Fiction is an important element of every professional military education reading list. However, returning to the same handful of texts can make for a worryingly staid selection. Once an Eagle, Gates of Fire, Ender’s Game, and Starship Troopers – to name but a few stalwarts – have a lot to offer, but leaders may benefit from a more varied bookshelf. If the common aphorism ‘readers make leaders’ is true, then it must come attached with the qualifier that ‘diverse reading makes for better leading’. With that in mind, here are five fiction books which are perhaps a little less at home on PME lists – but remain valuable all the same.
Terry Pratchett’s work is consistently amazing, and much of it is applicable to the military professional. However, his 1997 book Jingo is particularly valuable. In it, fishermen from the city-state of Ankh Morpork and the empire of Klatch simultaneously find an island equidistant between both nations. As is standard procedure for such things, nationalist impulses begin propelling both countries to war. Commander of the Ankh Morpork City Watch, Sir Samuel Vimes, is highly unimpressed with this. He is also displeased by an attempted political assassination and sets off to investigate it, which brings him onto a collision course with political intrigue and the onrushing conflict.
Jingo is, like all of Pratchett’s Discworld books, a comedy. However, it directly grapples with important issues surrounding jingoism and racial prejudice. A memorable and emotional scene involves an attempted hate crime against a family of Klatchian immigrants living in Ankh Morpork. While the military from both nations are treated rather scathingly, Jingo is a highly readable primer on the dangers of militarism and bigotry.
Commissar Ciaphas Cain has a reputation for derring-do, heroism, and selfless leadership. However, he is actually a self-professed coward who attempts to shirk responsibility at every opportunity. This is complicated by his role as a political officer in an embattled, fanatical, and galaxy-spanning military. The book and its sequels are framed as memoirs, with Cain retelling his adventures and providing ample justification to explain how every heroic act was the product of self-serving cowardice.
Besides being rather funny, the Cain books are valuable reading because they deal with the nature of courage. To what extent do his protestations of cowardice ring true? Is a man who does heroic things out of fear or blind chance less worthy of respect than someone with avowedly purer motives? As a leader, what is the best way to leverage self-interest to help accomplish the mission? Of course, leadership textbooks and biographies deal with these questions too, often from a more authoritative perspective, but more perspectives certainly can’t hurt.
One note for the prospective readers – the Cain books are set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. You don’t have to know much about the setting to understand what’s going on, but it might be wise to have Lexicanum open on the side, just in case.
Asimov is a titan of science fiction, and for good reason. The Complete Robot is a collection of 31 of his stories about robots, mostly based around the famous Three Laws of Robotics. In many cases, they are brainteasers rather than conventional stories, where the reader is invited to work out the problem alongside the point of view character.
They remain relevant – apart from just being rather good – for two reasons. The first is that in a profession which will be increasingly automated, it’s useful to start thinking through human-machine teaming now. Lieutenants today are going to be in command roles in 2045. Predicting the nature of technology available then is difficult, but there is plenty of material to work with regarding the potential social impact of new innovations. Asimov provides one lens to examine the issue. Secondly, many of the stories involve a robot finding loopholes in one of the Three Laws to get up – often inadvertently – to mischief. Finding and plugging loopholes in a system is pretty important for any leader or manager. Asimov may inspire you to think differently about how to do it.
Look to Windward is about the aftermath of war. After a covert humanitarian intervention induces a disastrous civil war, an old soldier is recruited to avenge a humiliated nation. Meanwhile, another old soldier (well, in this case an incomprehensibly vast artificial intelligence) is hosting celebrations for a great victory in a different conflict – a victory which it regards as a vast and personal mistake.
As you might have guessed from the vague description, Look to Windward is in some ways a very difficult book to explain. However, it is also very good. Banks skilfully makes you question assumptions about the ethics of interventionism and revenge. Further, an important plot point grapples with public memory and popular culture; one of the main characters is a famous composer charged with composing and conducting a performance in honour of the fallen dead. These issues can be tough to deal with, and fiction is a useful way to express them.
The Fort is a stellar retelling of the Penobscot Expedition. In 1779, at the height of the American Revolutionary War, 700 British troops and three sloops-of-war established a small fort in northern Massachusetts. The rebel government in Boston dispatched 900 men and 42 ships to dislodge them. The Americans were paralysed by interarm rivalry and a crippling lack of professionalism, while the British were disciplined and officered by veteran commanders. This translated into a rather daunting task for the Massachusetts troops, and one which Cornwell portrays well.
As to be expected from Cornwell, the book is excellently written – the central figures of Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth (American) and Brigadier General Francis McClean (British) are especially well characterised. In addition, it contains useful lessons about the difficulties stemming from joint operations and poor professional military education. It also repeatedly emphasises the importance of decisively concentrating force. These remain useful takeaways for any leader today.