interact as they do.

Similar criticism could be levied against military and historical novelists, or indeed, actual historians. When historians write their books they use many of the methods well known to authors of more fanciful tales, emphasizing certain facts or events over others to create powerful and emotional narratives. But there are limits to how far one can stretch the historical record. If you are familiar with the period of history in question the author’s decisions to deviate from what is known or emphasize certain themes or events over others will be transparent and thus less deceptive. If understanding the cause-and-effect, post-and-counter riposte dynamics of strategy is our aim, then it is to these genres, which tell the stories of actual men and women who responded to actual strategic challenges, that we must turn. 

This is not to say fiction (or speculative fiction specifically) are of no use in the study of war. As Ender’s Game evidences, discussions of justice, ethics, and values are natural and useful by-products of such books. These are things men and women who have responsibility for others lives must think about. Fiction also has extraordinary power to capture slices of the human experience that would be otherwise inaccessible. If you want to know why the Great War happened, then I turn you to a historian. If you want to know what the Great War felt like, then it is All Quiet On The Western Front or Farewell to Arms I recommend. 

The final use of fiction is its most common: entertainment. If it is only that, there is no great error in reading political thrillers or fantasy adventures–spending an evening reading such a book is no worse  than idling a few hours playing golf or watching a game of football. But the number of people who orient their internal model of international relations on the rules of golf or football is small. One can only hope that the number of strategists who have internalized the plot lines of Dune or Starship Troopers for their inner model of how politics and warfare is no larger. 

EDIT (22 June 2015): Diane Maye has written a rebuttal to this post that is worth reading:

Diane Maye,Fiction For the Strategist,” Strategy Bride (22 June 2015).
I’ll likely post a longer response to her thoughts sometime later this week.


[1] Elizier Yudowsky, “Level 2 Intelligent Characters,” Optimize Literally Everything (undated; accessed 18 June 2015)

[2] Ibid.

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In historical non-fiction accounts of warfare, the biggest sin is in ignoring the financing/supply side to the conflict.

How much time is spent in the typical 100 Years War account on the Longbow versus the much more important efforts by the Kings to borrow enough money to actually get to where they can bring the fight to the enemy. Then when they finally get enough money to fight, they can't afford to actually garrison their gains to hold onto them. You see this time and time again where countries really loose the war in the finance stage, yet it is played out as a battlefield narrative.

I saw someone recently talking about how well the Germans were doing in WW1 before the US arrived. Really? The Germans in particular were starting to face food shortages because they had conscripted the so many farm workers into the military and by the 1918 offenses had started to count the amount of horses that a military unit had remaining as an indicator of its overall effectiveness.

That list is ethnographically fascinating; thank you. I am struck by how insular it is, in space and time and society and language. I have not read anything by Orison Scott Card so can't comment on the rest, but there is a classic Larry Niven essay on how he wrote characters who were smarter than him.


I dunno. So looking just at the twenty books listed there, at least three are more than 2,400 years old. Classical Greek, classical Chinese, Italian, Russian, German and English are represented as original languages. The history books listed either narrate the history if or use as case studies from more than six centuries combined. Freedman's Strategy dives into hundreds of years of strategic thought, as well as things much further afield, like psychology, business strategy, and thinkers like Marx and Foucault.

The full list is a bit more skewed though.


May you find better history books! What you say was perhaps once true, but this has been a central focus of military/political historians in recent ages, esp. re: English history. Off the top of my head, Stephen Morillo, William McNiel, Paul Kennedy, and John Brewer have all written books about English military success/failure over the last millennium that turn on the fiscal capacity of the English (and then British) state. And of course everything that is written about the "military revolution" of the Early Modern World dives into these issues without abandon.

> Elizier Yudowsky on how to write good fiction

Delightful. Absolutely comparable to "Orson Scott Card on how to be a military genius". I mean, you've read HPMOR right? Or at least tried to?

I suppose that I should explain why those lists feel so narrow.

The ten fiction authors include six Americans, a Brit, a German, a Russian, and a collection of Ionians and Dorians and who knows what else. The idea of Germans as honorary Anglo-Saxons is a long one (and vice versa: my Austrian university has a long run of Middle English Text Series volumes from before that outrage in Sarajevo). Most of them wrote in the period 1945-1975, and only one before the nineteenth century. Less quantifiably, I do not see the full range of spirit in those books which I found reading postwar US SF as I grew up. (I did find some of that fiction quite helpful when I encountered Alberta and Alberta university politics, but that is another story).

Amongst the eleven nonfiction writers we have a Prussian, an Athenian, a Chinese, a Florentine, and what looks like seven Americans. The Classical Greeks have a long tradition of being honourary Anglo-Saxons too, especially Thucydides who lets modern secular intellectuals imagine that he was one of them. Sun Tzu is laconic so its also easy for readers who have not studied early China to miss the gulf which exists between his wordview and theirs (I feel embarrassed saying this to a specialist in Chinese history who has written several essays on Chinese military literature, but sometimes the obvious needs to be said). These authors also seem heavily weighted towards the American elite and their hangers-on. I do not know these authors as well as the novelists, but again my offhand impression is that they will not give a good sense of the variety of possible ways of looking at war and politics effectively.

Although I do not know some of them, I think that every author on that list is male.

@Alan- Though I am aware of who he is, I have not read anything written by Yudowsky before my friend forwarded the essay quoted. I haven't read HPMOR and have no desire to.

Though looking back at the full piece now I see I've misrepresented it. Yudowsky never claims in it that he is writing good fiction–just characters whose intelligence feel believable.


I think this is unduly uncharitable. It is worth remembering why this reading list was made in the first place: for the professional development of American military officers charged with creating military strategy in the context of 21st century America's political system and the demands of 21st warfare. One could make (and I have heard) a plausible case that no book or case study from before 1940 is relevant to this endeavor. That words written by Greeks or Chinese thousands of years ago even make it on the list is a great victory.

The list is supposed to help American statesmen and soldiers win wars, or maneuver the country into a position where wars are not necessary. Its purpose is not to help them appreciate the diversity of all who have thought about or lived through wars, not give them a sense of the variety of possible way of looking at war.

The books on the nonfiction side of the list come in two broad categories: classics on strategic thought have that deeply shaped the "Western Strategic Tradition," and contemporary histories/scholarship on international relations and great power politics of days past. Thucydides, Machiavelli, Clausewtiz, and Boyd all fall into the first category. Gray's Fighting Words possibly does as well, for it is really just a set of quotations from the first three authors with extended commentary – cliff notes on famous strategic theorists of the Western tradition (which Sunzi has become a part of).

The second group of books are histories and case studies. If one focuses on the diversity of material covered, not the identity of the authors (which, quite frankly, makes no sense to me anyway), you would see that they extend back several centuries (1500s) and cover much of the globe. If you were to take them all together the bias would be clear for more modern and more American conflicts. This makes a great deal of sense. It is within the American system that these strategists must work, and learning how to navigate civil-military relations is one of the most important things they could learn.

Freedman's Strategy: A History is a gargantuan book that stands astride both categories. It does lip service to strategic theorist in the past (Plato, Sunzi, and Milton all figure), but which deals with every possible strategic thinker across the globe who has 1) written in the last three centuries 2) has been translated into English. This includes folks talking about electoral strategy, business strategy, revolutionary strategy, non-violent strategy, etc. It probably combines a broader and more diverse survey of strategic thought than any list of ten books you or I might devise.

As for the fiction–here I concede you have a point. There is no obvious connection between most of these works and the Western strategic tradition upon which modern strategic theory is built, nor do they reflect cutting edge scholarship. Most, by the look of it, are novels that had a big impact on the 'successful strategists' when they were teenagers or young adults. I suppose if you asked them, "What novels had the biggest impact on you growing up?" a very similar list would be given. (This would also explain the Cold War flavor of the science fiction novels; books written 1945-1975 would be the books they would have read in their formative years).

I agree with bookandsword. I was struck by the insularity of the list. That certain books are considered classics is fine except that this very attitude failed in developing COIN doctrine. The accepted classics were a fantasy version of British imperium as imagined by a certain type of American. The fiction list could read as as a parody except it likely reflects the narrow demographic of the N=42 or is a group dynamic thing: this is cool to read, have you read it? Most small group dynamics can become insular. The very idea of reading lists will always tend toward blankspots. How can it be otherwise?

My experience as a complete outsider on Small Wars Journal has been interesting. The related blogs seem to become airless after a time, a small group essentially arguing the same few points back and forth, over and over. Perhaps inevitable. I find I like regional atudy because anything is game that is related to the region.

Ok, that came out more negative than I intended. Inevitable, I suppose to feel trapped by a subject from time to time.

Okay, last comment. If all you read ate books about strategy but are ignorant of the regional environment or rely on regional analysts that are weak, you will have problems. This has been a huge problem in our Afghan campaign. I doubt a strategist in the system would rely on the same old DC South Asia analysts or read them in the same way. In fact, that is what has happened. A new cadre has come up as the lack of the previous cadre has become evident, although it may have more to do with the policy world and the small number of connected analysts.

"The very idea of reading lists will always tend toward blankspots."

This is a good point Madhu. I think the counter argument is that a group of people, in order to communicate effectively, need a common set of references and case studies that everyone understands and is familiar with. Strategic theory is after all little more than a series of abstractions–if everbody doesn't understand what 'center of gravity' or 'ooda loop' means when you say it, there is no point saying it, is there?

Your recommendations are all good books, but I guess I was thinking of something a little more concrete in a tactical/strategic sense rather than very good sociological trending historical works.

For example, Karl-Heinz Frieser "The Blitzkrieg Legend" does at least get into how there were stacking problems in how the Germans went about their deployment in 1940, and any army that uses turbine driven tanks might want to read up on the French refueling issues. But it is a very rare type of book.

One fiction book that might be an interesting one would be Ralph Peter's "Red Army". Not a perfect novel, but an interesting example of some of the advantages of a well executed version of the Soviet System. To be honest, I think he goes a little easy on the allies – the Soviet NBC advantage I think is somewhat discounted.